For most athletes, winning a championship is the ultimate accomplishment and takes priority over everything else.
But there’s one athlete who has already won a title and is still chasing “The Big Win.” His name is Tony Kanaan, and his elusive prize is the Indianapolis 500.
Tony has tried to capture the glory 11 times during his career. He’s come close many times — five times he’s finished the race in the top five, including the past two years.
Kanaan’s career average starting position in the Indy 500 is 8.5, with a start on pole in 2005. His average finishing position is 12th, but it’s been feast or famine. If you take out his three worst finishes of 28th, 29th, and 27th, his average finish would be 6th. Two times he has finished 3rd, and his best result was in 2004 when he finished 2nd.
It’s interesting to note how Kanaan performed with Andretti Green as opposed to KV Racing. In his first four races with Andretti, he finished 3rd, 2nd, 8th, and 5th. He qualified in the top five in each of those races, one being his pole run. His last four years with the team didn’t go as well, though, as he saw finishes of 12th, 29th, 27th, and 11th — not a single top 10 finish in that span. On the other hand, in his two races with KV he came home 4th in 2011 and 3rd last year.
Call it bad luck, misfortune, or a curse — Tony has seemed to have it all. Only Michael Andretti and Rex Mays have led more laps in the 500 without winning the race.
In his first race, he was leading when he spun in oil from a crash in turn 3. In 2006 he grabbed the lead on lap 183, only to see a yellow flag eight laps later. He had to make a pit stop and lost the lead, and eventually the race, after being accidentally blocked by Michael Andretti.
Mother Nature teased him in 2007: he was leading on lap 113 when the red flag came out for rain. The rain stopped and the race was resumed. On a restart on lap 156, he lost control and blew a tire as he spun into the entrance of pit lane.
In 2008 he was being passed by teammate Marco Andretti in turn 3 when he got into the marbles and eventually the wall.
He was snake bitten again in 2009 when a drive shaft failure on the backstretch sent him hard into the turn 3 wall while running in third.
The 2010 event was arguably his toughest challenge. In morning practice on Pole Day, he spun coming out of turn 1 and destroyed the car. He wasn’t able to qualify that day, but things would get worse. Practicing in his backup car on Bump Day, he suffered nearly an identical accident. They were barely able to qualify the car, starting from the back of the field. In typical Kanaan fashion, he started last and worked his way up to 2nd place with less than 10 laps remaining in the race. He was short on fuel, though, and had to pit with four laps to go.
Kanaan made two outstanding charges in the 2011 race after starting in 22nd position. He moved up to 4th by lap 60 but nearly collided with Pippa Mann on pit lane. He dropped to 24th place, then made another charge to the front. This time he made his way up to 2nd on lap 178 before having to pit for fuel.
Last year, he made a spectacular move in turn 1 on lap 186 to go from 5th to 1st. He led seven laps before being passed with just five laps left.
After starting the season off with a 4th-place finish at St Petersburg, Kanaan has gone the wrong way. He finished 13th at Barber, 20th at Long Beach, and a heartbreaking 21st in Sao Paulo after running out of fuel. As he prepares for another run at the Borg Warner trophy, Tony sits in 17th place in the championship standings.
That said, labeling Kanaan the greatest driver never to win the Indianapolis 500 is something not many people would argue against. He’s done everything but win, and many believe his time is coming. There isn’t anyone out there that wouldn’t like to see him drink the milk.
As he told Curt Cavin last year: “I’ve led a lot of laps here, just not the right one. Yet.”