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Tony Kanaan rewards faith of Indy 500 fans

May 26, 2013, 5:42 PM EDT

Indianapolis 500 Getty Images

As the heartbreaks grew for Tony Kanaan at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so did the number of people that wanted to see him have his day.

It was overcast when Kanaan took the checkered flag this afternoon at the Brickyard and won his first Indianapolis 500 in his 12th attempt. But it might as well have been blue skies and sunshine for him and his loyal fans, which cheered as the Brazilian dueled for the lead throughout the race and when he took the point for good on the final restart of the day with three laps remaining.

When Dario Franchitti hit the wall shortly after Kanaan had grabbed the lead from Ryan Hunter-Reay, the caution came out and the celebration was on in the grandstands. The fastest “500” ever would end with one of its most popular winners ever.

The roar of the crowd reminded Kanaan of the applause he received in 2010, when he charged from 33rd all the way to the lead only to have to abandon second place with five laps to go in order to get fuel.

“The fans, they actually spoiled me a little bit on my win, because when I finished 11th here – starting dead last – I got out of the car and it was exactly the same [as winning],” said Kanaan. “So, I already had felt [that feeling] a little bit. Obviously, I hadn’t drank the milk, kissed the bricks, all that stuff.”

But now he has, and Kanaan remains gracious about being as well-respected as he is by the fans, saying that it had always “caught him by surprise.”

“I can’t walk out there [without being cheered] – I couldn’t before, I don’t know now, maybe it’ll get worse – the [500 Festival] parade, everywhere, it’s just unbelievable,” he said.  “It’s nice. I think wins are important, trophies are nice but what I’ll take forever is definitely this.”

His KV Racing Technology co-owner, 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser, also took note of how popular Kanaan’s win was – both on the drivers’ side and from the fans’ perspective.

“He’s a great leader and that’s why it’s such a popular victory – and it’s not just the drivers,” Vasser said. “I was blown away riding around in the pace car and virtually everybody was still in the stands chanting ‘TK, TK!’ It just shows the love that they had for him…It was phenomenal.”

Kanaan figures that the Indy fans’ love for him began at the 2009 “500”, where he crashed because of a drive shaft failure while running third on Lap 98. He took two hits against the wall – one against the backstretch and another at Turn 3.

When his car finally came to a stop, he heard cheers from the crowd as he climbed out of his battered machine.

“And since then, every year, it just kept growing and I think every year that went by when I didn’t win, we just kept growing the fan base,” he said. “More people felt sorry, more people felt I deserved to win. It got out of control. But it’s awesome.”

But now that he has drank the milk and kissed the bricks, what happens next?

“Now, probably, people won’t even cheer for me anymore,” said Kanaan, earning a wave of hearty laughter from the press.

If the masses at IMS this afternoon were any indication, he’ll never have to worry about that problem.

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