In one of the most befuddling careers of the 1950s, Parsons was one of the most dominant drivers of his time and an extremely versatile one as well, as his eleven victories were split among ten different tracks and four different team owners. However, he was a pretty horrific qualifier and that must be taken into account as well, as he failed to qualify 23 times versus only 61 starts with only one pole despite having some of the most dominant equipment out there. While the '50s did have unusual depth in the championship races outside Indianapolis and stars missed the show more frequently than in any other period, even the other drivers who had periods of dominance but many DNQs usually had more explanation than this, as Sam Hanks and Eddie Sachs had many DNQs when they were in weaker equipment but fewer when they were at their peak, but Parsons's career was so bipolar that he managed to win the Indy 500 in dominant fashion and qualify in only six of his twelve attempts that year. I've never seen quite any record like this and I struggle to decide what to do with it. Parsons had an extremely fast start in late 1948 with the Frank Kurtis/Ed Walsh owned Kurtis Kraft team with a win and two 2nds in five 1948 starts, which was the first team to develop a dominant roadster chassis (Kurtis is often credited with coming up with the term roadster for this kind of car as well), then went on to win five races on dirt on different tracks and earn a 2nd place finish at Indianapolis in 1949 to take the championship (that was the only season he regularly competed where he had no DNQs.) In 1950, Parsons continued his dominance with the now part-time factory Kurtis Kraft team owned exclusively by Ed Walsh in the Indy 500 where he led 115 of a rain-shortened 138 laps and lapped the field, including 2nd and 3rd Bill Holland and Mauri Rose, winners of the last three 500s. He also dominated a race at Darlington in Paul Russo's car in the season finale, but switching from team to team in between he failed to qualify six times (and usually in independent Kurtis-Kraft chassis, so while he no longer had the factory Kurtis-Kraft equipment, one figures he probably should have qualified for those races as well.) In 1951, Parsons had steady sponsorship from Wynn's Friction Proofing which he seems to have brought to several teams to race (although I struggled figuring out which car owner he drove for in each race, since most records just indicated the sponsor and not the owner), but he did win the last two races of the season at Phoenix and Bay Meadows, and added another win at Phoenix one year later in 1952 leading only the last lap for Joe Ricketts, which would be his final win. To his credit, Parsons did manage to qualify for a few races for Milt Marion, for whom Bob Sweikert failed to qualify for multiple times at the Indy 500. He had a brief resurgence with the powerhouse Agajanian team in 1956-57 late in his career where he earned a 4th at Indianapolis and two other third place finishes but even in this period he failed to qualify twice. Ultimately, I don't know what to say here. While he was unfortunate compared to a lot of Indy 500 winners that he had to switch teams so often, the only time he was remotely consistent was when he was the primary Kurtis-Kraft factory driver in a period when they had the edge over the competition. While he was capable of random good runs and finishes throughout his career, he was also capable more than most of his peers of failing to qualify for marquee teams, but he was also incredibly versatile winning on dirt and pavement when many drivers did not, and only winning on one repeat track in his eleven wins, and he did do better than many of his contemporaries when he had weak equipment and made the race. Ultimately, I think he had way too many DNQs to seriously think about for the top 50 even though the rest of his record would probably indicate that, so this seems reasonable.
Initially one of the most popular hard luck favorites of the split period before he finally broke through at the Indy 500 late in his career, Kanaan was clearly one of the very best oval racers of the second half of the CART/IRL split period although his road course results were usually slightly above average but never great. He emerged in the incredibly deep 1997 Indy Lights season when he won the championship by 4 points over his teammate, rival, best friend, and fellow Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves. The 3rd place points finisher Cristiano da Matta would also go on to a CART championship, but Kanaan was the only driver of the three to win both a 500 and a title. Kanaan and Castroneves both moved up to CART in 1998 with Kanaan winning ROTY largely because he had the superior chassis/engine/tire package. He did improve on all the past Tasman Racing drivers in terms of consistency (including Adrián Fernández, who I listed) en route to a 9th place points finish. Tasman merged into the stronger but not great Forsythe Racing operation where Kanaan joined new teammates Greg Moore and Patrick Carpentier. He had a big intrateam advantage though as he kept his dominant Honda engine while they were stuck with inferior Mercedes engines. Despite that, Moore led the team posthumously with a 10th place points finish, barely beating Kanaan's 11th place finish. Kanaan managed two big moments that season when he won the pole for the Grand Prix of Long Beach and dominated until he crashed while leading and a come-from-behind win at Michigan when he inherited the lead after Max Papis ran out of fuel in the final turn. For 2000, Kanaan moved again to the new Mo Nunn Racing team managed by the ex-Ganassi engineer who dominated from 1996-98 with Alex Zanardi. That season was an injury-shortened write-off, but 2001 was much better as he was joined by new teammate Zanardi and thoroughly dominated him all season long a mere 3 years after Zanardi dominated everyone else, not to mention that this came against the deepest regular-season field in IndyCar history. Kanaan factored for the win in multiple oval races but was generally snakebitten by pit cycles that year. After Zanardi lost his legs at Lausitzring in 2001, Nunn dropped to one car for 2002 as he transitioned to an IRL-only entry for 2003. Kanaan made his Indy debut and crashed while leading, which was similar to how most of his CART season went as well, as he blew an engine at Motegi while battling for the lead, crashed on a Miami street course while leading, and lost a Mexico City race he dominated due to a botched pit stop. While he was very unlucky to not win in 2001-02, it indicated a potential yet to be tapped. In 2003, Michael Andretti finally gave Kanaan his big break. Having purchased the powerhouse Team KOOL Green, he replaced Paul Tracy as the team moved to the IRL (since Tracy had no interest in going there after feeling he had been robbed of the 2002 Indy 500.) It was there that Kanaan finally developed the consistency many fans expected, and because he was always much stronger on ovals, the fact that the IRL was an all-oval schedule at the time also played to his strengths. Kanaan won a race and finished 4th in points in 2003 and was a championship contender all season, but really stepped up his game in 2004 as Andretti-Green's Honda engines were supremely dominant relative to Penske and Ganassi's Toyotas, as Kanaan finished on the lead lap in every 2004 race (something nobody else has ever done) en route to a dominant championship. In 2005, teammate Dan Wheldon took over the team and series after finishing 2nd in 2004, essentially trading places with Kanaan as both drivers seriously dominated Dario Franchitti who had not yet mastered ovals as well. Kanaan would also go on to win the most races in 2007, more than even teammate Franchitti, who won the championship, but he essentially sacrificed his potential to help his close friend Franchitti by blocking for him when he had a damaged wing at Sonoma and not trying to pass. However, after Franchitti left Andretti-Green for 2008, combined with the much deeper road racing field that emerged from the Champ Car/IndyCar merger, Kanaan was suddenly rendered irrelevant. He was offered Wheldon's #10 Ganassi car for 2009 but turned it down, which was probably a bad mistake as Franchitti went on to the next three titles in it. Forced to lead a team by himself alongside Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, and Hideki Mutoh, he faltered considerably and had a serious dry spell, even finishing a couple points behind Patrick in 2009. His long time sponsor 7-Eleven dropped sponsorship of him in 2010 ending his stint with Andretti, and he was now stuck at the much weaker KV Racing, where he did impressively managed a 5th place points finish in 2011 but did little else until he finally got his long-overdue Indy 500 win after many years of misery (particularly 2007, where he dominated the race until pitting shortly before rain ended it.) After the CART teams returned to Indy in 2000, he was one of only three drivers to win the race outside the Penske/Ganassi/Andretti powerhouses (along with Buddy Rice in 2004 and Dan Wheldon in 2011) but in some regards Kanaan might have been more impressive since he didn't seem to have the speed Rice's Rahal team or Wheldon's Herta/Schmidt team had during the month, not to mention his win came in both the fastest 500 and most competitive in terms of lead changes (although since it was such a crapshoot, I can fully understand criticizing this performance, although given his general Indy record, his vast oval experience that certainly did help him to time that pass correctly after being burned in the previous year's restart in 2012, and the fact that Sébastien Bourdais hasn't come close to matching Kanaan at Indy for KV since he arrived there, I am still rather impressed, and he made his pass on track at speed unlike Wheldon, and against a full-strength field unlike Rice.) However, there's no getting around the fact that his career plummeted when the series merged again (and his current Ganassi stint especially has been pretty weak) and that his dominance was pretty much reducible to ovals only against diluted split fields. However, I place him over his contemporaries like Wheldon and Sam Hornish with similar profiles because he had higher adjusted wins/adjusted points per race due to the stronger CART fields and post-split fields he did compete against, I consider his Indy 500 win to be the most impressive, he at least managed 2 road/street wins while the others managed less, but it's close and I could see arguing those three in any order.
Keech made only eleven starts in a period lasting only two years from 1927-1929 and failed to finish four of them, but what he did in the other seven was staggering. In the summer of 1928, he was on fire with three wins in 1928 sweeping the two dirt events that year at Detroit and Syracuse and also winning a board track race at Salem, New Hampshire, along with a non-championship race at Atlantic City. The following year, he won a duel at the Indy 500 with defending and eventual three-time winner Louis Meyer (who admittedly was the TNL for the race, so Keech did not pass him on track), but was killed a mere 16 days later while only 29 at the Altoona board track. The wooden board tracks were considered the most dangerous of all tracks at the time, even over Indianapolis and the dirt ovals, and had a nasty death toll before they were eventually discontinued not long after Keech's death. Although Keech himself was afraid of entering that particular race before it started, he thoroughly dominated it until swerving to avoid Bob Robinson, who spun out to himself avoid a hole in the wooden surface. He was thrown from his car and was run over as other drivers did not have time to react, dying instantly. Keech's pursuits were not limited to IndyCar races, as he set the world land speed record of 207.55 on April 22, 1928 at the Daytona Beach/Road Course, becoming the only Indy 500 winner to do so, although his record had been broken three months prior to his death. His incredible versatility including his world speed record and wins on brick, board, and dirt surfaces indicate there was likely no limit to his potential, particularly considering the early 1930s was not one of the deepest periods for talent. Although he never quite got a championship, he did narrowly finish second to Meyer in 1928 and finished second posthumously in 1929 because Indy counted so much in the championship at the time, and he likely would have stood a very good shot at winning multiple Indy 500s and championships after that, but we will never know.
In one of the cruelest twists of fate in recent IndyCar history, Moore was killed in the 1999 CART season finale at Fontana in one of the most horrific crashes of the last fifty years at the extremely young age of 24 the race before he was set to move to Roger Penske's team where he very likely would have gone on to win multiple Indy 500s and IRL championships. Moore was one of the most explosive talents of the period particularly on ovals, and it was noticed early. At age 20 in 1995, he had the most dominant season in Indy Lights history winning ten of twelve races on all kinds of tracks to cruise to an easy championship after previously sweeping up the mile ovals at Phoenix, Loudon, and Nazareth as an owner driver in Indy Lights the previous year. He replaced Teo Fabi at Forsythe Racing in 1996, a second-tier powerhouse that had brought Jacques Villeneuve to prominence two years earlier alongside Barry Green, but when Forsythe and Green split their operation in 1995, Green's was clearly faster and Forsythe's fell behind somewhat. Moore won 3 podiums in his rookie season and finished 9th in points; while his good finishes were mostly on road courses that season, he was clearly even then primarily an oval master, but he was already to some degree overshadowed and forgotten when compared to the even more explosive Alex Zanardi, who dominated the second half of the season en route to 3rd in points. In retrospect, I don't even know if Zanardi was better, but his equipment was *so* much better than what Moore had that made all the difference. Forsythe made the decision to switch from Ford to Mercedes engines in 1997, which turned out to be a very prescient one as Mercedes had an astonishingly good season that year, and Moore was rewarded with back-to-back victories at Milwaukee and Detroit (the latter being his only road/street victory), but he fell from legitimate championship contention with 7 of 8 DNFs to end the season and fell to 7th in points. 1998 was very similar as he was one of the leading championship contenders to start the season 7 DNFs in 9 races (including 5 crashes) basically kept him from posing any challenge to Zanardi. However, Mercedes's engine program was failing miserably at the time and Moore did give the engine plant their last three IndyCar victories in 1998-99, and in the vintage Ganassi heyday of 1996-2000 Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, and Juan Pablo Montoya they were only passed on track for the win three times. Michael Andretti passed Zanardi at Homestead in 1998, and Moore passed Zanardi at Rio de Janeiro and Vasser at Michigan to win both of his races that season. He did not luck into them, but used good strategy to carry his inferior cars to victories. Unfortunately, he was still young and did drive over his head far too often (his 30 DNFs and 13 crash DNFs are a bit too much for a driver who had that short a career), but him being responsible for two of the three instances of passing Ganassi cars for the win in an engine nobody else was close to winning with is supremely impressive. In 1999, he and Patrick Carpentier were joined by Tony Kanaan who kept his Honda engine, and although Honda was much better than Mercedes, Moore did beat Kanaan in points, won the opening race at Homestead from the pole, and started out the season again as a title contender as in 1997 and 1998 before once again struggling with many DNFs in the second half of the season, but this time most of them weren't crashes. Unfortunately, the one that counted the most was. The day before the season-ending Halloween Fontana race, Greg Moore suffered a hand injury after falling off a scooter and missed qualifying, forcing him to start in the back. After wearing a hand brace, he was allowed to start, although one can obviously question that in retrospect. Just like Dan Wheldon's death 12 years later, it was a recipe for disaster if seen after the fact, as the closer racing resulting from the Handford device had already proven itself unusually dangerous as the device intended to lower speeds ended up backfiring and increasing speeds due to the increased drafting while also bunching up the cars together more. With Moore aggressively slicing through the pack early, he spun out on the ninth lap, accelerated through an infield grass section, went airborne, and crashed into the infield retaining wall nearly at full speed helmet-first. He was killed instantly. While this race had a lot of parallels with Wheldon's, one big difference is that Wheldon probably didn't have a lot of wins left in him and was entering an Andretti team that was no longer at its peak, while Moore was still progressing and on the obvious fringe of superstardom when signed by Penske. Although I definitely think Gil de Ferran was a better road racer and probably still would have gone on to win the 2000-01 CART titles, when the team moved to the IRL, that would have played right into Moore's hands as there is a strong case he was the BEST oval driver (either side) of the late '90s, and there is no doubt in my mind he was a better oval driver than Hélio Castroneves, who ended up winning three Indy 500s. If Moore had followed Penske along to the IRL and all else had been the same, he would have almost certainly gotten the IRL title that eluded Castroneves and might have even challenged Rick Mears's Indy record, but we will never know, and it was cruel that split politics prevented the possible best oval driver at the time from ever getting a chance to win at Indy. Moore was flawed as he was exceedingly crash prone throughout his career, but he compensated for that by winning races and passing faster cars that nobody should have been able to pass. In his life he was a CART hardliner and said that he never had interest in competing in the IRL, but at the time of his death, lots of CART drivers were still saying that before they eventually became IRL full-timers so I have no idea how Moore's career would have gone (or even if the balance of power in the split might have been different if Moore had lived, as CART may have been less inclined to let the high-speed ovals go without that crash.) I don't think he was quite good enough on road courses to win a CART or fully-merged series championship, but I'm definitely more impressed with him than other oval specialists like Kanaan, Wheldon, and Sam Hornish.
DePaolo is primarily renowned as the first driver to win the Indy 500 with an average speed greater than 100 mph, but that reduces the importance of his career altogether too much. DePaolo and Frank Lockhart thoroughly dominated the AAA Champ Car tour from 1925-27 (Lockhart was actually significantly more dominant, but did not enter as many races as his championship opposition in 1926 and was unlucky at Indianapolis in 1927 causing him to lose both titles). The era was not particularly diverse and was particularly equipment-centric which are two reasons I don't put DePaolo higher than this. DePaolo competed in an era when the only races were the Indy 500 and a series of wooden board races and he had almost his entire success on board tracks, but what success: 9 wins and 25 top 5s in 47 races, and while many of the board races were short sprints lasting less than a half hour, all but one of DePaolo's wins came in a race that lasted more than an hour, which makes him look more impressive than some of his rivals who won in the shorter board track races more often. Unlike other dominant board track drivers like Bennett Hill, DePaolo proved his diversity as best he could by winning at Indy, and his record there was solid in general with a 5th in 1926 and a 6th in 1924 in addition to his dominant win. As a couple of interesting footnotes, he is believed to be the only driver to lead laps at Indy as both a riding mechanic (riding alongside his even more dominant uncle Ralph DePalma) and as a driver himself and he also succeeded as a car owner later winning the Indy 500 with Kelly Petillo in 1935 and much later owning the factory Ford NASCAR operation DePaolo Engineering in the mid '50s winning 21 races with most of the stars of the day before Ford abruptly withdrew its factory backing in 1957 when the Automobile Manufacturers Association recommended car manufacturers cut down their motorsports participation. DePaolo's IndyCar career was effectively cut short when he flipped his car three times and was thrown from the car in qualifying in 1928 and his career in general after he lapsed into a coma after a crash in Spain in 1934 (however he managed to survive both of these and lived to a good long age of 82). I think his overall career in general is more interesting than his career as an IndyCar driver, but his career as a driver alone is certainly worthy of placement on his list.
Sullivan became one of the biggest IndyCar stars of the late '80s and early '90s and put up tremendous numbers in this period but I honestly think of him similarly to Hélio Castroneves, who had very good longevity and versatility in a shallow period for Penske with minimal success outside the Penske team, but just as with Castroneves, his relative importance compared to other drivers of his time was overblown due to his equipment advantage, his luck within the races themselves, and his crossover celebrity status. While Sullivan battled for race wins and championships among many all-time legends like the Andrettis, the Unsers, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, and Emerson Fittipaldi, and Castroneves really has nothing equivalent to that, he did post more Indy 500 wins, many more total wins, and significantly greater longevity, so he will be in the next ten. One thing Sullivan did have that Castroneves did not is that he did prove he could win for teams other than Penske, just not very often. After a mediocre 1983 season in Formula One with the mediocre Tyrrell team (although his teammate Michele Alboreto actually managed to win), Sullivan became a full-time CART driver for Shierson Racing in 1984 and won three races on three different track types: a road course (Cleveland), a high-speed oval (Pocono), and a short track (Sanair), improving considerably on his predecessor Howdy Holmes (but Al Unser, Jr. would actually fight for the following year's title in the car which Sullivan did not). Regardless, his 1984 overachievement got him a full-season Penske ride in 1985 but despite his famous Indy 500 win where he spun while leading directly in front of Mario Andretti, did a 360, and saved the car before passing Andretti shortly thereafter to win, his results in 1985-87 were not really that awe-inspiring for that era of Penske (he even went winless and finished 9th in points in '87.) However, in 1988, he exploded to an absurd level of dominance that in retrospect was far above his actual ability, winning nine poles and four races in a season where the new Chevrolet-Ilmor engine package suddenly became so dominant almost all other engine manufacturers were not even close to being in contention for wins. Race after race through 1991 only about six or seven cars had any legitimate shot at winning (all Chevies) and this was probably the most dire period for competition in CART until the 2002-03 period when the marquee teams left for the IRL. It does not say a lot that Sullivan suddenly sprinted to a dominant championship after years of being good, not great by Penske standards against this crummy era where only a handful of cars could win and the powerhouse owners like Penske and Newman-Haas could effectively DECIDE which car owners got access to the superior Chevy engine leases. Considering he had one of the few competitive cars, his 7th and 6th place finishes in the points in 1989 and 1990 (even though he had multi-win seasons) were pretty bad, and he had very few natural wins where he passed the winner on-track (his TNL comes out a little better, but there is still a significant difference between his total of 17 wins and his 12 TNL, implying that he was in general very lucky probably solely due to the strength of his Penske cars, even though he only got top five points finishes in three of his six Penske seasons.) Next he moved to the once-dominant Patrick Racing which was experimenting with an inferior Alfa Romeo engine and Sullivan did a credible job finishing 11th in points, and he did win once on a street course in 1992 and 1993 for Galles Racing, finishing 7th and 12th in points but that did not come close to what Unser, Jr. was doing that time (including winning the Indy 500 in '92), and considering Sullivan spun out Unser to win at Long Beach in 1992, it looks even more hollow. The spin-and-win is truly legendary, and his 1988 was good (but greatly aided by the shocking decline in competitive depth that began in this period), but overall, Sullivan had an overrated career. Probably the main reason he is so fondly remembered is because he was considered a heartthrob of the day and crossed over to a level of mainstream celebrity that the greatly superior drivers of his day did not, appearing in an episode of the trendy but fading cop show franchise Miami Vice. Much like Castroneves's appearances on Dancing with the Stars, it probably introduced many people who would never watch an IndyCar race to the sport, but as with Castroneves, when the TV appearances largely begin to overshadow career accomplishments, how great are the career accomplishments?
Easily the unluckiest driver of the last quarter century of IndyCar racing (I would have said Bruno Junqueira a few years ago, but he is still with us), Wilson was easily one of the top five drivers of the last decade but won't be remembered that way because in a very long 12-year career he was never given a truly legitimate shot to compete. Forget the very low looking rank vs. contemporaries of 7 and adjusted points per race of 22.36 and take a look at his TNL total of 13. In thirteen of his 174 races (nearly 10 percent) he was the last driver to take the lead on track and he almost invariably did this in weaker cars than the stronger cars he had to battle for the wins. Wilson like many recent stars won the Formula 3000 championship (beating among others Mark Webber and Sébastien Bourdais), and like most F3000 champions, he ended up flaming out in Formula One but doing exceptionally well on this side of the pond. To be fair, nobody was really competitive for the Minardi team ever, and his 6 foot height was considered a deterrent to the greater F1 teams of that era. He wouldn't have gotten an F1 ride at all if he hadn't come up with the clever idea of selling shares of stock in himself to raise money for his racing career, but clearly that was unsustainable and he moved to the generally-uncompetitive Conquest Racing in Champ Car for 2004. Although Wilson was overshadowed by his future teammate A.J. Allmendinger for ROTY in 2004, he joined Allmendinger's RuSPORT team and instantly took it over in 2005 (even though the team was built around Allmendinger). Wilson claimed his first two wins and was incredibly consistent being beaten only by the two greatly superior Newman-Haas cars in the championship, despite driving for a team that had never won a race (or would win a race) without him. Wilson moved up to 2nd in points in 2006; although he was nowhere close to being able to compete with Bourdais (who had a much stronger car), he still won at Edmonton and was extremely impressive in general, particularly considering that Allmendinger was fired from RuSPORT early in the season and went on to win five out of eight races after being hired by the Forsythe team, but no matter. Wilson still beat Allmendinger in points (even though Allmendinger clearly had superior equipment), and beat Paul Tracy in the other Forsythe car and Junqueira in the other Newman-Haas car as well. He finished 2nd in points again in 2007 (still not close to Bourdais, but still in much worse equipment, and still beating several drivers in the championship who had stronger equipment.) After Bourdais went to Formula One in 2008, Wilson was named as his replacement and finally seemed to be getting his break, but unfortunately, Champ Car and IRL merged that year and he was behind the 8-ball again as Newman-Haas now had to catch up to Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti, which had several more years experience in the series (and they never would, particularly falling apart after Paul Newman's death at the end of the year.) Wilson still won a race in the merged series at Detroit in 2008, was the 2nd highest finishing Champ Car driver in points to the much more experienced oval driver Oriol Servià and the 2nd highest rookie in points to Hideki Mutoh, in much greater equipment. Despite Wilson thoroughly dominating his teammate Graham Rahal, Newman-Haas dropped him due to lack of sponsorship and kept Rahal probably for his marketability (and Rahal has indeed proven unusually good at finding sponsors in this sponsor-dry era, admittedly), but now Wilson was faced with the even more daunting prospect of driving for Dale Coyne Racing in a fully-merged series, a historical backmarker that had never won a race in 20 years of nearly constant competition, and had just had a terrible season with a very talented driver in Junqueira in 2008. No matter. He passed Ryan Briscoe at Watkins Glen to win in dominant fashion despite having a car that realistically had no chance of winning, and won a tiebreaker over Dan Wheldon in points for 9th, who had a mediocre but better Panther Racing car. Wilson was the only driver not for Penske and Ganassi to win a race ALL SEASON and he did it in what is usually one of the worst cars on the grid. From this point on, everybody wondered what can this guy do to get a top-tier ride? For whatever reason, Penske and Ganassi and Andretti just remained uninterested while each of them held on to much worse drivers. Some of it likely came down to contracts, as the established IRL teams had their drivers under contract so there was minimal room for the CCWS talents to go (the merger might have been better and more of a real merger if they'd had some sort of expansion draft in 2008 or something along those lines), so Wilson got stuck hopping from lousy team to lousy team. Returning to Coyne in 2012 after two years at Dreyer & Reinbold, he won again this time on an oval in Texas (when Coyne rarely if ever has the speed to win on hgh-speed ovals), and got a 6th place points finish the following year in 2013. Finally, Wilson got his first major shot with Andretti Autosport in his final year in 2015, but typically for him, it came in a year that Andretti was having maybe its worst performance ever at the time he was hired. His setup knowledge still was probably felt in Ryan Hunter-Reay's two late season wins and he still managed a 2nd place at Mid-Ohio (in a race I feel he easily could have taken the win if he had wanted to, but he let Rahal have it after nearly completing the pass since he was driving a Honda and Rahal was providing Honda's only championship threat for the title that year.) Sadly, three weeks later, he was killed in one of the biggest freak incidents in IndyCar history when Sage Karam (another driver who had no business being in a Ganassi car before Wilson, but is not as talentless as some people make him out to be) crashed while leading and his nosecone flew into the air and landed on Wilson's head at high velocity, knocking him out and eventually leading to his death the following day. Numerous drivers inferior to Wilson got infinitely more opportunities than they deserved while this championship-caliber, Indy 500 winning-caliber driver (his 5th and two 7ths are really impressive for the teams he was with), never did in a rather long career. It is one of the greater tragedies of IndyCar racing. Even Greg Moore got better breaks than this.
Probably the most underrated driver in IndyCar history and I do not say that lightly, Winn is hardly any sort of household names to IndyCar fans but he should be. I admit when I started this list I had barely heard of him but as I looked up more and more I was unbelievably impressed. The record doesn't look that outstanding on the surface: 4 wins in 14 starts (although that's a great percentage), 2 cumulative races led, a period of poor competition, a peak championship finish of 5th, and only winning on dirt tracks, but that does not scratch the surface for what Winn accomplished. Because the series has always been Indy-centric and the championship in Winn's heyday of the 1930s was strongly geared towards Indianapolis results because Indy carried so many more points than the dirt track races that made up the rest of the schedule, his career is ignored because he was not very successful at Indy. However, four wins is a lot for the '30s when most seasons had only about 3-6 races, and the same goes for his TNL. More impressively, in the ten races Winn did not win, they were ALL won by different drivers. That's right; Winn won four times as many races as any other driver within his starts and that's impressive and very few drivers on this list can match that. Yes, they were all wins on dirt, but he was considered a very close rival to Ted Horn and Rex Mays in the '30s in both sprint cars and championship cars (and although Horn and Mays would go on to regularly dominate the championships in the '40s, Winn had a much better record than them in Champ Car races in the '30s.) However, what is overwhelmingly most impressive about Winn's career is something that doesn't show up so obviously in the stats. After a long absence, road racing returned to the Champ Car schedule in 1936 and 1937 (a single race in 1934 won by Kelly Petillo was the only road course race between 1920 and this period, and there would not be another until 1965.) The famous Vanderbilt Cup race matching the best European and American racing talent was reintroduced after a 20-year absence at the Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, NY, and these two races were among the deepest races ever held in IndyCar history. The 1936 race, won by Tazio Nuvolari, the best Grand Prix driver of the pre-Formula One era, featured 45 cars, greater than any other race in the history of American open wheel racing, and Winn qualified SECOND. SECOND. This is all the more remarkable considering the European drivers brought their more advanced equipment and had considerable experience road racing, which the American drivers did not. Winn brought a sprint car with one gear and minimal brakes to Westbury and still qualified 2nd and hung on to it for quite a while as well, holding off future Formula One champion Nino Farina for 3rd with next to no road racing experience until he was taken out by a mechanical problem. His ability to dirt-track road racing corners despite almost no past road racing experience astonished the Europeans and allowed him to somehow keep up with them, and he did in 1937 as well. Winn qualified a mere 7th in 1937 but in the opening laps he PASSED Farina and Nuvolari, the defending race winner, to move into 5th before an early transmission failure (although admittedly Mays was easily the fastest of the American drivers that year.) Regardless, for a driver with next to no road racing experience to take a sprint car and pass some of the greatest Grand Prix drivers ever in their superior equipment is incredibly astonishing. Add to that the fact that he won four times as many races as any other driver in the races he started, and I am not kidding when I say he is the most underrated IndyCar driver ever. His Indy 500 record itself wasn't that stellar with a top ten finish and three DNFs in four starts and he failed to qualify twice, which keeps me from going even higher, but man, his dirt track and road racing ability would have allowed him to be competitive in almost any decade from the 1930s on (aside from the 1970s which was almost exclusively paved ovals), and that's something I don't think a lot of drivers of his era can say. I can't take him over Horn or Mays though because they had much more longevity to their careers and much better Indy records while also dominating on dirt, and they didn't run badly in the Vanderbilt Cup races either, just not as well as Winn. Winn was killed at the mere age of 28 in a non-points Champ Car race in Springfield after a tire failure caused him to flip. If he had been given more time to figure out pavement and Indy in particular, he might have been a best of the decade kind of driver.
Although he became the first driver to win three races in a row in the IRL, the only driver to take control of a championship battle from Tony Stewart (I don't think NASCAR in 2009 counts as the chase nullified his advantage), won an Indy 500, and then proved his versatility in different kinds of cars by winning the most races in CART in 2001, I think Bräck is a little undervalued lately. He dominated the 1996 Formula 3000 season but despite winning the season finale at Hockenheim on track, he was disqualified for dangerous driving, which handed Jörg Muller the title. With no interest from F1 team owners, he made the surprising decision to quietly enter the Indy Racing League in 1997 for the once-powerhouse Galles Racing, where he replaced the injured Davy Jones, who finished 2nd in the previous year's Indy 500. With no oval experience, it was a real learning experience for him as he crashed in three of his first four races including his rookie Indy 500 on the pace lap, but he quietly improved throughout the season and was actually the TNL at the Loudon race although probably nobody noticed since he only took the lead briefly during a commercial break. Regardless, A.J. Foyt saw potential and his team was the chief rival to Team Menard for supremacy in the early years of the IRL. What's funny though is despite how dominant the Foyt cars regularly were in the races and especially qualifying (where a driver as mediocre as Billy Boat managed to win 6 poles in 1998), Bräck was the only driver who actually won multiple races for them after Foyt's retirement, still to this day. Weak IRL competition or not, I still say that's impressive. He strongly contended to win the Indy 500 in 1998 until he was taken out by running out of fuel mid-race and losing two laps, and he never really got an opportunity to make them up; Foyt was so angry at the fuel miscalculations that he smashed his laptop. After nearly everyone had conceded the championship to Stewart, Bräck quietly won three races in a row to take control, which he would not relinquish. His 1999 did not go as well, as Menard actually arguably IMPROVED with Greg Ray, a driver who is now the butt of jokes (if you were wondering why Stewart is not on the list, this is why), and Ray managed to dominate the season (on the rare occasions he finished), but his dominance was enough to overcome Bräck's marginally greater consistency. Bräck, who had already won the IRL title, instead had his eyes on the big prize, which he claimed, winning the Indy 500 and pretty much dominating it after Arie Luyendyk crashed while leading and then Ray crashed while leading in the pits on the same caution, although Robby Gordon gave him a scare by nearly being able to stretch his fuel mileage to the finish until running out of gas with two laps remaining. Considering Bräck's earlier road racing experience and his recent oval dominance, Bräck was in serious demand for CART rides at this point, and he signed with another former Indy 500-winning car owner Bobby Rahal in CART in 2000. Despite the massive difference in equipment between the IRL naturally aspirated engines and the CART turbocharged engines, not to mention switching from an all-road course schedule in European road racing to an all-oval schedule in IRL to a roughly 50/50 split in CART, he adapted quickly and finished 4th in points in his rookie CART season for Rahal in 2000 claiming rookie of the year, and he was one of the very few drivers to finish in the top five in points in a CART ROTY campaign. His 2001 was even better as he dominated the season's oval races winning four out of eight of them and led 50 or more laps in all but one of them. Despite mediocre road course performances, he still led the points standings for most of the season, but the turning point would obviously come at the race at Rockingham where Gil de Ferran passed Bräck on the last lap after Bräck passed de Ferran on the previous lap. Bräck still led the points at that point, but de Ferran had clearly won the mental game at that point, and with primarily road courses remaining, he even managed to clinch before the finale. Nonetheless, Bräck had made a statement that year and considering that was the most competitive year in IndyCar history, that is very impressive. What is strange is what happened after that. When de Ferran and the Penske team switched to the IRL in 2002 and Bräck went to Ganassi, most people expected him to be the championship favorite, but he was a total bust winning only one race at Mexico City (only after Tony Kanaan had a botched pit stop) and finishing 6th in points (but he was nowhere near that competitive for most of the season, and was blown out by Bruno Junqueira all year). In 2003, he returned to Rahal now in the IRL and did even worse until being badly injured in a crash with Tomas Scheckter at the season finale at Texas, where he survived the highest G-forces in a crash known to date. Buddy Rice replaced him and instantly rewarded the team with a 3-win season including the Indy 500 until a practice crash at Indy ruined the rest of his career in 2005; he was replaced by Bräck, who made a one-off return and set the fastest qualifying speed in the field but retired due to a mechanical problem. All in all, it's strange given his vast road course experience that he was not more competitive on them (although he did win once and was on pace to win a few more) and it feels like he never completed the career arc it seemed like he was headed for, but he did manage to give both A.J. Foyt and Bobby Rahal (to this day) their best seasons since they retired as drivers, and he managed to be the perhaps the most dominant oval driver of a four year period (1998-2001) despite not having quite the best cars.
Sweikert, like many drivers on this portion of the list, died young in a sprint car crash at age 30 at the Salem Speedway in 1956, but before that he proved to be one of the most impressive drivers of the mid-1950s as despite only four wins he managed to win both on dirt and pavement for three different teams, and he got the first wins for two different teams that would go on to be fairly long-lasting powerhouses. He made his first statement by winning the pole at Milwaukee in 1952 for little known car owner Bob Saratoff, but it's worth noting that the career winless Cliff Griffith did so at Raleigh in the team's previous race as well. However, unlike Griffith, Sweikert led his race and it came in only his third start. That led him to land a ride for Al Dean's Dean Van Lines team in 1953 that would be arguably the dominant IndyCar team for the next 15 years, as they would win three titles with Jimmy Bryan and two with Mario Andretti, not to mention giving Andretti AND A.J. Foyt AND Sweikert their first full-time seasons, but it was Sweikert who got the first win for the team in dominant fashion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in the Hoosier Hundred. Although he would only last at the team for one year as Bryan would take over for him the following season and win the title, it says a lot for Sweikert that he helped build the brand-new fledgling team up to put them in the position to dominate with Bryan in later seasons. The following year he moved to the Lutes Truck Parts Special team and won at the Syracuse Mile while again winning at ISF, but it was 1955 with the John Zink team that Sweikert became a star. Despite starting 14th in the Indy 500, he came back to dominate the second half of the race after Bill Vukovich's fatal crash. While it is almost certain Sweikert would have had nothing for Vukovich and Jack McGrath had either one finished the race, he still managed to finish when they did not to claim his first win on pavement, and his surefire consistency after that including six straight top fives followng his Indianapolis win including a flag-to-flag win at Syracuse gave him a nearly insurmountable points lead as he became the first driver since Wilbur Shaw in 1939 to actually win the Indy 500 in the championship in the same season, and he lifted the Zink team (which had had a few years with minimal success prior to Sweikert's domination in the car) just as he had the Dean team. Zink's team would not go on to as long-lasting success, but the later drivers failed to win on both pavement and dirt, unlike Sweikert. Pat Flaherty repeated Sweikert's Indy 500 win in 1956 but was terrible on pavement; Jud Larson was perhaps even more dominant on dirt than Sweikert was, but was abysmal on pavement. Sweikert's versatility as he seemed to be just entering his prime would have allowed him to likely challenge Rodger Ward and Foyt's dominance in later years, and this is yet another case of 'what could have been', but I am more impressed with his case than a lot of them since few if any drivers managed to bring two unheralded teams to prominence in a mere three-year full-time career.