May 16, 2013, 1:45 PM EDT
Which driver is the one that the IZOD IndyCar Series’ faithful really want to see win the 97th Indianapolis 500?
When one ponders that question, some obvious thoughts come to mind. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal would certainly satisfy the longtime fans and intrigue the casual ones. Same goes for three-time “500” winner Helio Castroneves. You’d think Takuma Sato would be up there too after his brazen move for victory in last year’s race, which ended in the fence but still earned him a bigger following.
But then one comes to Tony Kanaan. And then the question is truly answered.
The Brazilian has been part of the series’ nucleus for a decade, going through good times (his IndyCar championship in 2004) and bad times (the death of good friend and former teammate Dan Wheldon in 2011). Through it all, he has garnered an almost universal measure of respect in the paddock and in the stands.
The latter part is represented vividly every May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Kanaan is often greeted with some of the loudest cheers.
“To me, the best memories I have [of Indianapolis], it’s [that] every time I drive my golf cart out there, I can hear my name – big time,” he said on Wednesday at IMS.
In 11 career starts at Indy, he has led laps in eight of them. He earned the privilege of leading the field to the green flag in 2005. He has come close to winning on the sport’s biggest stage. But he has yet to sip the milk and get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Naturally, some believe the Brickyard owes him one. Perhaps they remember 2007, when he led 83 laps but wound up 12th. Or maybe they remember that vicious double hit Kanaan sustained in the 2009 race, in which his car suddenly broke right at full speed into the backstretch wall and then went skidding into the Turn 3 wall. Then there’s 2010 – coming from dead last in 33rd starting position to lead the race only to come in for fuel with five laps to go while running second.
Star-crossed moments like these have been prevalent for Kanaan at Indy, and he thinks that they may have made him an even more heroic figure amongst the fans there. But while he appreciates their belief that he is owed something, he knows full well that the Brickyard plays no favorites.
“I love the way the fans think that, because I think they know how much I work for it,” he said. “But it would be really unfair for me to say ‘I deserve to win this thing’ because there’s another  people here looking for that as well.”
Besides, he already has an idea of what it would be like to finally claim victory at the world’s most famous oval.
“The year that I started last , we went all the way to the lead and we ended up finishing 11th because of a strategy [call] at the end,” said Kanaan. “I got out of the car, the entire place was screaming my name, and Dario [Franchitti] had won the race.
“If I never win this thing, I think I got the feeling from the people around here [on] how it is to win.”
But one can imagine what those cheers would be like if he actually did.
Let’s just say Tony Kanaan, the people’s champion, would make a very popular winner this month.
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