INDIANAPOLIS — Nine years ago, during a visit to Indianapolis, Tony Kanaan went to see a young girl in a hospital. She was comatose after a stroke and scheduled to have brain surgery the next day. Kanaan gave her mother a necklace, a gift from his mother, for good luck.
The girl lived.
Fast forward to last week when the woman, now 24, returned the necklace to Kanaan.
"She thought she had enough luck," he said. "She wanted to give it back to me."
On Sunday, as he carried that necklace in the right pants pocket of his driving suit, fortune indeed smiled on Kanaan at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He claimed his first Indianapolis 500 in 12 tries, winning in a wild finish filled with caution flags and a last-gasp pass.
The 97th Indy 500 was up for grabs with three laps left when Ryan Hunter-Reay led on a restart. Kanaan and Carlos Munoz passed him before Turn 1. Behind them, Dario Franchitti hit the wall, bringing out a caution that decided the race.
Munoz finished second and Hunter-Reay third.
"You can't predict yellow, but I said I'm going for the lead," Kanaan said. "I didn't want to be in the lead (before then), because I knew I would get caught on the restart. I was in the perfect place, exactly where I wanted to be."
On Lap 194, Graham Rahal's crash brought out the yellow flag and set up the final restart. There was only one partial lap of green-flag racing the rest of the way, but it was enough for Kanaan.
"With three laps, I thought we could have mounted another challenge," Hunter-Reay said. Of the second late caution, he added, "I didn't think it would happen that soon, that's for sure."
Kanaan, 38, the 2004 IndyCar champion, led eight times in 11 previous Indy starts only to come up short. In 2007, he led 83 laps before two caution flags and bad weather derailed him.
"I wanted this all my life," he said.
The race was wide open and spine-tingling from the beginning. Sixty-eight lead changes shattered the record of 34, set last year. The number of leaders, 14, set another mark.
So did the average speed of 187.433 mph, which broke the record of 185.981 set in 1990. At one point, there were 133 consecutive green-flag laps, and only five cautions total.
Franchitti, the defending champion, started 17th and never contended but still played a major role in the outcome.
"I went into the first corner on the last restart, and it just didn't turn and then the hit," Franchitti said. "When I saw who was leading, it cheered me up. … Great, just phenomenal that Tony won."
To say Kanaan is a well-liked veteran is an understatement. Franchitti is a close friend, and he shared a long embrace with Kanaan in the midst of celebrations. Former Champ Car rivals Alex Zanardi and Max Papis, looking on from the pits, shed tears just after the checkered flag. And in a scene reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt's 1998 victory in the Daytona 500, after 20 years of trying, rivals and crew members from many teams saluted Kanaan on his cool-down lap and as he pulled into pit road.
Marco Andretti finished fourth after leading 31 laps, stretching his family's winless drought at the Brickyard to 44 years, but he was also eager to greet Kanaan as he took the ceremonial winner's ride aboard an open-top car.
"They say nice guys finish last," Kanaan said. "Maybe this proves them wrong."
And his face will be the 100th chiseled into the side of the Borg-Warner Trophy, the most coveted prize in IndyCar. Even that thought brought a quip from a man quick to joke around in English or his native Portuguese.
"Finally, I'm going to put my ugly face on that trophy," he said.