INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — He crashed twice trying to qualify, then started dead last in a car put together with so many spare parts it should have been sponsored by Pep Boys.
As if that wasn't daunting enough, Tony Kanaan's last chance to steal the Indianapolis 500 turned on a pit stop for one last splash of fuel with only four laps to go.
"We took a gamble," Kanaan said. "The strategies could work both ways.
"It could have gone the other way, we get in the lead and we win the race. And we brag about it the whole year."
"For the rest of my life."
No doubt. This was the 94th Indy, and no driver has ever started 33rd and last on the starting grid and finished in Victory Lane. Only two drivers have won from as far back as 28th, the last time in 1936. No driver has come from farther back than 20th since Al Unser turned the trick in 1987.
But Kanaan picked off eight cars even before the first lap was interrupted by a yellow flag, and six more before two dozen laps were in the books. He climbed into second by lap 120 and was still there at lap 196, and for a few moments on this storied oval Sunday afternoon, it looked like Kanaan might actually close the gap between impossible and improbable.
And that would have been an even wackier ending than the one that saw his pal, Dario Franchitti, win the race. Franchitti had 1.6 gallons of fuel left in the tank but was saved when a spectacular crash brought out the caution flag and froze the order of finish.
Kanaan never did get the lead, and his fuel gamble eventually dropped him to 11th. Yet one measure of the odds he overcame just to finish the race was apparent by the ovation he got afterward. Several hundred fans lingered behind his pit, yelling "Tony, Tony, Tony" as Kanaan climbed out of the car.
Then, as he made the long walk down the main straightaway toward the exit, the chant got picked up and amplified from both sides from those who remained in the grandstand.
"I hope I made it exciting for them," Kanaan said.
And not just for the fans. All day long, the chatter on the in-car radios was stunned team managers telling their lagging drivers that if Kanaan could somehow weave his way from the back of the pack to the front, they could, too.
"From last to second," Franchitti said, shaking his head afterward. "He's going to win this race one day soon."
Unfortunately, Kanaan has heard that a lot. He's the only driver ever to lead in each of his first seven starts at Indianapolis, only to be derailed by bad luck, bad timing and bad cars. It hardly seems like a coincidence that he wound up driving for Michael Andretti — another guy routinely mentioned as one of the best drivers never to have won the 500.
"We gotta keep trying," Kanaan said. "The way that I keep myself in peace is knowing that I drove a hundred percent and I gave everything I could and so did my team. One of these days we'll get it right."
The odds of that happening on this day, though, were astronomical. Considering the way qualifying went for the 35-year-old Brazilian driver, the odds of him even making a ninth start were unnervingly long.
Last weekend, on his first qualifying attempt, he barely made the first turn before spinning 180 degrees, skidding backward down the short chute into Turn 2, and then spinning back around and smacking the wall. With his primary car wrecked, the Andretti team worked through the night to get the backup ready. Then, just 21 minutes into his second qualifying attempt last Sunday, he wrecked that car, too.
But Michael Andretti pulled the mechanics from his two cars that had already qualified and put them to work for Kanaan. They kept the top of Kanaan's backup car and the side chassis from his two wrecks. Then they cannibalized mechanical parts from both the backups and qualified cars of teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and after four hours put together something that could run.
Somehow, Kanaan kept the thing together long enough to drive it into the final spot in the field with just 30 minutes left in qualifying.
"I probably lost five days of my life today," he said at the time. "Guys rebuilt three cars in 24 hours. I can count on one hand how many teams can rebuild that."
Judging by the way the race was run, not many.
As zany as the finish was, there were plenty of zanier moments early on. Will Power, who was leading at the time, pulled out of the pits in lap 39 without taking the fuel nozzle and tube out of the gas tank, something even weekend drivers usually manage. Both Scott Dixon and Raphael Matos had tires fall off trying to leave the pits on lap 68.
The funny thing is that Kanaan's race day couldn't have gone much smoother — maybe because everything that could go wrong for him already had. Kanaan was so in the zone that during a restart on lap 109 he carried on a brief conversation live with ABC's announcers.
It's going to be tougher than ever to fluster him from here on out.
"I don't think it was the fastest car out there, but I've been in many positions in this race," Kanaan said. "I don't think the fastest car wins all the time. I think we had a shot for a win."
Man, did he ever.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org