INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan has been called just about every name in the book.
Fan favorite, pole-sitter, race-day favorite, race leader, even the last starter on the grid.
For Kanaan, the past decade of Indianapolis has been filled with close calls, bad luck and frustration.
But he keeps coming back to this 2.5-mile oval because he loves the race and its fans, and he figures eventually, the racing spirits might show some empathy for him, too.
"I don't think I've had a bad memory here," he says with that confident smile and playful chuckle. "I've just got to think things happen for a reason."
Whatever the reason, Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar champ, has been the king of hard knocks at Indy.
— In 2004, he was leading until a pit stop on lap 133, then ran second until Buddy Rice passed him on lap 150. Thirty laps later, a storm sent Rice to Victory Lane and Kanaan to a post-race news conference as the runner-up.
— In 2007, he was leading on lap 113 when the rain came. After a lengthy wait in which it appeared Kanaan may finally have had his coveted Indy win, the race restarted, and Kanaan stayed in front until he ceded the lead during a pit stop on lap 157. Nine laps later, another storm moved through, ending the race. Kanaan finished 12th.
— In 2008, Scott Dixon passed Kanaan for the lead on lap 106. A few moments later, teammate Marco Andretti went to the inside to make another pass of Kanaan. All Kanaan could do was go high, scraping the outside wall and forcing him to turn into the path of Sarah Fisher. Both cars were knocked out of the race. Afterward, Kanaan complained that every time he leads the race, something happens.
— In 2009, a broken suspension sent the Brazilian into Indy's concrete wall. The hit was so hard he bounced off, slammed into the wall again at more than 180 mph and was still limping when he showed up for the Milwaukee race a week later.
If there's one person at Gasoline Alley who understands Kanaan's plight, it's Michael Andretti, his former team owner.
"We've talked about it a lot," Andretti said Friday. "He's probably one of the best drivers at this track without a win under his belt. I know how he feels, and he knows how I feel, and he knows he's running out of chances, too."
Andretti led the most laps of any non-500 winner (431). Kanaan has led more laps at Indy (214) than any non-winner still active in the series.
So perhaps this will be the year fate intervenes.
For the first time since 2009, Kanaan qualified in the front three rows. He'll start eighth, the middle of Row 3, a stark contrast from two years ago when he started from the final position in the 33-car field after using pieces from two crashed cars and Ryan Hunter-Ready's No. 28 car just to qualify for the race..
It's also Kanaan's 11th Indy start, matching both his car number and his lucky number, and it just happens to be coming on a day that he will be wearing special sunglasses in tribute to the late Dan Wheldon, his close friend and ex-teammate.
"You know, every time Dan came here, he tried to enjoy it and I learned this from Dan," Kanaan said. "He was pretty good around here, but every time he was here, he would be like, 'Oh, look at the flags blowing' or 'Oh, they changed the photos in the Pagoda.'"
Kanaan insists he has learned to take a similar approach to Indy by staying relaxed and avoiding discussion of the things that could have been.
His buddies in Gasoline Alley know better.
"I think if Tony had a chance of winning the IndyCar championship, the points, or winning Indy, he'd go 100 times for Indy," KV Racing Technology teammate and longtime friend Rubens Barrichello said. "When he was going for the setup out here, I told him 'Just relax, man, you're so tense.' It freaks you out sometimes."
Kanaan certainly has a large, loyal fan base.
He spoke of the roar he heard when he made the first qualifying run last Saturday only to have the time erased because of a technical violation. When he returned several hours later to qualify again, the roar was even louder.
Drivers ranging from Marco Andretti to Barrichello and even former drivers such as Michael Andretti acknowledge that deep down they're still rooting for Kanaan to win one.
"I think the pressure keeps building when you know you have less and less shots," Michael Andretti said. "So you just have to go out and do your job and hope this is your year."
And that's exactly Kanaan's mentality heading into Sunday.
"I'm more confident than last year, so I'm ready," Kanaan said. "And why not?"
When reminded he drove from 33rd into the front pack in 2010, Kanaan said: "We'll try to do it again from eighth."