Although his career wasn't quite as lucky as that of fellow three-time winners Louis Meyer or Hélio Castroneves, his Indy 500 record more than his IndyCar record in general is primarily what he is known for, and his Indy 500 record is definitely a bit overrated. Although he won three Indy 500s from 1941-48 late in his career (and since his first win came in his rookie season in 1932, he had admittedly VERY impressive longevity), he was driving for the premier car owner of the time Lou Moore and two of his Indy 500 wins were rather cheap. In 1941, he won the pole for the Indy 500 (the only pole of his career) but a spark plug failure took him out of the race and Moore had Rose take over his teammate Floyd Davis's car for the last 129 laps of the race. Rose did work his way from 12th to win, but he definitely benefited from an era when relief drivers were credited from co-winners, and that era was long over by the USAC and CART periods. Nobody in recent decades would be given a mulligan quite like this to win. In 1947, Rose's teammate Bill Holland thoroughly dominated the race but slowed down when his team sent a message to him in the pits stating "EZY". While Rose received the same instruction he ignored it and passed Holland for the win, with Holland not contesting the position because he thought Rose was a lap down. That win was probably cheaper than even in his 1941 win, and those are two of his three wins. As a result, Rose has the lowest laps led of any 3-time winner (his contemporary Rex Mays actually led more laps in the Indy 500 than Rose despite never winning), and considering Rose cherry-picked Indy 500s and seldom raced the full schedule after World War II, that is why I have him lower than you think. He did manage to win both on pavement and dirt which some Indianapolis winners did not, as his other three wins were on dirt (and over a very wide time period, as the wins took place in 1932, 1936, and 1939.) Despite a mere 4th place at Indianapolis in 1936, he still went on to win the championship with consistent finishes, finishing all four races on the lead lap even though he only won at Syracuse. His three terminal natural leads and relatively low average percent led don't look very great at least compared to what one would expect based on his Indy dominance. With only one title due more to consistency and dominance, and only one Indy 500 where he dominated without controversy (1948), his career is not as good as it looks, but certainly still great, especially with very high points per race and adjusted points per race for that era.
This is only a reflection of Fittipaldi's IndyCar career and does not consider any of his Formula One results (together, they would place him in the top ten open wheel drivers of all time almost certainly.) While I was initially thinking top 20 for Fittipaldi, I eventually changed my mind, and the big reason is his very large difference between his 22 career wins and his 14 terminal natural leads, implying he was very lucky to win as often as he did, and he won far more than he put himself in position to win. A lot of this makes sense because Fittipaldi spent almost his entire career with Patrick Racing, Penske's chief rival team in the '70s and '80s, then drove for Penske himself from 1990-95. Fittipaldi certainly has a lot of things in his favor: a perfect modern versatility score of 10 as he won multiple times on short tracks, superspeedways, road courses, street courses, and Indianapolis, still being 6th all time in all-time Indy 500 laps led (including the most consecutive laps led at Indianapolis from the start of the race in 1990), and eleven consecutive winning seasons from 1985-1995 (which was tied for the record with Bobby Unser and Hélio Castroneves until Scott Dixon broke that record this year.) However, on a season-by-season level, a lot of seasons don't look as impressive as I think the equipment should have been doing. For instance, in his first four seasons at Patrick, he won all four seasons with six wins in total, but never earned a top five points finish. The thing that stands out most here is his head-to-head with his teammate Kevin Cogan in 1986. While Cogan is considered the butt of jokes now for his 1982 Indy 500 start crash, he actually beat Fittipaldi in points (admittedly only by one position), won the same number of races (1 each), and had a much better Indy 500 performance. Still, Cogan is considered by most people to be an average driver at best and Fittipaldi has a reputation as one of the best. To his credit, it is likely impressive he did win 6 races in those years since he only won 3 poles, indicating the team likely had slipped from its '70s peak and didn't have the speed it once did, which probably explains the very large number of mechanical DNFs he had from 1986-88 (to his credit, most of his DNFs weren't crashes.) In 1989, he suddenly got a superior Penske chassis in advance of moving to Penske the following season and he suddenly started dominating, with a championship, five poles and five wins including the Indy 500, and he did impressively manage to win at all four track types in a single season, although his Indy 500 win was controversial as his wreck with Al Unser, Jr. while battling for the lead handed him victory. I suppose his Patrick results are understandable since the team probably wasn't as good as its reputation in that period (although Cogan beating him in points is something fairly eye-opening), but when he finally arrived at Penske, he just wasn't as impressive as Penske was expected to be in that period either. Although he did win all six seasons he was at Penske (1990-95) in four of those seasons he only won one race each, and he was usually outperformed by teammates. The only full-time teammates he actually beat in this period were Danny Sullivan and Paul Tracy, both of whom I rated lower (but in 1993-94, Tracy was a LOT more dominant in the races than Fittipaldi was, merely less consistent). Fittipaldi while consistent posed no serious intra-team challenge to Rick Mears or Al Unser, Jr. and only his 1992-93 were especially good for Penske, and 1992 was likely because he was the team's main focus since he was the only full-time driver. Fittipaldi did add another Indy 500 in 1993 (infamously drinking orange juice in victory lane) but one could argue he got lucky there too as Nigel Mansell would likely have won the 500 had he understood the restart rules and not allowed Fittipaldi to get a jump on him. Considering Penske won 12 races in 1994 and the team lapped the field FIVE TIMES that year, it's almost sort of bad Fittipaldi only won once, even though his more steady consistency allowed him to beat Tracy in points. To be fair to Fittipaldi, he was competing in his late 30s to late 40s as most of his career was already over, so it makes sense that he would have developed steady consistency but wasn't as dominant as he once was, but I do think he was largely flattered by Patrick and Penske in an era when not a lot of other teams were capable of winning, and the win/TNL difference is definitely staggering here, leading me to place him a little lower than I initially expected to.
One of the most hit or miss drivers in recent IndyCar history, Franchitti was extraordinarily good at winning championships and Indy 500s when he had the car to do it, and contended for championships fairly often, but when he wasn't contending for championships, he was further off the mark than you would expect from most perennial championship contenders, and considering he lucked into three of his championships and did not exactly dominate ANY season, and also lucked into arguably two of his three Indy 500 wins, that explains why a guy whose record on the surface looks top ten is in my opinion nowhere close. Franchitti started with the dismal Hogan Racing Mercedes team as a rookie in 1997, where he did shockingly win a pole at Toronto but did just about nothing else (and Hélio Castroneves would easily do better for the team two years later even as they were going out of business.) Despite that, he was hired for the struggling powerhouse Team KOOL Green in 1998 as owner Barry Green felt he had potential, and although teammate Paul Tracy was expected to be the lead driver, Franchitti would go on to regularly dominate Tracy over the next five seasons. After a miserably inconsistent mid-1998 where he had 7 of 10 DNFs (including 4 crash DNFs) although he also did win 3 poles indicating he had a lot of speed, he finally put it together at the tail end of the season when he had five straight top 4 finishes including three wins in the late race road/street swing, propelling him from 8th to 2nd in points until Jimmy Vasser reclaimed 2nd by winning the season finale at Fontana. He carried his momentum into 1999, again winning thrice and this time tying rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, who was more dominant but less consistent than his predecessor Alex Zanardi, but he lost the tiebreaker. However, just as it looked like he might be about to become a perennial championship threat (particularly when Montoya's Ganassi team switched to the Lola/Toyota combination while Franchitti stuck with Reynard/Honda), Franchitti suffered a preseason concussion that led to a dismal winless 13th place season (which ended with 9 DNFs including 5 crash DNFs in his last 12 starts.) 2001 wasn't much better as he continued to not perform with the best package (only winning once at Cleveland when he beat career-winless Memo Gidley out of the pits, not too impressive, but he was a bit more consistent.) In 2002, his consistency fell to nearly 2000 levels again with 8 DNFs in 19 starts but he did manage three wins nearly alternating them with DNFs and did manage his first oval win at Rockingham, but he got very lucky due to pit strategy and was still considered to be a road course-only driver at the time. That made him seemingly positively one of the most ill-suited drivers to abandon CART and move to the IRL in 2003, but so he did as Michael Andretti bought Barry Green's majority share of Team Green and switched series. His season was over almost as soon as it started due to a motorcycle crash forcing him to miss the Indy 500. In 2004-05, he finally managed 2 IRL wins both seasons on ovals (although even his 2005 IRL Fontana win only happened because Tony Kanaan let off the gas at the very last moment), but Andretti Green's Dallara-Honda package was way faster than anyone else (especially in 2005) yet he wasn't NEARLY as fast as teammates Kanaan (greatly inferior to Franchitti in CART) and Dan Wheldon (relatively inexperienced). In 2006, when AGR no longer was dominant, he dropped to 8th in points and was almost a complete non-factor, including on the road courses where he would have been expected to dominate. However, starting in 2007, when road courses were starting to play a bigger and bigger role on the schedule, Franchitti would have a surprising return to form with only one DNF all season and four wins including the Indy 500 en route to the championship, but he was extremely lucky, as Kanaan was running away with the Indy 500 until a late pit stop a few laps before rain ended the race, and Franchitti beat future teammate Scott Dixon for the title in a fuel-mileage finale at Chicagoland, not to mention that Kanaan blocked for him sacrificing his own title chances to help Franchitti finally get his title after Franchitti clipped his wing at Sonoma, which further helped Franchitti. While this might have been a much luckier season than most other championships, he still finally fulfilled the potential most people expected, albeit much later. After two airborne crashes at Milwaukee and Kentucky in 2007 (Kentucky embarrassingly coming on the cool-down lap), wife Ashley Judd encouraged him to leave the series for something safer, so he moved to NASCAR, where ironically his career was derailed by a Nationwide crash at Talladega, but considering I still wouldn't say he was the oval master he is now hyped as, NASCAR probably wasn't the best fit for him either. However, signing up for Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team allowed him to move to Ganassi's IndyCar team for 2009, where he suddenly started dominating winning three consecutive championships from 2009-11. Invariably a Penske driver would dominate the entire season and Franchitti would quietly make a run at the end. In 2009, he inherited the title when presumptive title favorite Ryan Briscoe crashed at Motegi in the next to last race and Franchitti won the title AGAIN on fuel mileage over Dixon and Briscoe, although this time at Homestead. In 2010, he had probably his overall most impressive season as he was balanced on ovals and road courses and Power, who was dominant on road courses and awful on ovals, crashed and choked in the season finale at Homestead handing Franchitti the title, but 2011 was different. Franchitti took a seemingly insurmountable point lead after wrecking Power at Toronto and winning the race, but Power made up his 75-point deficit and took the lead entering the season finale at Kentucky, where he was wrecked in the pits by Ana Beatriz; with the Las Vegas race canceled due to Wheldon's death, this prevented Power from making a charge (although considering Power was in the Wheldon crash and Franchitti wasn't, the title was still over.) However, when the Dallara IR05 chassis was replaced with the new DW12 chassis after Wheldon's death, Franchitti was suddenly a non-factor again and while he had moments of consistency, he barely factored for race wins at all, the exception being an impressive Indy 500 where he did come back from last to win, but only after Takuma Sato crashed while attempting to pass him (some people believe Franchitti did not give Sato enough room and played him dirty, and that was his only win of the IndyCar turbocharger era.) In 2013, he still had qualifying speed but had lost the race speed he once had and clearly was overtaken by Dixon within the team; even Charlie Kimball had a better season. Franchitti's career would end with a crash with Sato on the last lap of the second Houston race where he flew into the catch fence on the outside of the street circuit, but luckily avoided Jeff Krosnoff's fate in a similar incident. However, he was badly injured enough that his doctors advised him never to race again, prematurely ending his career, but it's not likely he had many wins left either way. Franchitti clearly had two really good power runs (1998-99 and 2007-11) and they were a sizable distance apart, but almost every other season he had was in some sense disappointing. His four championships and his win total and Indy win total may automatically apply top ten positioning, but I really don't think so, considering he never really dominated a championship and won two of them on fuel mileage and the other two because Power crashed (one of which Power didn't even cause!) You can say he was incredibly clutch on a championship level (although surprisingly, even his race-to-race clutch statistic is below 1 as his TNL is well below his CRL indicating he put himself in position to win less than the level of his dominance, although he actually DID win more than he dominated, implying he did get a bump from his teams, and Green and Ganassi were both very strong.) However, I'll easily take a driver like Dixon with the same number of titles and MUCH BETTER non-championship seasons than a guy who was almost championship or bust (or even Indy 500 or bust - his three 500 wins were his only top fives there ever.) Definitely an all-time great, but not to the level he will be remembered as such. He did EVENTUALLY become a great oval driver after a very slow start and had considerable longevity, but too many of his non-championship seasons were mediocre relative to his great equipment. It does help Franchitti's case that he did do a large portion of what he did and peaked after the split, but he peaked in a period (2009-10) when Penske and Ganassi were almost winning all the races, so how impressive is that really?
Mays was one of the most dominant IndyCar drivers for a very long time, although he admittedly had the vast majority of his success during a three-season period from 1940-46. Mays's 8 wins in 57 starts are very good but may not look that outstanding, but his 19 poles are something else again. They imply and the higher number of terminal natural leads also imply that Mays was the fastest driver of his time, at least on dirt tracks, where he had all his wins and 15 of his poles. Mauri Rose may have gotten the 3 Indy 500 wins while Mays had none, but interestingly Mays actually has more laps led than him (and in fact more laps led at Indianapolis than any driver who has not won the race except Michael Andretti.) Mays's flaw is that he was not particularly clutch and indeed was MUCH stronger towards the beginning of races than the end of them because he didn't take care of his equipment. 30 DNFs in 56 starts is admittedly quite a lot, but only three of his DNFs are listed as being from wrecks and that is quite good. Mechanical DNFs are very, very hard to decide whether the driver was truly responsible or the team; it becomes even harder in Mays's era when sometimes there aren't even good records for who the team owners and/or engineers were. However, while there were some drivers who did likely tend to have more mechanical DNFs than they should have due to overdriving (Mario and Michael Andretti), to some degree it can just be seen as dumb luck as well. I am generally more inclined to give the driver the benefit of the doubt in these cases, and Mays's pole total, TNL total, and CRL total say a lot for him when they are all substantially higher than his win total, indicating that he had a race pace that he didn't quite match in his results. In his career peak from 1940-46 however his level of dominance was staggering for any era. In 1940 and 1941, the last two pre-WWII seasons, Mays won 5 poles and 4 races. In both seasons he finished 2nd at Indianapolis and won the remaining two 100-mile dirt races en route to the title. He didn't lose his dominance after the war either as he won 3 poles and 3 races in his first 5 starts of 1946 as well (skipping the Big Car races that inflated Ted Horn and Bill Holland's win totals.) Seven of his eight wins came in those three seasons, implying he lacked longevity, but I would not say so. He had a pole every single season he competed in from 1935-1949 except one, and a lot of those seasons only had 2 or 3 races, which means he was one of the fastest for a VERY long time, and eight wins is truly a lot for the number of starts per season (the 1.33 average finishes in both championship seasons in particular are AMAZING even if there were only 3 races in both seasons.) Mays's lack of Indy 500 wins causes him to be undervalued, but he was still very good there with four poles and two 2nd place finishes, indicating he's very unlucky not to have won there as well, so criticizing his versatility because he only won on dirt tracks is wrong. He was even stellar in his road course appearances, finishing 3rd in the Vanderbilt Cup race of 1937 as the top American driver against a field of European superstars in faster equipment. Mays definitely has top 20 potential if you ignore the really high DNF percentage and argue it was the weakness of his teams that caused that rather than him overdriving his equipment, but out of respect to the other argument that to finish first one must first finish, I'm going to go a little lower, but he definitely is undervalued now.
The greatest of the two-season wonders, Lockhart came out of nowhere winning on his debut in the 1926 Indy 500. Lockhart was named as a relief driver for Peter Kreis for that event, as Kreis would be unable to start due to an illness. However, despite no past Championship Car experience, he turned substantially faster practice speeds than Kreis in his first practice session. Lockhart went on to set the one-lap qualifying record in his first qualifying attempt until a cut tire caused him to crash. After a mechanical failure during the second qualifying session, Lockhart played it very safe to get a time into the field in the third qualifying session, which forced him to start only 20th. However, he moved up to FIFTH on lap 5 and ultimately dominated the race winning the rain-shortened event by two laps. He won the pole the following year in 1927, and was even more dominant leading 110 out of 120 laps until a rod failure. However, Lockhart was FAR from only being a threat at Indianapolis. In his other 22 points starts, he won EIGHT of them, all on board tracks (in the era when the schedule was made up of Indy and board tracks only). Most of these races were relatively short in time (even by the standards of today's races), but with THAT level of dominance, who cares? His average percent led in his two seasons is a ridiculous 41.72%, and his points per race an equally ridiculous 48.93, although Lockhart does plummet in terms of average points per race as this was not a great era for competitive depth (probably largely due to Lockhart himself.) However, unlike a lot of '20s drivers who won exclusively on board tracks and maybe had a couple good runs at Indy, Lockhart was even more diverse than that, as he entered five non-championship dirt track races and WON THEM ALL. That would have served him very nicely had he made it to the '30s when the board tracks were all replaced on the schedule by dirt tracks. No doubt he would have continued to dominate since he started at age 23 and was only 25 at the time of his death. He never competed on a road course so we won't know how he would have done on them, but I expect he would have been extremely competitive there as well since he also spent much of his time trying to set land speed records, indicating he was building considerable experience on varying terrains which would have allowed him to be competitive outside the ovals as well. A mere three days after future 500 winner Ray Keech set the world land speed record at Daytona Beach, Lockhart himself made an attempt to break it in his Stutz Black Hawk Special, but cut a tire causing the car to flip and Lockhart to be thrown from it, killing him instantly. While other drivers with extremely short careers like Billy Arnold and Bob Carey were extremely dominant, I think Lockhart is on another freaking LEVEL in this regard and definitely deserves to be remembered as one of the best drivers of the '20s anywhere (I still have Tommy Milton and Jimmy Murphy higher because they had greater longevity, but Lockhart is still amazing.)
Bourdais makes an interesting contrast with Dario Franchitti as both of them won four championships at about the same time, with Franchitti competing against stronger but not all-time strong fields but consistently barely winning titles while Bourdais was FLAT OUT DOMINATING against much weaker fields (but not as weak as they are sometimes considered to be.) After winning the Formula 3000 championship in 2002, a great predictor for Champ Car success in this era, Bourdais was signed to Newman-Haas alongside earlier F3000 champ Bruno Junqueira to replace F1-bound Cristiano da Matta and NASCAR-bound Christian Fittipaldi. However, although Junqueira was expected to lead the team after finishing 2nd to da Matta and moving to the team he had just won the championship with, Bourdais was faster than him from the drop of the green flag becoming the first driver to win the pole for his first race since Nigel Mansell in 2003 and only failed to win his first two races due to his team's bad pit strategy. Bourdais won in his 4th and 5th start both in May on a European swing on both the Brands Hatch road course and the Lausitzring oval, then added a third win at Cleveland. He was the only person who came close to champion Paul Tracy on speed that year, but still had a wildly inconsistent rookie season which allowed the more experienced but much less dominant Junqueira and Michel Jourdain to beat him in points. Nonetheless, he worked out the kinks in the following season becoming the Boring Invicible Hero/perennial favorite of the series from 2004-2007, a status Franchitti never quite had even when HE won 4 straight titles. Bourdais would pretty much win half the races in every remaining season. The 2004 title was fairly close with Junqueira only finishing a race behind but considering they were teammates, Bourdais's 7-2 win advantage is staggering. After Junqueira's injury in a crash in the Indy 500 (where Bourdais was running in the top five in his IRL debut until crashing with 2 laps remaining), Bourdais essentially had no competition left in the series (although Justin Wilson certainly would have provided him some in remotely comparable equipment, considering Wilson's inferior A.J. Allmendinger came SOMEWHAT close to matching Bourdais in 2006.) Bourdais became the first driver to win four straight titles in IndyCar racing, and while you can quibble about the competition all you want (and it was below average), it was in all those seasons still comparable to the IRL competition, with the Champ Car World Series actually being deeper in 2007, the final year before the split ended. Despite the lack of ovals in Champ Car at the time, Bourdais was no less dominant on them, winning at all three oval venues (Lausitzring, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas), not to mention becoming the last open wheel driver to win an IROC race at Texas in 2005 in only his 2nd IROC start. After his reign of terror ended, Bourdais moved to Formula One in 2008 with the Scuderia Toro Rosso team, where he was quickly considered damaged goods because he was thoroughly beaten by his teammate...who turned out to be Sebastian Vettel who would later go on to win four straight championships, so I think that's forgivable now. Bourdais spent some time in sports car racing and Superleague Formula and was still winning before making his IndyCar return in 2011 scoring four 6th place finishes for Dale Coyne Racing (not quite as good as what Wilson was doing for them, but still quite good.) In 2012, he landed what was originally supposed to be a full-season ride with Jay Penske's Dragon Racing team before becoming road courses only, but their Lotus engines at the start of the season were completely uncompetitive (50 horsepower slower than the Chevrolets and Hondas) and the team was poorly managed and in a massive shambles collapsing at the end of 2013. Considering the team would never win a race with anyone, Bourdais still had some spectacular runs, including three street course podiums in 2013, a late-race battle for the lead with Charlie Kimball at his last race at Dragon at Fontana, and most amazingly, a top ten finish with the DREADFUL Lotus engine at Barber where he passed defending three-time champion Franchitti late in the race for the 9th spot despite having 50 fewer horsepower. That gives an idea of the talent he still has. Moving to the slightly stronger but still not great KV Racing, he got top ten points finishes both in 2014 and 2015 and a total of three wins, matching the total of all the team's other drivers combined in their entire history (and considering that includes FOUR full-time champions: Jimmy Vasser, Cristiano da Matta, Tony Kanaan, and Will Power, it says a lot that Bourdais BY HIMSELF matched all their drivers in all their years for the team in wins in only two years.) His win in what was likely the last Milwaukee race was particularly spectacular as he at one moment had the field lapped and managed to make a green-flag pit stop without losing the lead (although his car was found illegal slightly afterward which diminishes the accomplishment.) Although I don't think he's as good as he was ten years ago, I think he is STILL proving enough that he STILL belongs with one of the Big Three teams and it really is a pity he's stuck at KV even at this point, with inferior drivers at Penske, Ganassi, AND Andretti. Few drivers dominated like he did in his prime, few drivers came back after a several-year absence and continued to contend, and few drivers managed three wins for a team like KV Racing in only two seasons. My only problem is the relative lack of competition in the Champ Car years, but even that's overblown a little, and I think ultimately, his sheer dominance there is preferable to Franchitti's more incidental or lucky dominance, even though Franchitti competed against better fields.
There is a case to be made that Bettenhausen is the greatest dirt driver in IndyCar history. He is 3rd all time in dirt wins behind A.J. Foyt and Ted Horn, who are tied with 24, and his 12 poles are second ever to Rex Mays's 15, and he started more dirt races than any other driver ever. The fact that his TNL and CRL are greater than his number of wins indicates that this likely even underestimates his dominance in dirt races. In the period he was a regular from late 1946 to 1951, he won a staggering 17 of those, particularly in 1951, when he won 8 of 14 races, which was and remains one of the most dominant seasons in IndyCar history. He had considerable longevity as well winning as early as 1946 and as late 1959 for six different car owners, and considering he very rarely had a steady ride with the same car owner for an entire season (even his dominant 1951, when Lee Wallard won the Indy 500 in the Murrell Belanger car which Bettenhausen used to destroy the field the rest of the season after Wallard's retirement), it's even more impressive that he was able to be that adaptable. However, there are some problems. After his dominant 1951, Bettenhausen decided to retire from full-time competition except for the Indy 500, which he had not yet won, but driving part-time from 1952-57 was not conducive to great success as he would only win three races and lead one other race in this period. In 1958, he returned to full-time competition and got his second straight championship in a full season, but it was not as impressive as he became the first driver to win a championship while failing to win a race, although it is still fairly impressive that he did it for three different teams (Kathryn Wright the first half of the season, John Zink the second half of the season, and Jones & Maley at Indianapolis.) However, when you compare what Bettenhausen was doing compared to what Jud Larson was previously doing in the dirt races for Zink, Larson was more impressive and Bettenhausen had seemed to have lost his edge despite winning a title. He did manage to win two races in 1959 for two different teams including FINALLY a pavement win at Trenton for Pete Salemi's team, but was largely uncompetitive in 1960 before dying in a practice crash in his best friend Paul Russo's car. Much as in the case of drivers like Dan Wheldon and Bill Cummings, I think Bettenhausen was not likely to have a great deal of success afterward however. I had him in the top twenty almost consistently since there is a case he was the best dirt driver ever, but he really was a one-trick pony, as he was ONLY good on dirt. His Indy 500 record was not very good (he did manage a 2nd and two 4th place finishes but that is in a lot of starts, and he only led one race), and his pavement record in general wasn't great (his one win at Trenton was even rain-shortened and less lasted than an hour.) When you get up this high in the rankings, versatility becomes more and more important and there are only two drivers I consider to be one-trick ponies I put higher than this (Dan Gurney and Horn, but both of them were better able to contend outside road courses and dirt tracks respectively, and both of them posted better Indy 500 records in fewer starts, and in my opinion dominated their principal discipline by an even greater margin than Bettenhausen dominated his.)
Jones was one of the most amazing drivers at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1960s and is highly regarded by every observer in that time for his versatility in terms of being competitive in any type of car, as he went on to win three USAC sprint championships, a USAC stock car championship, 4 NASCAR Cup races, 25 midget wins including 2 Turkey Night Grands Prix, a Baja 500, and 7 Trans-Am wins. It is certainly one of the most diverse careers ever, but this is just about his IndyCar career, and as far as that goes, he was excellent, but not that extraordinary considering he ran nearly full-time for five whole seasons from 1960-64 and did average a win a year but never finished better than 3rd in points and finished outside the top five three times. Granted, he was admittedly going up against A.J. Foyt in his absolute heyday, and that is a comparison nobody is going to win, but I don't see him as ever being really close, and he did drive for the Agajanian team for almost all his competitive starts, and they had been winning rather regularly dating back to the early '50s (although it was struggling a bit before Jones's arrival and he did instantly improve it, to his credit.) Jones was notorious for being a very unlucky driver, as is evidenced by him having 12 terminal natural leads to 6 wins, which definitely means he was more significant than indicated by his win total (as his 12 poles also indicates). Despite only having six wins and competing in an era when all races were on ovals, his versatility was still impressive as he won at five different tracks (Indianapolis, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Trenton, and the Indiana State Fairgrounds). However, it was at Indy where Jones truly shined as he led over half the race three times despite only winning once. In 1962, he won and the led 120 laps before fading to a 7th place finish. In 1963, he thoroughly dominated the race but it was not without controversy as he had an oil leak in the late stages of the race but USAC refused to black-flag him even after another driver crashed in the oil he left on the track. Many observers felt that USAC did not want to hand the win to a foreign driver, soon-to-be Formula One champion Jim Clark, who was running second and would have inherited the lead (this is one of the reasons I think putting Clark exactly one position higher is very fitting.) Regardless, whether you feel Jones actually deserved to win that race or not, he certainly deserved one when considering his overall career, particularly the brutal way he lost the 1967 event. Leaving the Agajanian team to do a one-off in Andy Granatelli's innovative and very fast but unreliable turbine, Jones scored an even more dominant run leading 171 of 196 laps before a $6 bearing broke on his car with 3 laps remaining; this would be his final start. He also went on to an extremely successful career as a car owner, winning the 1970-71 Indy 500s and the 1970 championship with Al Unser along with back-to-back championships in 1971-72 with Joe Leonard. Jones definitely had one of the most well-rounded and interesting careers in IndyCar history, but I don't think I can go much higher than this (even though I imagine most people would) because he really didn't pose any significant threat to Foyt over the general schedule in that period (and Rodger Ward did the best job of that, not Jones.) However, when considering all the different disciplines of motorsport where he has won, very few match him in that regard.
I had misery deciding what to do with all the Grand Prix drivers who cherry-picked a handful of extracurricular IndyCar races to enter outside the Formula One schedule. Obviously almost any Formula One championship contender is going to be better on road courses and better in general than the vast majority of IndyCar drivers ever. In the '60s almost every F1 star crossed over to compete in the Indy 500 (and occasional NASCAR drivers as well), which in that era had a much bigger payday than anything else in motorsports. Most of these F1 drivers are probably objectively better than the majority of drivers I included on this list, or would have been had they run full schedules in the US (although who knows what they would have done on ovals outside Indianapolis, as Jim Rathmann easily handled the F1 talent in the non-championship races at the Monza oval in 1958.) The IMS Hall of Fame has great respect for the F1 talent having inducted Jack Brabham, Clark, Graham Hill, and Jackie Stewart, but how important are their careers from an IndyCar perspective? Are they too big to ignore? Well, one of my early decisions was that I was going to include winners only (okay, Ralph Mulford officially did not win a race, but he won numerous AAA-sanctioned races, so still counts in my opinion) and that is one way to ignore great crossover drivers who didn't win. Another decision I made was to generally leave the Grand Prix talents off (including Tazio Nuvolari and Bernd Rosemeyer, two of the 1930s Grand Prix greats, who won the 1936-37 Vanderbilt Cup races), because they had short careers with frequently dominant cars, mostly didn't win, and all but one of them won only once, not to mention that it would be insulting to put somebody like Jackie Stewart on a list and to put him in the bottom half around Eddie Sachs or something as if I'm implying Stewart is in the same league when he is obviously much more important but just didn't have much of a career in the States. However, Clark is the one exception. I felt there was no way I could justify leaving him off of this list, as his career was very different and much more impressive than any of the other F1 crossovers. In his rookie season in 1963, he finished 2nd to Parnelli Jones, and arguably should have won (if not for Jones's oil leak). He won the pole in 1964 before a suspension failure. He thoroughly dominated the 1965 race leading 190 of 200 laps, the first Indy 500 won by a rear-engine formula car, which would win every race ever since thoroughly displacing the roadsters and sprint cars of earlier Indy 500 eras. He earned another 2nd place in 1966 losing to fellow F1 driver Hill after leading 66 laps, but the win is disputed to this day and many people think one of Clark's laps wasn't counted and he actually won that race as well, although Clark's Team Lotus car owner Colin Chapman decided not to file an appeal. Despite only making five starts at Indianapolis, he won once and has some kind of arguable claim to three, not to mention that he did all this while winning the 1963 and 1965 Formula One titles simultaneously and posting some of the most dominant results in F1 (compare to Mario Andretti's IndyCar results when he was racing in F1 simultaneously in the '70s, and Andretti doesn't come close.) Unlike other F1 drivers, Clark competed in races outside Indianapolis too, and also won from the pole at Milwaukee in 1963 (leading every lap) and won the pole at Trenton that same year and led every lap until a mechanical failure. Given Clark's oval dominance stateside and his road course dominance in F1, Clark would have presumably been able to handle any era of IndyCar racing had he chosen to be an IndyCar driver. Many people including a very thorough statistical analysis by F1metrics consider Clark the greatest F1 driver ever. I don't think I can ignore him, but do I put him in first place to settle the Andretti/A.J. Foyt argument by arguing he was the best overall driver to make a start, or do I penalize him just because he only cherry-picked a very small handful of starts here and did not run the entire schedule? I ultimately chose to do the latter. Had he chosen to be a full-time IndyCar driver instead of a full-time F1 driver, he'd stand a very good shot at topping this list as well (although it's worth noting Foyt actually did win more races than him within his number of starts.) However, he didn't, so it doesn't make sense to put him up THAT high when he was just dabbling in the US. I figure placing him around drivers like Bill Vukovich and Jones who were similarly extremely dominant at Indianapolis but in their two cases not having a whole lot else makes sense (although I will be making a slightly different decision for Juan Pablo Montoya since he DID compete here full-time and ranking him higher, although I don't begin to pretend that Montoya is as important to overall racing as Clark, who died in a Formula Two race in 1968 at Hockenheim as the all-time F1 win leader.)
Vukovich definitely has a claim as the greatest Indy 500 driver in history. He only ever made five Indianapolis starts, but was the TNL in FOUR of them. Only three drivers EVER were the TNL in four different Indy 500s, and it's not necessarily who you think. It's Al Unser, Ralph DePalma, and Vukovich. A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears did not do it despite their four wins, so they were a bit luckier at Indianapolis while DePalma and Vukovich were certainly much less lucky. Although Vukovich's rookie season of 1951 was not particularly great, he broke out in a big way in the 1952 Indy 500 when he led 150 laps until breaking a steering linkage with nine laps to go handing the lead and the win to Troy Ruttman (amazingly, Vukovich despite his steering failure also managed to avoid crashing.) He had no such issues in 1953, when he had one of the most dominant wins ever, winning from the pole and leading 195 laps, nor in 1954, when he led a mere 90 laps en route to victory. After successfully out-dueling one of his closest Indy rivals Jack McGrath in 1955, he seemed to be headed for more of the same leading 50 of the first 56 laps until being caught up in a fatal pileup while leading. Al Keller spun out, collecting Johnny Boyd, who spun directly in front of Vukovich. When Vukovich and Boyd made contact, Vukovich's car went airborne, flipped upside down, and caught on fire, and Vukovich was killed instantly, ending what may have been the best Indy 500 career in history, and he might have easily beaten A.J. Foyt to four wins. However, his other races outside Indianapolis weren't so hot. While he did win two dirt races for the Agajanian team in 1952 at Detroit and Denver (after he replaced Ruttman who was badly injured not long after his 500 win), he was maddeningly inconsistent in his other starts, as two third place finishes in addition to the four wins were his only top fives in 22 starts, and he failed to finish 12 of the other races. Regardless, while I don't enjoy lists that simply reward people for Indy 500 performance and ignore everything else, this is one case where the Indy 500 performance is so extremely amazing that I will let it ALMOST overshadow the lack of what he did elsewhere, but the top 20 is largely made up of drivers with greater longevity and versatility in their dominance. Although most of these drivers don't have a 500 record that matches Vukovich's, I think the overall profiles do, but Vukovich's Indy 500 profile is easily enough that he definitely deserves a very high spot, regardless of not being #1 in rank vs. contemporaries, his very low points per race, and so on.