I begin this tier of the list with the last two drivers who really can be considered specialists on one type of track, but calling either Gurney or Ted Horn a one-trick pony as I did with Tony Bettenhausen would still be ridiculous. There is a solid case to be made that Gurney is the greatest American road course driver of all time. In his 28 starts over a relatively short period, he ran half of them on ovals and half of them on road courses, but among his 14 road course starts, he won 7 of them, and Mario Andretti and both Unser brothers started all those races, with A.J. Foyt and Gordon Johncock starting most of them as well and occasional appearances by other great road course drivers like Mark Donohue and George Follmer as well. These were some of the deepest road course fields ever, and Gurney won half his starts (and even MORE poles - 10.) This essentially matches his NASCAR road course record, where he won 5 of his 9 road course starts all among many of NASCAR's greatest. His Formula One record is not quite as good with only 4 wins but he is the only American driver to ever win a Formula 1 race as an owner/driver in a car he constructed himself, and he impressed Formula One legend Jim Clark enough that Clark claimed Gurney was 'the only driver he ever feared'. He and Foyt teamed up to win the only overall 24 Hours of Le Mans win for an all-American team in 1967. His average percent led is the greatest for any driver in IndyCar history with 25 or more starts, his unadjusted points per race is higher than any other driver except Bob Carey (who won the championship in his only season) and Al Rogers (a true one-trick pony who only entered the Pikes Peak Hill Climb), and his adjusted points per race is behind only Alex Zanardi, but unlike Zanardi, I'm not at all certain Gurney even did this with the best equipment (A.J. Foyt, Andy Granatelli, Vel Miletich, Bob Wilke, and Al Dean all had at least as strong teams in his heyday). He won all his races for his own All American Racers team (occasionally his sponsor Oscar Olson was the officially listed owner, but it was still Gurney's team). If Gurney DID have the best road course setups, he was largely responsible for them himself anyway as he was equally skilled as an engineer and invented a number of race car parts himself. Later in his career, he became even more successful as a car owner winning an Indy 500 and a championship for Bobby Unser in the mid-'70s, then effectively founded CART with his famous 'white paper' criticizing USAC for its lack of promotion for the races outside Indianapolis (and now, alas, the ultimate effect of the split is we are back there again.) Gurney, one of only three drivers to win in Formula One, IndyCar, and NASCAR (along with Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya) is a possible contender for an all-time motorsports top ten although probably a bit of a stretch. So why do I only have him 20th on THIS list? For one thing, Gurney never raced anything resembling full-time and for the most part only drove road races and at Indianapolis, while the 19 drivers rated higher all won championships or at least had championship-level performance over a season (Ralph DePalma and Earl Cooper did not officially win championships, but they certainly had championship-caliber performance consistently in the 1910s.) For another thing, Gurney winning all 7 of his races on road courses with a comical 50% winning percentage means that he never won on an oval. I don't believe Gurney ever won ANY race on an oval, but I could be wrong (he never won any major events, but it's likely he won something in a relatively minor series someplace.) That doesn't mean he was bad at them. He finished 2nd in the Indy 500 twice and 3rd another time in his last three appearances and as his team continued to improve had he not chosen to retire after 1970 he might have gotten one. He also got a top five in a one-off at the Daytona 500 once, in both cases coming against some of the deepest IndyCar/NASCAR fields ever, so calling him a one-trick pony is certainly unfair. Even if he only won road course races, he did so in practically every form of car on the planet. From an IndyCar perspective though, his lack of balance and his lack of full-time competition limit him, but I might possibly even go higher than this on a global all-time list. His importance to racing history in general exceeds his importance to IndyCar racing as a driver alone.
Because I did not believe there were good enough data available for the Big Car races of 1946 (these were the only races in history that did not appear to have complete finishing orders or even lists of entries) I excluded them from the analysis, but they officially count. The 1946 season combined 71 Big Car races and 6 Champ Car races, and although for a long time there was a dispute on whether the Big Car races should count or not, the historical consensus is that they should. Horn won 19 of the 71 Big Car races, more than any other driver, giving him an actual total of 24 wins, and his 19 wins in the 1946 were in the fact the most wins for any driver in IndyCar history. Even though Horn did not win any of the Champ Car races that year, he was still consistent enough in them that he would have been the champion whether you counted the other 71 races or not. Although the Big Cars were removed from the schedule in 1947 and 1948, Horn did not miss a beat as he repeated the championship in those two seasons to become the first three-time champion in IndyCar history. Much like Gurney, he is technically a one-trick pony from an IndyCar perspective because all Horn's wins came on dirt ovals, but REALLY isn't when you consider the context of his career in general. For one thing, the Championship Cars and Big Cars were not the same equipment, so by scoring the most points in both types of equipment in 1946, he clearly showed a versatility that other drivers lacked that year (for instance, Rex Mays did not even compete in the Big Car races, while Bill Holland, who won the 2nd most races to Horn that year, did not compete in the Championship Car races...don't get me wrong, both of them were very versatile as well, but I don't think they're on a par with Horn.) Furthermore, the only races that weren't on dirt ovals in that period were at the Indy 500 and in the Vanderbilt Cup road races. At Indianapolis, Horn had the most consistent record of any driver to never win the race. In his last nine appearances, he finished between 2nd and 4th in all of them! He was also the TNL once in his last season in 1948. However, despite his consistency, 1948 was the only year he really contended there, as only one of his nine top fours was a 2nd place finish. His reliable consistency obviously helped him in the points standings as Indy counted so much more than any other race toward the season championship that he finished in the top four in points all nine of his seasons culminating in his final three championships. However, despite his mindboggling consistency (including 27 straight top 10s in Championship Cars at one point) he only won races in his final three seasons (1946-48) despite competing for a decade prior to that, and didn't really contend for races often prior to World War II. His longevity in terms of consistency was great, but his longevity in terms of dominance really wasn't, and all his wins were on dirt, so ultimately I can't do much better than this for him because almost everybody I ranked higher had greater versatility AND more longevity in the winning portion of their career. He's still badly underrated today though. He even won his last two championships driving for himself! Sadly, he decided to never retire until he won an Indy 500 and he never got that chance as he was killed after a wreck on the 3rd lap of the season finale race at DuQuoin, winning the title posthumously.
In A.J. Foyt's most dominant period from 1960-64, Ward was the only driver who posed as any sort of rival to Foyt over the general schedule at all. Although Ward had a slow start with only 2 wins in his first 51 starts from 1950-56, he showed a reliable consistent dominance from 1957-63 winning multiple races every season, and from 1959-64 he won two championships in 1959 and 1962 with three second place finishes in 1960, 1963, and 1964 (all behind only Foyt.) Despite Parnelli Jones's greater reputation and versatility in a variety of kinds of cars, it was Ward, not Jones, who provided Foyt with his primary competition. In Ward's heyday from 1959-64, only one driver besides him and Foyt won multiple races in a season more than once (Eddie Sachs won two races twice.) Ward was equally consistent on dirt and paved ovals winning 13 races on each, a record of versatility that was not matched by very many drivers of that era. Ward was the poster boy for Bob Wilke's Leader Card Racers team, a brand new team that started in 1959. In those years, he led six races start-to-finish at five different tracks (both on dirt and on pavement.) He frequently had teammates including some who were championship caliber (Chuck Stevenson and Don Branson) but none of them came close to him, although Len Sutton did manage to finish 2nd at the Indy 500 in a 1-2 finish for Wilke in 1962. He is not only important for his Leader Card results, as he claimed the only four wins for Roger Wolcott's team in 1956-57 prior to that. However, what kept him from reaching the next level and remaining relevant was the advent of the rear-engine car replacing the once-dominant roadster. Although Ward drove rear-engine cars rather early in 1964 (before they became dominant) he remained consistent but no longer won or led very often. The speed of the rear-engine cars kept him competitive but when many other drivers adapted to them much better than he did in 1965, he was largely rendered uncompetitive, with DNFs in all eight of his starts and only leading one race. He did slightly improve in 1966 when he claimed his last win in his next to last start at Trenton, but retired after the Indy 500 when he felt he was no longer having fun. He would later go on to do commentary for ABC's Wide World of Sports and the IMS Radio Network. He was a bit lucky at Indianapolis in his Leader Card period as he was not the TNL in either of his Indy 500 wins, but he was in 1960, where he and Jim Rathmann had their legendary duel until Ward cut a tire and slowed down to avoid crashing, which handed Rathmann the lead. Rathmann too had a less severely cut tire and it was impressive both of them avoided crashing despite neither of them pitting. Although he had great versatility and great longevity, others had greater longevity (Foyt continued to dominate with rear-engine cars while he didn't), and others had greater versatility (for instance, he had no road course success, but this isn't a major problem when there weren't road courses on the schedule during his heyday.)
Milton was the first driver to win the Indy 500 twice in 1921 and 1923 despite being unable to see out of one of his eyes. Milton began his career in 1916 for the Duesenberg car company's factory team. Although Eddie Rickenbacker and Eddie O'Donnell had won races for namesake brothers August and Frederick Duesenberg, it was Milton who began to turn the team into the leading powerhouse in IndyCar racing in 1917. While other drivers (most notably Rickenbacker) went off to fight in World War I, Milton, whose eyesight prevented him from serving, emerged as a star driver winning two races on a concrete oval in Providence, and he would win at least one race every year through 1925, one year shy of Ralph DePalma's ten consecutive winning seasons from 1912-21. The vast majority of Milton's starts and wins came on wooden board ovals, but he did a stellar job adapting to any track type regardless. Despite only making two road course starts, both at Elgin in races that exceeded three hours, he finished first and second in them. His two wins on concrete ovals distinguished him from many other drivers considering there were few races held on concrete then or now. After Milton discovered his protege and eventual chief rival Jimmy Murphy who would ultimately surpass him in talent, he and Murphy had a brief feud when Murphy set an unofficial land speed record in 1920 in a car that Milton had built himself for his use, eventually causing him to leave the Duesenberg team at the end of the season, which became arguably even more dominant with Murphy in the following seasons. Milton would drive the Frontenac car owned by Louis and Arthur Chevrolet replacing their brother Gaston who won the championship over Milton as well as the previous year's Indy 500 and give the marque its second straight win. He also claimed the championship easily although Murphy won more races in part because of Murphy's poor 500 finish but also because he skipped a few races to compete internationally, shockingly crossing over to win the 1921 French Grand Prix. Although he did not enter every race for Frontenac, his connection to the Chevrolets allowed him to forge a relationship with GM founder William Durant and form a team with William's son, the decent but not great driver Cliff, a team for which he would have much of his success. Milton's engines, which he purchased from Harry Miller, were so dominant in 1921 that Murphy left the Duesenberg team and started his own with the same engines, and dominated the 1922 season to a much greater degree than Milton did the previous year, even though they both had the same engines that year (Milton still did claim 2nd in the championship, however.) While Murphy continued to dominate until his death at the Syracuse dirt track race in 1924, Milton somewhat faded after that, as his second Indianapolis win in 1923 was his only top five of the season, causing him to lose the championship to Eddie Hearne, and he posed no threat to Pete DePaolo in his final season in 1925. He did return to Duesenberg nearly bookending his career and got his final win for them in a 250-mile board track race in Charlotte that year, but made only two starts before retiring at the young age of 33. Regardless, his longevity, versatility, and peak performance were largely unmatched in that decade, but I do have to take Murphy over him (he won nearly as many races in half the starts and his French GP win suggests he'd have done even better in other eras.) Milton later went on to drive the pace car at Indianapolis, begin the tradition of giving the pace car to the winner, and serve as Indianapolis 500 chief steward. Sadly, Milton became the only Indy 500 winner to commit suicide in 1962 after a long string of health problems.
Probably the driver most hurt by the fact that the races in the 1910s did not count for points, Cooper may no longer be a household name to IndyCar fans but his dominance was truly staggering. Despite never winning the Indy 500, he was awarded three bogus championships after the fact for the 1913, 1915, and 1917 seasons, and considering how heavy a weight the Indy 500 carried in those fake championships and ALSO considering that he didn't even start the Indy 500 either of those years, that gives some idea as to the level of his dominance. Cooper's longevity exceeded that of ANY of the pioneering drivers with 14 years between his first and last wins (1912-26), and he only even drove more than six races in a season five times. While he failed to win at Indianapolis, he showed dominance on every other track type, winning seven times on board ovals (where he easily had his worst winning percentage, but since those were more or less the cookie-cutters of his day, they were also the closest thing to a crapshoot, making it harder for any one driver to dominate to that degree), twice on concrete ovals (in only three starts), four times on dirt (in seven races), and eight times on road courses in 22 starts. He won multiple times on different track surfaces even more than DePalma did as DePalma only won once on concrete and once on dirt but was FAR better at Indianapolis and he also had a much better board track record to compensate. Despite only appearing at Indianapolis in 1913 as a relief driver, Cooper won five consecutive road course races in a two month span, and four of them lasted over three hours! He also won five times in 1915 and four times in only six starts in 1917. However, those three pseudo-championship seasons do account for the vast majority of Cooper's results, as from 1918-22 he never entered more than three races a year (and only started at Indianapolis once), and he wasn't quite as dominant in the mid-'20s as he was before that. Still, his ridiculous level of dominance in his early career on all kinds of tracks is enough for me to overlook his relatively weak level of competition (only 12 adjusted wins), weak Indy 500 record, and many, many skipped races and still rank him this highly. Although he never won at Indianapolis and it seems almost random which years he competed there, he was the TNL at Indy in both 1924 and 1925 (he and Jimmy Snyder were the only drivers to be TNL in 2 different Indy 500s and never win, making them among the least lucky to never win there.) His 2nd place in 1924 was especially unlucky as he cut a tire while leading, lost the lead to Joe Boyer, and was in the process of passing Boyer for the lead when he cut a tire AGAIN costing him the race win. He won the pole in his final Indy 500 in 1926, but failed to lead any laps and retired shortly thereafter. If he had raced at Indianapolis every year of his career and not had so many starts and stops and missed races in his career, it seems probable that he would have won at Indianapolis, and it is sad that the fact that almost all the races of the 1910s are considered unofficial will cause him to be overlooked by history when he was clearly the second-best driver of the 1910s. Regardless, in an era as dangerous as the 1920s when so many Indy 500 winners died in crashes, perhaps retiring at the time he did was wise, even though he still probably had a few wins left based on his recent performances.
Johncock seems to be linked with Johnny Rutherford in the public mind since they both won multiple Indy 500s and had a long string of steady consistent dominance from 1973 to the early 1980s with one championship each. They are not close. Johncock is greatly superior. In the 1970s, the Patrick Racing team was considered Penske's archrival but that's kind of strange to think about now. Patrick only actually won two championships - one with Johncock in 1976 and one with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 (and Fittipaldi wasn't CLOSE to being championship-contending in CART until he was given a Penske chassis.) The team only won three Indy 500s, but Johncock won two of them as well, which actually understates his performance as Indy as he was the TNL 3 times (Rutherford despite his three wins there, only once.) Patrick was clearly one of the strongest teams of the time and did match Penske in the mid-'70s when Penske was not the powerhouse they became in 1977 and years following, but Patrick, while still competitive, never really kept up with Penske's progress, and the team did very little after Johncock left, until Fittipaldi got the Penske chassis en route to being hired by Penske later. Rutherford may have won 27 races to Johncock's 25, but Johncock had 32 TNL to Rutherford's 21. Rutherford was very lucky, while Johncock was very unlucky. Johncock was not granted the greatest rides early in his career but still won in them winning at Milwaukee in 1965 for the Weinberger & Wilseck team (giving them their only ever win), then winning two races three straight seasons from 1967-1969 as an owner-driver, but he did struggle in 1970-72 with no wins and few races in which he was competitive for wins, including 18 DNFs in a 25 race span (only four of them were crashes however, which means he wasn't very responsible for the DNFs.) He did get a ride with the powerhouse McLaren team for 1972 when he had all these mechanical DNFs, and Rutherford certainly did improve on him at McLaren, but considering that was McLaren's first season as a full-time IndyCar owner in addition to their F1 effort it makes sense that they would have several mechanical failures at first. By the time the McLaren chassis were suddenly dominating in 1973, he was now driving Dan Gurney's Eagle chassis for Patrick, a car owner who had until then never won a race (including with the great Rutherford in 1970-71, and the pretty good Swede Savage in 1972) and Johncock instantly got his first Indy 500 win in his first year with the team, but it was sadly overshadowed by the death of his teammate Savage. He would remain the mainstay for Patrick Racing until his injury in a crash at Michigan in 1983 and really along with Fittipaldi their only major contender (they became much, much better when Chip Ganassi bought the team from Patrick...the Ganassi team would TRULY become Penske's rival in a way Patrick NEVER was.) His 1982 Indianapolis 500 is even more celebrated as he held off Rick Mears, one of the greatest ever at Indy, in a superior Penske car (and actually passed him for the win as well) in the closest finish in Indy 500 history in that date, which finally got him a 500 win he was able to celebrate which was not overshadowed by tragedy (relatively, as sadly Gordon Smiley died in practice for that year's event.) The only thing I have to criticize is one thing he does share in common with Rutherford: Johncock only managed 2 road course wins in 42 starts, and he too like Rutherford would never win on dirt (but he also made many fewer dirt starts.) It kind of makes him the mirror image of a future two-time winner who was one of the best road/street course drivers ever, but nowhere near as good of an oval driver as people think he is, Al Unser, Jr., so I have grouped them together. Both are obviously way too important to not be in the top 20, but not versatile enough to be in the top 10.
A popular favorite as a result of both his father's massive success and his own massive success, Unser is often cited as the best driver of his era because after Rick Mears's injury at Sanair in 1984 Unser was the only driver to win multiple Indy 500s and multiple championships in CART/Champ Car until Champ Car folded in 2008, and he even got his first Indy 500 win in a Galles Racing car that was nowhere near as fast as the Newman-Haas and Ganassi cars that year. However, even though Michael Andretti managed only one title and no 500 wins, and Bobby Rahal only managed one win (albeit three titles, as many as any driver in the CART years), I am more impressed with both of them. For all the talk of Unser's oval dominance he only actually won 6 races on ovals in CART compared to 7 road course wins and 18 street course wins. Unser was truly a great street course driver - maybe the best ever, with 6 Long Beach wins and 4 Vancouver wins especially. However, there are a surprising number of tracks he competed at more than ten times yet never won at: Road America, Laguna Seca, Nazareth, and Phoenix. Rahal by contrast had only three (and I would argue his equipment was usually at a disadvantage to Unser, no less.) Andretti: only Indianapolis. For Unser not to have won at EITHER of the road course venues that most fans judged as the most important natural road courses of that era of CART is in my mind just as big of a career hole as Andretti's failure to win at Indianapolis when evaluating their talent (although granted, Unser was very unlucky not to win at Road America in 1996, but the same applies to Andretti at Indianapolis.) Unser's shockingly mediocre but underreported oval record is another matter. Though he did get 6 oval wins in the CART years, FIVE of them came in his two championship seasons (the exception being his very lucky 1992 win at Indianapolis.) In other words, when he did not have the best equipment, he wasn't winning on ovals. To some degree that's understandable since superspeedways at least have more to do with the car than the driver, but a lot of people feel the drivers play a much more pivotal role at the short ovals, and Unser was not exactly great there relative to everywhere else (Paul Tracy and Greg Moore won on ovals in the late '90s in weaker cars than Unser had for instance, so equipment isn't everything.) Rahal and Andretti were short oval masters. Unser did not even win on an oval until 1990 (his eighth season.) Even WILL POWER won sooner on an oval. I'm certainly not going to say Unser was a one-trick pony or anything (he has a strong case for best street course driver in IndyCar history, after all, and did win multiple times on every track type) but he lacked the balance that Rahal and Andretti had, and also their longevity. Unser and Andretti got very early opportunities based on their fathers' success and Rahal did not. Rahal's career started when he was 29 and he won his Indy 500 at 33 with all three titles later to come. Unser won his last CART race at 33 and had a miserable last four years in CART in 1996-99 before moving to the IRL and not even getting top five points finishes despite his vast experience. Andretti by contrast had a 5 win season at age 34 in 1996 and continued winning years afterward. Rahal struggled as an owner-driver in his later years (in his 40s), but he was posting better results than Unser did at the same ages, and never truly had a weak season, while Unser didn't really have a good one after 1996. I realize he became an alcoholic in this period but when it affects the results, it does matter. Tracy had half the CART oval wins Unser managed in his career in 1997 when they were teammates. Unser's objective stats and the competition he faced were certainly amazing, but he had a relatively short prime considering when he started when compared to Andretti (who had better rides but also did more with them for a longer period) and Rahal (who accrued weaker stats largely because of his later start, but STILL won more titles) and was too unbalanced between track types to make the top ten. I acknowledge Unser did a very good job in some seasons where he had poor equipment (1992 and 1996 especially), and his ability to overpower championship-caliber teammates was impressive (but again, Andretti has an even better record vs. his teammates.) I must acknowledge that Unser did win the title including 4 races in a row in 1990 when his teammate Rahal went winless, but Unser was 28 and Rahal was 37, and Rahal DID beat him in points the next year. Indy 500 centrism causes people to forget some aspects of some driver's overall records. Even at Indy, Unser was consistent but no dominant force (he has fewer laps led than any other driver with 2 or more wins, he was the TNL in neither race, as he inherited the lead in 1992 when Andretti had a mechanical failure and in 1994 when Emerson Fittipaldi crashed, although to his credit, he was the TNL at Indy twice in the '80s when he did not win.) I also have to make a bit of a discount since he was at Penske the year they won 12/16 races, but just a bit since Unser himself did win 8 of them while Fittipaldi and Tracy combined to win only 4, so he did thoroughly dominate that team (he is higher than them, isn't he?) I just think the way he is hyped and his stats do overrate him a bit, except on street courses. His "King of the Beach" title is deserved, but he isn't as close to his father or his uncle as his stats make him look. I'll close with one oddity: he was one of the most successful drivers in IROC stock cars including 7 of his 11 wins on ovals, and Rahal's and Andretti's stats don't come close there (although they tended to participate much less often as well.) I don't know what to make of this, but I am judging IndyCar in the context of IndyCar, so the IROC results don't count.
Although Shaw is grouped with the other early three-time Indy 500 winners Louis Meyer and Mauri Rose in the public mind, he is much more important than either and that's even ignoring his role as President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the moment when Tony Hulman bought the track until his death in a plane crash in 1954. For one thing, while Shaw, Meyer, and Rose all have similar win totals and start totals, Shaw has 6 TNL matching his win total, while Rose only has 3 and Meyer only has 2. This trend continued at Indianapolis where he had 3 TNL and each of them only have 1 each, thus indicating that Shaw's winning did not exaggerate the actual level of his dominance while Rose and Meyer's did. He had strong longevity with wins as early as 1929 and as late as 1940, but did have a six-year winless streak from 1931-36 (still, considering how few races there were those seasons, the win streak only lasted 20 races and included a non-points win at the Springfield dirt track and four straight seasons with a second place finish, so it's not like he was really struggling or anything.) Considering he only won one pole in his career, Shaw was clearly more renowned for his patience than his brute speed, but unlike Meyer, who ONLY won races by beating people out of the pits or others dropping out, Shaw's 6 TNL again prove that while he may not have qualified well, he was very good at on-track battling, even relative to his dominant peers. His six wins further underestimates the measure of his dominance because he competed in 11 non-championship events and won 4 of them, a much higher percentage than his actual winning percentage. He was versatile, winning one of the very last board track races at Bridgeville in 1930 to become the only driver besides Billy Arnold to win multiple races that year, winning twice on dirt, and his three Indianapolis wins on pavement. He never won on a road course but did finish 2nd to Kelly Petillo at the Mines Field road course in 1934 and started 3rd in the staggering 45-car field for the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup race, only being beaten by Billy Winn among the American qualifiers. His ability to handle all these different disciplines would have allowed him to be much more adaptable to any era than almost any other driver, and he even won his 1937 Indy 500 in a chassis he prepared himself before becoming the first to win back-to-back 500s in 1939 and 1940 very late in his career. Beyond even that, after his retirement he was chosen to find a buyer for the track. After World War II, the Speedway was expected to be demolished and turned into private housing, but Shaw successfully convinced Hulman to buy the track and without him it is unlikely the race would have returned. He is certainly one of the ten most important people in IMS history, but I was a bit more impressed by several other drivers' dominance and longevity and his mid-career winless streak is not something I would expect from the drivers I ranked higher.
Few drivers dominated an era to the ridiculous degree that Bryan did. Taking over Al Dean's Dean Van Lines team in its second season in 1954 from soon-to-be Indy 500 winner Bob Sweikert and remaining there for four years, Bryan won 3 championships and finished 2nd in the points once. In those seasons, he won 17 of 44 races, including a career-high 6 out of 10 in 1955 (the year he DIDN'T win the championship), and at his peak it was even more ridiculous (16 wins in 23 races.) Even more amazingly, he was replaced by rookie A.J. Foyt in 1958-1959, who went WINLESS both years, and those were the two years before he won four out of five titles from 1960-64. When he left the Dean team in 1958, he only made selected one-offs afterward. He finally got his Indy 500 win in 1958 (after being snakebit for several years) driving George Salih's "Lay Down Offy" which was laid on its side to lower the center of gravity of the car, replacing Sam Hanks, who previously won the race in the same car. The reservation I have with Bryan's career is why didn't he do more before or after? He replaced Chuck Stevenson who was in my bottom ten in the Bessie Lee Paoli car that Stevenson won the championship with in 1952 and only won one race (the only race he led all season) and finished 9th in points (admittedly, Stevenson took his chief engineer with him to the Agajanian team.) He won for the Dean team when he presumably had absurdly dominant cars (although maybe not since he only won three poles and Foyt struggled later), was likely very lucky with several fewer TNL than wins and even fewer CRL than wins, although one can always argue lucky is really clutch, and his clutch statistic of 1.46 was very high here. Then his remaining starts at Indy for Salih in 1959 and 1960 were pretty uncompetitive. His dominance for the Dean team was cooling off in 1957 as well, as despite his numerous wins and despite winning his final event for the team at Phoenix, he had gone seven races without leading a lap prior to that, implying that his dominant power run of 1954-56 was already beginning to come to a close. Since he had stopped competing full-time, he probably wouldn't have won very many more races either, so he is largely a four-year wonder for a single team, and an unbalanced one has he won 17/43 races on dirt and 2/19 on pavement, making him much like Dan Gurney and Ted Horn not really a one-trick pony but appearing so based on his IndyCar results. But what results! His points per race and average points per race are astonishing. Still, although I had him in the top ten almost the entire time, the longevity and versatility isn't there relative to the drivers I rated higher and he seemed to be fading before his death. I certainly don't think Foyt as a rookie replacing him and doing worse means Foyt is worse, any more than I think Bryan replacing Stevenson as a rookie and doing worse means Bryan is worse, but those two facts do make Bryan one of the most puzzling drivers to rate. Ultimately, I chose to reward longevity in the top ten, with the exception of another Jimmy who impresses me more.
No, I'm not kidding. In fact, I actually wanted Montoya in the top ten before I chickened out. I realize he has so far only had four full-time seasons with a 13-year gap in between when he raced in Formula One and NASCAR, but that's kind of my point as well. Several drivers have had multiple-year gaps between one stint in IndyCar and another, and invariably to a one they were nowhere near as competitive when they came back. Chuck Stevenson wasn't, Jud Larson wasn't, Montoya's predecessor Alex Zanardi wasn't (even with only a 2-year break), Cristiano da Matta wasn't, Sébastien Bourdais wasn't (although maybe he still would be if he had a top-line car), A.J. Allmendinger wasn't. While Montoya isn't as competitive as he was in 1999-2000 either, he is still one of the leading championship contenders today just as he was before despite having a MASSIVELY longer gap between seasons than any of those drivers did. I realize Zanardi is more popular and managed two championships for Ganassi while Montoya only won one. Montoya was still infinitely more impressive in my mind even in that portion of his career. While Zanardi only won with the dominant Reynard/Honda/Firestone package, Montoya also won with the inferior Lola/Toyota package the following year (where despite that package not quite having the speed of the Reynard-Hondas at that point, he still won tied for the most races and was overwhelmingly more dominant than anyone else, but his 12 DNFs due to awful reliability took him out of the championship hunt), and he won the Indy 500 going away in the yet again different G-Force/Oldsmobile package. Now add to that his results from 2014-16 where he has won with the modern and very different IndyCar DW12 chassis (both before and after the introduction of the new aero kits in 2015) and that means he has won with FIVE different chassis and FOUR different engines, and that's ignoring his success in many other disciplines of motorsport, his F1 wins, and so on. The longevity may not seem to be a big deal but actually only six drivers who match or exceed Montoya's 17 years between his first and last wins (1999-2016) - A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Jr., and Gordon Johncock. He's even one of the only three drivers to be the TNL twice at the Indy 500 since 1995 despite only competing there three times (Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan are the others.) He has 2.5 times as many wins as any other driver within his number of starts (15 to Scott Dixon's 6), and few other drivers have anything close over that long a period against almost entirely full fields (except his 2000 Indy 500 win.) Tony Bettenhausen, Bourdais, Louis Chevrolet, Earl Cooper, Ralph DePalma, and Foyt are the only other five that had long careers and also had more than twice as many wins as any other driver within their starts, but Montoya was more diverse than Bettenhausen, faced deeper fields than Bourdais, Chevrolet, and Cooper and got multiple Indy 500 wins while none of them did (in more starts), and DePalma and Foyt are higher on the list. Montoya is also unlucky to not have more wins as he frequently was in position to win races especially in 2000 until mechanical failures; his 22 TNL make him look even more impressive than the 15 wins do. Comparing Montoya to his contemporaries Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan is instructive, as in his 1999-2000 stint Montoya won 10 races to Castroneves's 3 and Kanaan's 1 (I'll ignore Indy 2000 since they didn't compete there), and since his return he has won 4 races to their 1 each. Considering how many races both Castroneves and Kanaan won in between, how much could we have expected from Montoya? Assuming he would have at least matched what Castroneves did (perhaps doubtful since he would have provided much more competition for the same number of race wins), that would give him another 25 wins taking him to 40 two behind Michael Andretti for 3rd place in all time wins. If he matched his actual pace of 18.75% wins over all the years from 2001-13 (assuming a 2003 transition to the IRL with Ganassi), that would give him 41 more wins and a total of 56, 2nd place all time on the win list. With this level of dominance, and his comeback being better than almost any other comeback despite him being away longer than almost anybody else, I'm truly impressed. I know I rated Montoya's 2015 really lowly as I felt he largely lucked into the points lead, rarely took the lead on track, and choked the title away, and I still feel that way considering the year 2015 alone, but putting that season where he nearly led the points the entire season 16 years after his first title in CONTEXT of a driver who had a 13-year absence, it's pretty amazing. I am going to dock him somewhat for the absence, and because he has only driven for Ganassi when they dominated and then Penske when they dominated, and I'm going to choose Dixon over him for the active driver spot in the top ten after Montoya choked the title to him, but people who downplay him based on F1 (where he did have more success than the vast majority of IndyCar drivers) or NASCAR (the jet dryer incident was NOT his fault!) are wrong, at least in the context of his overall career importance (I'll be the first to admit he was an average NASCAR driver.) While I downplayed his '15 quite a bit (personally I'm more impressed with what Bourdais and Josef Newgarden were doing in much worse cars), he still delivered two incredible performances coming back from 30th to win at Indianapolis last year and taking and holding the lead over his soon-to-be robotically dominant teammate Simon Pagenaud at St. Petersburg this year despite losing his steering! St. Pete erased any of the lingering doubts I had about his comeback even more than 2015 did, and he still looks vital in a way Castroneves and Kanaan don't. Not as vital as he did 15 years ago, but how many other drivers are this good 17 years after they started? Not a lot. However, top ten would definitely be a stretch since you can't be SURE what he would have done in between; maybe he would have faded like Dario Franchitti.