Tony Kanaan loves you right back

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Just in case the most touching, feel-good Indy 500 win in memory is repeated Sunday, know this:

Tony Kanaan loves you back. More than you know. Even if you think he loves you personally, and a lot of people do. And he does.

Nobody, short of maybe Bruce Springsteen, embraces and connects with his audience more completely than the long-time leader of the Boys from Brazil contingent here.

Remember how last year, Kanaan's cruise to victory under caution became an impromptu ticker-tape parade without confetti? (There would have been showers of that, too, except that race fans aren't allowed to throw things onto the track.)

It seemed like all the occupants of every seat, all around the most massive grandstands on the face of the earth, were standing, whooping, waving at their war hero coming home -- this veteran of 12 previous heartbreaking battles at this place.

He couldn't hear them yet, with his helmet on, his engine running. But he could see.

"When we took the white flag [under caution, soon after he'd seized the lead with one of his patented aggressive restarts], if you watch the footage, you can see that on the back straightaway I actually had to open my visor and wipe my eyes because I was crying so hard," Kanaan said Thursday.

"When I went into Turn 3, then I saw -- obviously we don't have the luxury to hear the crowd -- but I could see the motion, the hand motions, and everybody was standing. People had their hats up, spinning [swirling] T-shirts.

"Yes. That I caught."

But it was about to get enormously better, on "my victory lap, after I got out of the car and drank the milk, I hopped in the pace car [for a helmetless ride around the track].

"And everybody stayed."

And as he described that part Thursday, his enormous heart opened up in detail.

"I never knew that [staying] wasn't a common thing to do, because I never really stayed to watch whoever had won the 500 do their victory lap -- just because you are sad that you didn't win.

"A lot of people told me that [normally] people just get up and leave. And everybody stayed.

"And being that close to the fans, and getting all that energy, and seeing so many people happy for me. Because I won. ... They were not benefitting from it. I was. And that's something I will never forget ...

"I was overwhelmed how I made so many people happy on a day that was the best day of my life. I was touched by it. Nothing will top that ... that feeling of seeing 300,000 people genuinely happy for me."

He is 39. Even before he got here, he spent five years as one of those CART drivers robbed of his Indy youth by the Indy car civil war that began in 1996.

And then he came here in 2002 and labored with love, soaring spirits and a comedic personality that endeared him to everyone, and for 11 years he left heartbroken, every time.

Then last year, in what he feared would be his last 500 because his KV Racing team was running out of sponsorship money ...

"I always said this place was gonna pick the winner," he said. "I was glad it picked me that day, but I think Indianapolis, this race track, had a plan for me ...

"And it was so much more special. Somebody asked me the other day, 'Do you think it would have been as special as it was, if you had won earlier in your career?' And my answer would be no.

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