Commentary

Odds don't favor back-row starter TK

Updated: May 28, 2010, 2:46 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Almost everyone in Gasoline Alley wants in on the biggest betting pool at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.

It's not what you think. The big bets aren't on who will win the Indianapolis 500. It's on how many cars back-row starter Tony Kanaan will pass on the first lap.

"It'll be fun for people to watch," said Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner, who starts sixth Sunday. "Man, in the first lap, Tony could pass 10 cars."

"I don't know how many cars Tony will pass, but it'll probably be a lot," said Danica Patrick, who starts 23rd in the 33-car field. "Hopefully I can improve my position, but I wouldn't be surprised if I see him next to me early on."

Kanaan finds himself in uncharted territory, starting last on Sunday. In eight previous Indy 500 starts, Kanaan was on Row 1 or Row 2 when the green flag waved, including the pole in 2005.

Tony Kanaan
AP Photo/Darron Cummings2005 Indianapolis 500 pole-winner Tony Kanaan will start Sunday's race in unfamiliar territory -- from the back row.

So what number is Kanaan picking in the betting pool?

"I'm skipping that deal,'' he said. "But I can tell you I'm not going 33rd to 10th in one lap. Coming through the field here is hard. I might pass 10 cars, or I might pass three. I don't know. I'll take what I can get."

Kanaan's just glad to be in the race after a nightmarish qualifying weekend when he had to fight his way into the field. He crashed his primary car on Pole Day, and then crashed again on Bump Day.

"I always watched Bump Day in the past and didn't think it was such a big deal," Kanaan said. "Now that I've been part of it, I realize what you have to go through."

Crew members from all the Andretti Autosport teams scrambled to piece together another car, enabling Kanaan to slide on the grid in the 32nd spot. But his No. 11 team changed cars for the race, so he'll start last.

"I thought since I was starting last no one would care," Kanaan said. "Now I've created even more expectations. Somebody in the pool will be mad at me. They might have to say, 'Man, he only passed two cars. Geez.'''

Kanaan needs to pass 15 cars for a career-best effort in one lap.

"A fan of mine actually has taped it," Kanaan said. "In Phoenix once I passed 13 cars and I passed 14 cars once at Michigan."

As the saying goes, it isn't where you start, it's where you finish. No one understands that better than Kanaan. He finished 27th or worse three times at Indy when he started near the front.

But he also has come close to winning. He was the runner-up in 2003 and 2007.

Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner, believes Kanaan is due for something good to happen.

"Of all the drivers I've seen here, I think Kanaan is the one who should have accomplished more than he has," Cheever said. "But the racing gods have a weird sense of humor. And from what I know of Tony, it would not surprise me if he won the race Sunday. I would love to see it."

In the 93 previous Indy 500s, no driver has won after starting last. And no one has ever won the race after starting in the last two rows.

Tony KanaanAP Photo/Marty SeppalaTony Kanaan squeaked into Sunday's Indy 500 field after crashing twice -- on Pole Day and Bump Day.

Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in 1911 after starting 28th, but that was a 40-car field. Louis Meyer did the same thing in 1936.

In the 74 years since then, only two drivers won after starting 20th or worse -- Johnny Rutherford (25th) in 1974 and Al Unser Sr. (20th) in 1987.

Clearly, Kanaan has quite a task ahead of him. It's a long race, 200 laps. Most people would say Kanaan should bide his time and be patient, but he doesn't look at it that way.

A lot of cars in front of him will be slower than his car. Early accidents tend to happen near the back of the field, which is why Kanaan wants to get by those drivers quickly.

"I want to get as far forward as soon as I can," he said. "Between Row 10 and Row 7, I need to watch out. Then I'll judge from there. You just have to trust in yourself."

Pit strategy also could play into how fast Kanaan moves up. His team might opt to pit out of sequence to make up ground.

"It's tough to say," Kanaan said. "Let's say I'm still 32nd on Lap 8 and it goes yellow. Then I'm coming in to refuel because I only lose one spot. But if I'm already in the middle of the pack, that changes because you don't want to lose the track position."

Kanaan used the one-hour final practice on Carburetion Day to try to get the car dialed in for race conditions. The results weren't promising. Kanaan's best lap (222.411 mph) placed him 20th on the speed chart.

"I'm in a car that's been rebuilt from scratch," Kanaan said. "It's the first time I've gone into Carb Day with more to do than just make a couple of laps and make sure we don't have a leak."

Pole-winner Helio Castroneves, who is hoping to join an elite club as a four-time winner at Indy, is pulling for his old friend and rival. Kanaan and Castroneves have raced against each since they were kids in Brazil.

"I feel horrible that Tony is in this situation," Castroneves said Thursday. "I sent him a text message to stay positive and that I know he can do it. I'm sure he'll be one of the contenders at the end."

Racing from the back is a new experience for Kanaan at age 35, but he says he learned some things from the fans after barely making it in the field.

"The most important thing I learned is how many people wanted me in the race," he said. "I was really touched by that. I never knew they felt that way. And I think I'm getting more attention for starting last than I did for starting first."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter