May 26, 2009 in Sports

Commentary: Danica and Kanaan ready for Indy win

Mike Lopresti Gannett

INDIANAPOLIS – Hey up there, whoever’s in charge of karma at the Indianapolis 500. We need to talk.

It’s about this latest edition. Swell idea, by the way. A guy beats a federal tax rap and then wins the race nearly six weeks later. Somewhere, Perry Mason must have been smiling.

So I’m not here to complain about Helio Castroneves, who can spill more happy tears than six weddings. No, we need to discuss a couple of other drivers.

Danica Patrick. The solid third place and her general demeanor should have sent us all a message. She’s calmer, older, wiser. She’s ready. The shrill sounds of Danicamania have given way to the steady progression of a driver who should win this thing one day.

When someone suggested after the race that her Indy 500 career-best third place wasn’t a social phenomenon, but simply the case of a good driver having a good day, she positively beamed.

“That’s good. I’m doing my job,” she said. “I’m actually glad about the shift. I’m glad that I’m not like, ‘Oh, my God, third, wow.’ ”

Just last week, she was talking about how she had dialed down her iron lady act, as if Indianapolis had become her very own May Seminar on Personal Growth.

“I really did use to feel like I had to prove to people that I cared by being mad. I had to let you know I was intense by being angry, not looking happy,” she said. “It was a waste of energy, is what it is. It makes me unapproachable as well.”

Not that she still can’t sizzle. Seen her latest Go commercial?

And not that she still can’t be steely. When time came to fight for air space coming out of the pits Sunday, it was no more Mr. Nice Girl.

“Bless her, but her rear end was a little wide on pit lane,” said Townsend Bell, who finished just behind Patrick in fourth. “And I mean that in the nicest way.”

You should also be ashamed again about poor old Tony Kanaan. He was lost in the shuffle of Sunday’s buzz, since he crashed on the 98th lap. But to review how shabbily he’s been treated:

Though 2008, he was the only man to ever lead in seven straight Indianapolis 500s. The only man in nearly 100 years. He won none of them. Imagine a guy doing that in the Masters.

On Sunday, he was looking good until something broke in his car, and he suddenly had no more control than he would of a paper airplane tossed into a gale.

The four most compelling seconds of the entire weekend were Kanaan sitting in his cockpit with the wall coming toward him, unable to do a thing. That predicament is the essence of the risky life of an Indianapolis driver.

A little later, he came limping out of the track hospital with no serious injury, and leaned on a fence with a slightly glassy look, willing to discuss his fate.

“I closed my eyes and I just said, ‘This is going to be a big one,’ ” he said of the wall hit. “I waited for it, and it was a big one.

“Me and this place, one more time.”

Those four seconds? How long must they seem?

“It feels awful,” he said. “But that’s why we do what we do. That’s why we get paid for it. That’s why we make the difference.”

Kanaan said he would never call himself unlucky. Not after walking away from splattering the wall at 190 miles an hour. And he would never grow bitter at how you guys in the racing gods department have mangled him here.

“Let’s turn the page and move on,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. This is racing. That’s why we take big risks. Either you become a winner or you become a loser.

“I do what I love to do. If Indianapolis never comes to me I’ll keep trying.”

One respectful request, then. Surely, there is a year coming that Tony Kanaan can catch a big enough break. Danica, too. For dramatic purposes, the winner doesn’t always have to come straight from federal court.

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