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Last updated: Sat. May. 24, 2014 - 01:14 pm EDT

Veteran Kanaan seeks Indy 500 repeat

Defending champ likes his odds

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Overlook Tony Kanaan at your own risk. He seeks Indy 500 history with a smile and a swagger. He has paid his dues, basked in the glory, reflected on the adversity, embraced the possibility.

He is the defending Indy 500 champ and buzz is reserved for others. Odds makers favor Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves and more before they get to Kanaan and his 15-to-1 chances.

“I like that,” he says. “I told all my friends to bet on me, because we're going to win a lot of money.”

Kanaan will start Sunday's race in 16th position, which suggests his Target Chip Ganassi Racing car lacks speed. He ranks ninth in the IndyCar driver standings, and hasn't been much of a winning factor all season, with only two top-10 finishes in the first four races.

That suggests few reason for optimism at this most unforgiving of races.

Do not be fooled.

Kanaan had Friday's fastest practice speed -- the last day of practice before the race -- at 227.838 mph. That was especially significant because rain had washed away lots of track time, so teams were more aggressive than usual.

Kanaan is used to beating the odds. It took him 12 tries before winning his first Indy 500, and he has no intention of waiting that long for his second. He hopes to be the first repeat winner since fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves did it in 2001 and '02.

“I have been here for one month sleeping inside this track in my bus. It would be awesome to do a repeat.

“We feel good about the race. We worked pretty hard to make up for our qualifying. We were confident we would turn the situation around.”

Confidence comes from a career of success, including winning the 2004 IndyCar Series Champion and 16 IndyCar races overall.

“You can never count him out,” Ganassi teammate Scott Dixons says.

Kanaan sees hope from the past. In 2012, Dario Franchitti won despite starting 16th. Last year, Kanaan won after starting 12th.

So how daunting are his prospects from a No. 16 starting position?

“This is like starting one row behind (last year),” he says. “I don't think it's a big deal.”

Kanaan once held a lofty spot on the unwanted list of Indy 500 failure. He couldn't win despite experience, talent and all the resources of the powerhouse Andretti team. Then he lost sponsorship money and his Andretti ride, and wound up with the low-profile KV Racing team. Money was a problem there and he was concerned last year would be his final Indy 500.

Then he won. Then Franchitti suffered a career-ending injury in an accident and Ganassi hired Kanaan to replace him, giving him Franchitti's No. 10 car. Now he's in Indianapolis and, no matter the odds, he looms as a driver to be reckoned with.

Was that fate, or something else?

“I always said this place was gonna pick the winner,” he says. “I was glad it picked me that day, but I think Indianapolis, this race track, had a plan for me ...

“And it was so much more special. Somebody asked me the other day, 'Do you think it would have been as special as it was, if you had won earlier in your career?' And my answer would be no.

"For me it was a long time coming. I'd tried for so many years and had so many disappointments.”

Disappointment ended last May, when a brutally competitive race (68 lead changes, twice the previous record) ended with Kanaan winning under a caution following a Franchitti crash.

“Last year was so special. Nothing will top that. My win, my long-time dream, the promise I made to my dad and to my son to win this thing, that feeling right there of seeing 300,000 people generally happy for me, which they're not benefiting from anything. I will never forget.”

In that, there is no risk.

pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com


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