Tony Kanaan isn’t counting, but Indianapolis 500 milestone means much

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INDIANAPOLIS – Veteran Tony Kanaan doesn’t keep track of how many starts he’s made in the Verizon IndyCar Series, but thankfully someone else does.

That will make Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 – the 300th start of the affable Brazilian’s career – a special one.

“I only realized it because someone at the beginning of the year told me that,” said Kanaan, whose 2013 Indy 500 victory was among the most popular in recent memory at the Brickyard. “I brought my whole family, (including his oldest son) Leo and my mom. I’m enjoying it as much as I did in ’13. I don’t know how long more I’ll be doing this. Hopefully for much longer. But as we all know, it’s not my decision.

“It’s awesome. I don’t count them and never did, but you look back and say, ‘That’s a lot. I made it this far, and we’re still going?’ I feel great about it. It’s a huge achievement.”

An immense disappointment in his home country – the cancellation of the scheduled season opener in Sao Paulo – provided an unusual silver lining in pushing Kanaan’s 300th start to Sunday.

“Obviously, what a coincidence,” he said. “Because I also missed four races because I was hurt in 2000. Everything felt at the right spot to be able to (make the 300th start) here. That’s pretty cool. It’s our biggest race. You can add that to it. It’s nice.

Indy has helped define Kanaan’s career as much as any racetrack. The 2004 series champion led in eight of his 11 previous attempts here before drinking milk two years ago in an upset bid with KV Racing Technology.

The victory helped propel him to a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing and helped shore up the sponsorship prospects of KV Racing, which is co-owned by Kanaan’s longtime friend, Jimmy Vasser.

“It changed my career,” said Kanaan, who turned 40 on Dec. 31. “It was my last year, (and) people were like, ‘Yeah, he’s not the same.’ It changed our lives. I was talking to (Jimmy) two nights ago, and we said, ‘Look what it made us. It bought us back, all of us.’ He got a good driver (Sebastien Bourdais), a good sponsor, and I got the job that I always wanted.

“It meant everything apart from the personal side of my achievements and how much I’ve tried. It just really changed my life.”

After struggling early in his first season at Ganassi (which also was in its first year with Chevrolet), Kanaan has found his stride. He had podium finishes in five of the last seven races of 2014 (including a win in the season finale at Fontana, Calif.) and is ranked sixth in points entering the Indy 500, where he qualified fourth.

Last year he started 16th and finished 26th at Indy because of a mechanical problem.

“We’re much better prepared,” he said. “I’m more confident. I’m more comfortable with the team. We definitely did our homework. We had to start the season stronger;  they’ve been saying that before I got there. We finally got it.”

Kanaan also has his wife, Lauren, and their 4-month-old son, Deco, at Indy this week.

“He sleeps 8 hours a night which is remarkable for a 4-month-old, so it’s been nice to have both of them this week there,” Kanaan said. “I thought I had a really bad qualifying run and was really upset. I came to do the traditional picture, and my wife was there with him, and I really could care less about where I qualified.”

Some milestones of the 300 starts:

Debut: March 15, 1998 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (finished 29th)

First podium: Sept. 13, 1998 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (third)

First win: July 25, 1999 at Michigan International Speedway

First Indy 500 start: May 26, 2002 (finished 28th)

Consecutive starts: All-time IndyCar record of 238, starting with the June 24, 2001 race at Portland International Raceway.