LONG POND, Pa. — Tony Kanaan holds IndyCar's version of the golden ticket.
He's driving for more than another win at Pocono Raceway — he'd move one victory closer toward earning $1 million dollars.
All Kanaan has to is win at Pocono and Fontana to become the open-wheel series' Triple Crown winner. He won the first leg when he broke through for his first Indianapolis 500 victory in May.
Oh, he took home $2,353,500 for winning Indy.
Still, a million bucks for winning three races isn't too shabby, either.
"A million dollars is always welcome, I have to say," a laughing Kanaan said. "I'm really not thinking about the million dollars. I'm thinking, let's go one at a time. If I win here, I'm getting closer, but it's not guaranteed yet."
No, Kanaan didn't put his pinkie against his lips like Dr. Evil when talking about the potential $1 million payday. But he's the only driver eligible for the Triple Crown title and the prize money that goes with the feat. So he may as well go ahead and win Sunday's 400-mile race at Pocono.
"We'll try and take the opportunity," he said.
While $1 million doesn't seem like much in a sports world where top athletes command $20 million in salary, IndyCar offers meager purses and Kanaan has won only $55,000 this season. That's a few free throws for LeBron James.
A driver who wins two of the three can win a $250,000 bonus from promotion sponsor Fuzzy's Vodka. IndyCar ran a Triple Crown at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario from 1971-1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indy, Pocono and Michigan. Only Al Unser won all three races in a single season, in 1978.
"Winning them all was a great gift," Unser said. "We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three."
Unser won four 500-mile races in a row with an Ontario victory in 1977 and wins in 1978 at Indy, Pocono and Ontario. Unser drove for Parnelli Jones in 1977 and Jim Hall in 1978. He's rooting for Kanaan to match his feat, just like he pulled for him to at long last win at Indy.
"I think Tony's a good racer," Unser said. "I'm an old-timer and I thought he was going to be another Lloyd Ruby and just keep racing and racing at Indy and never get to drink the milk or get his photo with the Borg-Warner trophy in Victory Lane. He knew the Speedway didn't owe him anything like the announcers said it did. He won based on his talent, his racing skills and the team's hard work."
Kanaan, along with just about every series driver, is racing for the first time at Pocono. The track returned to the IndyCar Series schedule after a 24-year absence and most drivers participated in just a few test sessions. They'll qualify Saturday.
Kanaan, fifth in the points standings, may not win but he'll be there at the start. That's one guarantee that few other series drivers can boast. Kanaan is set for his 207th consecutive open-wheel start Sunday, four shy of our of Jimmy Vasser's record. Kanaan now drives for Vasser.
"Jimmy really doesn't want me to beat him," Kanaan said, laughing. "He's my boss. He can take me out of the car any time he wants. I'm trying to be nice to him."
Vasser said the streak might be over if not for his well-timed "Look out!" when a distracted Kanaan almost drove over a piece of equipment after the recent Milwaukee race.
"I could have kept my record," a laughing Vasser said.
Kanaan, the popular Brazilian, has 16 career wins since his 1998 debut.
"I'm still going, that's what matters," he said. "You don't hang on for this long just because you're lucky. I think it's proof I still can do the job. I try not to think too much."
Vasser won his own $1 million paydays over his career and knows Kanaan is capable pulling of the triple sweep.
"We need to get off the horse and win a few," Vasser said. "The Triple Crown is nice, but we've got to get back into the championship fight."
Kanaan and Vasser have been friends since the late 90s. Vasser said "We've had our disagreements," but the two have a solid working relationship that he hoped would continue beyond this year. Kanaan's deal is up at the end of the season, and ideally he'd return with Vasser to defend at Indy.
Kanaan ended 12 years of frustration when he finally won in May, thousands of fans screaming, "TK! TK! TK!" on that long, final lap.
The glow from that milestone win still hasn't faded.
"I hope it goes on forever," Vasser said. "There's the baby Borg, the rings, his face on the ticket. There's still a lot to come. Champions, forever."
Follow Dan Gelston at www.Twitter.com/APGelston