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Finally! Tony Kanaan gets elusive Indy 500 victory

Tuesday - 5/28/2013, 3:42am  ET

Tony Kanaan, of Brazil, celebrates by drinking the winners milk after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Tony Kanaan had the car. He had the nerves. And he finally had the luck.

Now he has the trophy, too.

Kanaan won his first Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, ending 12 years of frustration with a crowd-pleasing victory for the popular Brazilian driver.

After coming so close so many times, he couldn't help but feel nervous on that long, anticlimactic final lap under the yellow caution flag.

"I started to check everything in my car," he said. "Do we have enough fuel? Four wheels? You kind of go crazy. The pace car guy, whoever it was, this guy is actually celebrating. I'm like, 'Go! Can you go quicker? It's going to be a long lap if keep doing that.'"

Kanaan is Indy's hard-luck loser no more. He is its champion at last, with a dose of good luck for a change.

"I have to say, the last lap was the longest lap of my life," Kanaan said.

It was one of Indy's most popular victories. As the crowd roared its approval, Kanaan flipped up his visor to wipe away tears. Then in Victory Lane he gave his bride of two months a long kiss and poured the celebratory winner's bottle of milk over his head.

The losers were pleased with the outcome, evidenced by a scene similar to rivals lining up to congratulate Dale Earnhardt when he finally won the Daytona 500 on his 20th try. Dario Franchitti, whose crash brought out the race-ending caution, stood grinning by his crumpled car, two thumbs up as Kanaan passed under yellow.

"When I saw who was leading, it cheered me up a little bit," said Franchitti, last year's winner. "He's a very, very deserving winner."

The fans thought so, too, standing on their feet, screaming, "TK! TK! TK!" as he and team owner Jimmy Vasser went by during the traditional victory lap. It felt magical to Kanaan, as if he'd given the crowd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a gift.

"It means a lot to me because so many people, I could feel that they wanted me to win, and it's such a selfish thing to do because what are they getting from it?" Kanaan said. "I'm the one who gets the trophy. I believed that this win was more for people out there than for me.

"I wanted it all my life, but over the years I was kind of OK with the fact that I may never have the chance to win."

His chance came at the end of a history-making race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Kanaan knew he had to pounce at the green flag for the final restart with three laps to go. He did, zipping inside leader Ryan Hunter-Reay to roar into the lead -- where he wanted to be in case another caution came out.

"I knew I had to get the lead on the restart because it could be a yellow, which happened to me plenty of times here, and it did," Kanaan said. "How funny is life? The yellow was my best friend."

Kanaan had his fair share of chances to win at Indy, but came up short time and time again. He was leading when the rain came in 2007, only to lose to Franchitti when the race resumed.

In all, Kanaan went into Sunday's race with 221 laps led at Indy -- more than any non-winner except Michael Andretti and Rex Mays -- but his second-place finish to Buddy Rice in 2004 was the closest he had come to victory. He had a pair of third-place finishes, including last year -- again to Franchitti.

"It's wonderful for him," said Mario Andretti, himself a victim of bad luck at Indy. "He's raced here long enough that he deserves it, no question."

The win for Kanaan and car owner Vasser was celebrated throughout the paddock. Alex Zanardi, who came from Italy to watch the race and gave Kanaan one of his 2012 London Paralympics medals as good luck, wept behind the pit wall as Kanaan took the checkered flag.

"I tell you I'm starting to think (the medal) really works," said Zanardi, who lost his legs in a 2001 crash in Germany. "It's a dream come true to see Tony win, to see Jimmy Vasser win, my dear friend. I'm so happy, I'm so happy."

It was Vasser who brought Zanardi's medal to Kanaan before the race, telling his driver that Zanardi wanted him to rub it for good luck.

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