Although the 1920s did not have very great track diversity or competitive depth relative to many other eras, Hartz was certainly one of the greatest standouts of his era, particularly in his 1926 championship season when he earned five of his seven career victories. It is rather hard to compare the mid-1920s period to a lot of other periods because it generally consisted of the Indy 500 and all other races being held on wooden board tracks (the cookie-cutter speedways of the era.) The board track era did inflate a lot of drivers' win totals because in many seasons, AAA would sanction numerous races at the same board track on the same weekend (usually a series of heats followed by a slightly longer but still not very long feature race, which all count equally on the IndyCar win list to this day), and these races usually had fewer cars entered than most other periods. For instance in Hartz's breakout season of 1922, there were seven races held in Beverly Hills (five on the same day), and in Hartz's championship season, there were nine races held in Charlotte and five held in Atlantic City. Hartz did earn four of his wins in races of 150 miles or longer, which is good for that period. Those races are at least similar to the lengths of oval races in later decades, particularly when you consider that the cars were slower, but admittedly only three of his wins lasted for more than an hour, which is one of the kinds of reasons I fairly undervalue this period relative to for instance the 1910s which was much more diverse and tended to have much longer races. Another problem with the period is that way too many of the best drivers (Gaston Chevrolet, Joe Boyer, Jimmy Murphy, Frank Lockhart, Ray Keech) died young or otherwise had shortened careers (Pete DePaolo), so the drivers who managed to have somewhat more longevity like Hartz ended up being luckier because they avoided injury longer, but Hartz's career himself was also shortened by injury, as he retired after suffering massive burns in a crash at Rockingham Speedway in Salem, New Hampshire (not to be confused with either the later NASCAR or CART venues). Regardless, Hartz was still among the most dominant drivers of his time winning nearly 10% of his starts even though too many of his starts were against weaker fields over short distances, and he certainly showed the potential for diversity based on his Indianapolis record. At Indy, Hartz is the only driver who has ever finished 2nd three times without winning the race and he had two fourth place finishes in two of his other three starts, which is very impressive, proving that he could get it done against larger fields. He was even the TNL there in his championship season of 1926, where he finished 2nd and in his rookie season in 1922, he was the only driver to provide any real challenge to the winner Murphy, who was the best driver of that decade. While I did leave off other drivers who won exclusively on board tracks (such as Bennett Hill), Hartz easily did enough to still qualify for the list, and criticizing him for his lack of diversity when the era itself lacked diversity (and he was just as good at Indy as he was elsewhere, even if he never won there) would be wrong, and he did manage to BEAT Lockhart for the 1926 title even though Lockhart was more dominant in general and won the Indy 500 that year, which says a lot, since most people (including me) rate Lockhart higher than most other '20s drivers.
Harroun won the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 and he did so without a riding mechanic when all other drivers in the field shared their cars with riding mechanics, instead choosing to use a rear-view mirror, becoming the first driver to do so in a race car, and subsequently retired after winning the race. He remains second all-time on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway win list with eight total wins (including three of the four wins which appeared on ChampCarStats and were considered for this list) but it is a very distant second behind Johnny Aitken whose fifteen wins easily dominate everyone else (I will probably take Harroun's Indy record because he won the 500 and Aitken did not, but overall, I find Aitken's record more impressive.) When you consider that I failed to list Joe Dawson, Harroun's Marmon Wasp teammate, who was similarly one of the most dominant Indy drivers of that era, winning six IMS races including the second 500, I can't rate Harroun THAT much higher just because he won the first one (even though Harroun did beat Dawson in 1911 and was much more dominant in his win than Dawson was in his). All these drivers (Aitken, Harroun, Dawson, and so on) primarily won very short exhibition races (five of Harroun's eight wins were ten miles or less) so they can't carry much weight to an overall list. Besides Harroun's three wins of greater endurance (50 miles, 200 miles, and 500 miles) which were listed on Champ Car Stats his only other win came on a 2-mile dirt track in Atlanta. However, only four cars started the race (admittedly one of them was Aitken, and another was Lewis Strang, also a top driver of the time), two of them failed to finish, and he won by 20 laps over Strang indicating that he was the only driver in the race who did not encounter trouble. While there is some value in that, it's hard to say that race was in any regard really competitive. I'd be more impressed if he had competed and won in some of the endurance road races which had better fields, and that is why I didn't rate him in the top half. Ultimately, he was an oval specialist in an era when quite a few drivers won more races than he did and won both on ovals and road courses. Still, that first Indy 500 obviously does count a lot so I did still rank him over a lot of his contemporaries, but not all of them. There is no question that he was one of the best Indy specialists of his day though.
Few drivers' careers better reflect the importance of perseverance than Hanks. Hanks spent most of his career as an Indianapolis 500 specialist and from 1940-1950 he made five starts at Indianapolis and only one other start elsewhere. Although he had no Indy success in his early career, he did earn a 2nd place finish at the Bay Meadows dirt oval in the 1950 season finale. However, those were not the only races he attempted, as he failed to qualify for quite a few races, but the late '40s-late '50s was definitely the period where it was hardest to qualify for the regular races outside Indianapolis (which were generally restricted to an 18-car field at the time with many more drivers entered at most races, and usually multiple stars actually failing to qualify), not to mention that Hanks was unable to find a steady ride and had to switch from one team to another for race-to-race in this period. Hanks's 2nd place at Bay Meadows did propel him to steadier rides, and he earned three top fives for the Joe Shaheen team in a nine-day span in September 1951, then got his big break with Ed Walsh's Bardahl Oil team where he replaced Johnnie Parsons, who won the last two races of the previous season in 1951. The Walsh team was the factory team using the Kurtis Kraft chassis and Hanks rewarded the team with its first championship in 1953 winning twice at the dirt tracks at Springfield and Milwaukee and finishing in the top five in nine of his eleven starts. He finished 3rd in both Indy 500s in 1952 and 1953 but the following year in 1954 he once again was stuck switching teams from race to race, but won again at DuQuoin for the powerhouse Belanger team before announcing his retirement from full-time competition. However, Hanks still continued to enter at Indianapolis, finishing 2nd in 1956, where he cemented himself as the popular sentimental favorite. He finally won in 1957 in his 12th Indy start (a record that would only later be matched by Tony Kanaan) while driving for George Salih, the chief engineer for Belanger in 1951 when Lee Wallard won the Indy 500 and Tony Bettenhausen won the championship for them. Salih laid the Offenhauser engine in its side to lower the center of gravity of the car, which produced the dominant chassis of the day, but Hanks was certainly equal to it where he led 136 laps and was the TNL. While Salih would repeat the win using the same car with Jimmy Bryan the following year, he had little success afterward, which does say a lot for Hanks. After his Indianapolis win, Hanks retired from IndyCar but still entered a few USAC stock car races afterward, winning one before retiring from racing competition at the end of the season. He went on to become Director of Racing Competition at IMS for over two decades and pace car driver for the first few years after his retirement and remains one of the more fondly remembered drivers of the period. While not the most dominant driver in his time (he did not lead a lot of races), his ability to win on both dirt and pavement was impressive considering how rarely he had a steady ride and how he usually only entered at Indianapolis.
Another popular sentimental favorite from the same general era as Sam Hanks but a few years later, Sachs too had a very slow start jumping from team to team with only four starts from 1950-1955 but 12 DNQs in that period. However, a win at the dangerous Lakewood dirt oval for the very weak Lee Glessner team in 1956 raised his stock considerably. Sachs was certainly lucky as Bob Veith crashed and then Al Keller, who inherited the lead, let Sachs pass on the last lap or did not seriously challenge thinking he was a lap down, but considering that team failed to qualify often over a period of several years and rarely ever managed another top five finish, it is still impressive. A second place for the pretty good but not great Peter Schmidt team at the even more dangerous Langhorne in 1957 also impressed, but Sachs was injured in a midget crash, which required a four-month hospital stay. However, he came back in 1958 with a vengeance and did even better than before winning seven races over the next four seasons for three different teams, winning three times for Schmidt, twice for Walter Meskowski's new Competition Engineering, and three more times from 1960-61 for Al Dean's legendary powerhouse operation, where he actually improved on A.J. Foyt's results for the team in his first two seasons in 1958-59, although both and he and Foyt failed to live up to Jimmy Bryan's results, as Bryan won three championships and finished 2nd in the other season from 1954-57. Sachs was still maddeningly inconsistent as even in his best seasons he continued to fail to qualify (with two DNQs in 1961 even as he finished second in points) and he almost alternated between finishes inside and outside the top ten in this period. However, he did stand out relative to most drivers in his period in terms of winning, as his eight wins gave him an RVC of 3 in his period, and his wins were split perfectly with four wins apiece on both dirt and paved ovals. While he was very diverse in his dirt track wins as he won on four different tracks, all four of his wins on pavement came at Trenton, as he was generally snakebitten at Indy and Milwaukee, but it was not for lack of trying. He started on the front row four times and won the pole in both 1960 and 1961. In 1961 he led Foyt with three laps remaining until he decided to pit with a cut tire rather than to risk a blowout, unlike Jim Rathmann the previous year, who nursed his cut tire to victory. Sachs felt the risk was not worth it, but his desire to continue racing until he won at Indianapolis sadly and ironically led to his death in a fiery crash on the second lap of the 1964 Indy 500 when Dave MacDonald's fiery car slid directly in front of him, causing Sachs's gas tank to also explode. MacDonald would also die in the crash, which along with Jim Hurtubise's fiery crash at Milwaukee the following week, eventually led USAC to switch from gasoline to methanol fuel in subsequent years. It's unclear whether Sachs would have been able to adapt to the front-engine formula car era in 1965 and years following. My guess is not since he had already faded from relevance in 1962 and 1963 (although he did finish 3rd at Indianapolis in the former year), but he was still certainly one of the more underrated drivers of the time, as not many others (probably NO others) replaced Foyt and actually improved the team.
At the time Hornish retired from IRL after the 2007 season to switch to a not very successful but much more lucrative NASCAR career, Hornish was the all-time win leader in the IRL, the only driver to take the lead on the final lap to win the Indy 500, and the only driver to win three championships in the IRL as well. He was probably the best duelist on intermediate cookie-cutter ovals in IndyCar as his side-by-side pack racing ability was truly impressive and while I generally consider that sort of racing a crapshoot that has little to do with skill, he won far too often for it to be solely down to random chance. One would expect him to win half the time in side-by-side photo finish duels if it were truly random and he certainly won much more often than that, usually coming on the good side of most photo finish races. His success was not limited to intermediates, as he did win at Phoenix twice, Richmond twice, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis, but there are still a few major problems that cause me to rank him this low when his surface statistics may suggest a position in or near the top 25. The biggest is that people significantly overrate the level of competition that he faced. He did dominate the 2001 IRL season for the Panther team and won by over two full races, which his predecessor Scott Goodyear never showed the potential of doing, but Buddy Lazier won more races that year and I didn't list him. At Indianapolis, the only race where he faced some of the CART talents, he was a complete non-factor. In 2002, Penske had switched to the IRL full-time but all the other major drivers besides Hornish, Helio Castroneves, and Gil de Ferran were still in CART. Hornish did win the championship again and five races in so doing, which no one expected, but Hornish simply was a better superspeedway duelist than de Ferran, Castroneves, and some other CART stars (in my opinion however these CART stars who didn't win that much less often even on the intermediates but were actually able to compete on road courses were still superior though). By the time many more CART teams and drivers entered in the next few years, Hornish was naturally nowhere near as dominant, although some of his early 2003 runs with inferior Chevrolet engines and his wins at Phoenix and Milwaukee in 2005 in underpowered Toyotas were very impressive. While he definitely stood out on superspeedways relative to the 2001-02 IRL drivers, most of whom weren't elite talents, he didn't stand out so much against Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, or Dan Wheldon when they arrived in this period, and all three of them were better on road courses when they became a more important part of the schedule (although admittedly Kanaan and Wheldon weren't much better.) Hornish's entire period from 2001-07 wasn't very deep, and as the schedule was getting more and more diverse, he was slowly becoming less and less relevant, and I do not think he would have adapted well to the merged field (as Kanaan and Wheldon also fell apart very quickly then). For most of his later seasons there were only about six cars capable of winning and he was in one of them, but the competitive depth of the field on both sides of the split was below average compared to an average season, so that is the main reason I am putting Hornish, Kanaan, and Wheldon lower than you might think. When races are adjusted for the level of competition, Kanaan has more wins and points per race over Wheldon, who is ahead of Hornish, not to mention that they would rank the same way in diversity as well, and Kanaan was far from the best driver of his prime as well. Hornish simply appears as the best driver of his era on the surface because he was the only early IRL driver who managed to survive, but he was matched or exceeded by several other contemporaries in a late-split period that still wasn't very deep and was a little too much of a one-trick pony for me to go much higher. Although he certainly belongs in the tier of modern oval specialists including Kanaan, Wheldon, Kenny Brack, and Greg Moore, all four of them impressed me slightly more when considering diversity, quality of equipment, what they did in deeper fields (Kanaan and Wheldon winning Indy 500s for relatively weak teams after the split ended matters a lot), and the like, so any idea of Hornish as the best driver of his time kind of breaks down, unless you are talking about cookie cutter dueling, where he was probably but not necessarily the best. He did match Castroneves at Penske and won a title and an Indy 500 in that period while Helio did not, but I don't have Helio THAT much higher either. I've also got to say his Indy record is fairly weak apart from his win when you consider his Panther results were terrible even though the team managed to earn four straight 2nd place finishes at Indy later (including with the career-winless Vitor Meira, the 2008 TNL no less, and J.R. Hildebrand in 2011) and Penske won the race with lots of drivers, most of whom won more impressively.
Sneva may have been the first driver to win a championship for Roger Penske and did win the Indy 500 (the last for the legendary Bignotti team), but I don't think he is as important to racing history as that implies on the surface. Mark Donohue is the driver who deserves credit for launching Penske Racing as a major player in almost every form of racing that they both competed in and Rick Mears was in my opinion the driver who actually turned Penske into a powerhouse, not Sneva. A few quick comparisons are very enlightening. Sneva replaced Gary Bettenhausen, a very good driver I narrowly did not list (although I had him on earlier drafts). Bettenhausen had earned two wins in 27 starts for the team from 1972-74 (which included two seasons that were injury-shortened because of crashes in extracurricular sprint car races). Sneva drove 54 starts (exactly twice as many) and only won three times. While he was a lot more consistent than Bettenhausen (as evidenced by his two titles), he wasn't exactly the dominant force that is usually expected from Penske (even Ryan Briscoe had a better winning percentage than that!) In 1978, when Sneva won the championship despite going winless, Rick Mears won three races in a partial season while filling in for Mario Andretti when he had conflicts with his Formula 1 schedule, so Mears won as many races in a partial season as Sneva did in four! As a result, despite Sneva winning back-to-back championships in 1977-78, he was one of the very rare champions to be fired for not winning enough, as Mears instantly became Penske's premier driver in 1979 and years following. Sneva next signed with Jerry O'Connell's Sugaripe Prune team in 1979-1980, where he did do better than his immediate predecessor Wally Dallenbach (who I did not list) in 1978, but his stats were comparable to what Mike Mosley (who I listed lower) did before him in 1975-77 (Mosley had more wins and a higher average percent led for the team, but Sneva was more consistent). There is something to be said for Sneva's consistency, an often-overlooked characteristic of his career because he had more crash DNFs at Indianapolis than any other driver, but he didn't stand out versus other drivers in the same cars all that much and he was not very versatile. He won all three of his races at Penske on superspeedways with the dominant McLaren chassis indicating much of his success came down to the speed of his cars (a similar criticism I would make of Johnny Rutherford, who had a great deal more success, and Roger McCluskey, who had much less, both of whom also benefited tremendously from the McLaren chassis), but when Sneva had truly bad cars (his year with Grant King in 1974) he didn't really stand out. Sneva did finally do better with Bignotti and Teddy Mayer, where he got to stick it to Penske by winning the Indy 500 for Bignotti in 1983 (in an era when Penske won the Indy 500 more often than not), but his six wins for Bignotti in three seasons aren't really much when you consider A.J. Foyt and Al Unser both managed to have 10-win seasons (setting the all-time record for wins in a season with Bignotti as their engineer, excluding the anomalous 1946 season.) In later years, Sneva proved to be a one-mile master winning at Phoenix and Milwaukee repeatedly, but besides those wins and his Indianapolis win and a "street course" win at Caesar's Palace in 1984, which is an anomaly since it was actually an oblique oval in shape (I did count it as a street course for his versatility score though), he won nowhere else. Despite driving most of his career for top teams, his RVC was also a surprisingly low 8 (and I can't really overlook this unlike cases like Arie Luyendyk, Mike Mosley, or Justin Wilson, where most of those drivers careers' were spent outside great equipment.) While he is remembered as one of the top legends of the '70s and '80s (and his consistency and slightly greater versatility does give him a step over the other mile masters like Mosley and Lloyd Ruby), I think he is a second-tier one in the same vein as modern drivers who dominated on ovals in top equipment but were lost on road courses, like the Sam Hornishes of the world, thereby explaining what some may find a surprisingly low placement.
Although now largely forgotten, Thomson had a quietly dominant career that is much more impressive than it looks on the surface. Seven wins in 62 starts is certainly impressive considering he participated in the relatively deep late '50s period. Among this group of ten, only Sam Hanks is ahead of him in terms of adjusted points per race, but Hanks failed to qualify for a lot of races and Thomson almost never did, as he was an especially good qualifier winning 10 poles. Additionally, many drivers in this period were either only good on pavement (Jim Rathmann) or only good on dirt (Jud Larson), while Thomson managed to bridge the gap and show that he could win and dominate on pretty much every track on the schedule at the time, and although he was probably slightly better in dirt races, he definitely did not seem to be losing it as his career went on and the percentage of dirt races on the schedule was starting to decline. Even more impressively, while both of his pavement wins came at the same track (Milwaukee), all five of his dirt wins came at different tracks (Syracuse, Sacramento, Langhorne, DuQuoin, and Springfield), and he led one race start-to-finish in both disciplines (Milwaukee and Syracuse). His Indianapolis record was not quite as good as his record everywhere else, but he still managed a pole and three top five finishes. Thomson spent the majority of his career with the brand new Racing Associates team, where the much-more-hyped Jim Hurtubise would come nowhere close to matching what he did in his four years for the team. Sadly, his career was cut down when he clearly had the potential to win many more races when he died in a USAC Sprint event at the Great Allentown Fair in 1960. Since he was already mastering pavement when many of his peers were not, there is no telling what he might have done done in the subsequent seasons at Indianapolis and on the general schedule. Maybe he would have even challenged A.J. Foyt's dominance! His RVC of 3 is certainly impressive, and even in Thomson's next-to-last start he won a pole at Syracuse in 1960 driving for John Wills, a car owner whose previous driver Jim McWithey qualified 32nd at Indianapolis. Perhaps he had also peaked since he was 38 years old at the time of his death, but I really don't think so, as he was showing no signs of slowing down from previous years in his 1960 season, despite driving for a much worse team after leaving Racing Associates.
Another driver from the pioneering years of American Championship Car racing, Hearne had an extremely long-lasting and diverse career even compared to most of his contemporaries, as he won his first pair of races in 1910 and his last pair in his 1923 championship season, becoming one of the very, very few to win before the Indy 500 started and after World War I ended. Hearne won on four different track types, but mostly dominated on board ovals (where he won seven times), but unlike Harry Hartz, there was more to his career than that. While Hartz is statistically one of the best drivers never to win the Indy 500 (with three 2nd place finishes) and was better in his actual 500 appearances, Hearne still had five finishes of 7th or better at Indianapolis, including a 2nd in 1919, but he failed to lead any of them, so I would give Hartz the advantage here. However, Hearne, unlike Hartz, actually did win at Indianapolis, as he won two of the shorter preliminary races (of 100 and 50 mile distances) in a Benz at Indianapolis in 1910. He also claimed one road course win the following year at Cincinnati in 1911 (in a 3.5 hour race), and a relatively short dirt race at Ascot in 1917. Weirdly, Hearne tended to win his races in doubles, as he won two races in a season five times (in nonconsecutive seasons), one race once (in 1911), and no races any other years, but usually he did win when there were a lot of races for him to win. However, the reason I don't go higher is the career does look very similar to Hartz's except for the diversity at the beginning (and I don't think I should really dock Hartz for solely competing in a period that wasn't diverse, since I imagine he would have been able to win on all the kinds of tracks Hearne did too had he been given the opportunity.) Hearne didn't particularly specialize in short races either, as five of his seven board races lasted more than an hour (so unlike many of his peers who won those races, he was not just winning the short 15 minute photo-finish heats.) One thing that was a little different about his career compared to many of the 1920s drivers is that he survived and had a natural retirement, in an era when many of the legends of the day died young (Gaston Chevrolet, Joe Boyer, Jimmy Murphy, Frank Lockhart, Ray Keech, and so on.) Being able to survive long enough to have a nearly 20 year career was fortunate for him, but just as I should not be going TOO overboard with the 'what could have been' scenarios (although I admit I probably have been doing so), I should not dock Hearne for succeeding for a very long extended period when there is no way of proving some of the 'what could have been' drivers would have done better. Mind you, I still have several of them above him in the list, but they had to show a very extreme dominance in their period (whether that involves facing much deeper fields than Hearne did, raw domination of a season, or in one case, significantly outperforming the quality of equipment) for me to consider this. Hearne is clearly, like most dominant non-Indy 500 winners from the past, one of the most underrated IndyCar drivers and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway knows it as he has been inducted in the IMS HoF despite never leading a lap there.
Rathmann, the younger brother of early NASCAR star Dick Rathmann, had a prodigious start to his racing career. Wanting to start racing at age 16 when it was not allowed, he and his brother switched names with James Rathmann becoming Dick (the NASCAR star) and Royal Richard Rathmann becoming James, and the names stuck, but not without a great deal of confusion to say the least. The move did allow Rathmann to make his first Indy 500 start in 1949 at the age of twenty, extremely young at the time (and it still would be considered so). A mere three years later in 1952, while still a part-time driver, Rathmann finished 2nd at Indianapolis though he failed to lead a lap. Although he never ran anything resembling a full schedule, and he rarely ran dirt races (and frequently failed to qualify and seldom did well when he tried), he still made his mark known by being the MAN on paved ovals from 1957-1960. He earned his second 2nd place driving for Lindsey Hopkins at Indianapolis in 1957, then dominated at Milwaukee later that year. In 1958, he failed to win an official race but did win the pole at Milwaukee and seriously impressed in a series of three non-points races at Monza, Italy where a portion of the famous Formula 1 road course was converted into a makeshift 2.64-mile oval. A tripleheader was held on June 29, 1958 that featured both the top Formula One and IndyCar drivers of the time, with even luminaries like Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, and Phil Hill entered, although some of the F1 drivers failed to start some races. The IndyCar drivers entered included drivers as strong as Jimmy Bryan, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, Troy Ruttman, and Johnny Thomson, so while these races were technically exhibitions, they were probably some of the most impressive IndyCar fields ever. Rathmann won all three races. Admittedly, he was a superspeedway master while likely many of those F1 drivers had never raced on (or set up a car for) an oval before, but in an era when American and foreign talent rarely competed head-to-head, this is an amazing accomplishment, but I have to remark that it's unofficial so I am not considering these races too heavily as a result, but if you wanted to move him up from here based exclusively on those races, I wouldn't argue with you, but I still am rating him this lowly because he did not really show versatility outside the superspeedways (except Milwaukee), and I imagine if you plugged in top F1 drivers with minimal oval experience in IndyCar oval races even today, they'd lose just the same in their first oval starts (unless they had a lot of advance preparation like Nigel Mansell, but I'm assuming that Fangio, Moss, and so on did not do nearly as much testing.) Rathmann next moved on to win at Daytona in 1959, where he won the season-opening USAC race with an average speed of 170.261 mph, easily the fastest race ever held at the time; the brand-new track was so dangerous and unsuitable for IndyCars that George Amick died there and no points races were held there ever again, although there was an exhibition later that day called the Formula Libre race which Rathmann also won, leading brother "Dick" in a 1-2 finish, and added a third 2nd place finish at Indianapolis. Finally, Rathmann cemented his legacy with a dominant win in the Indy 500 in 1960, leading half the race and beating Ward in one of the greatest IndyCar duels of all time. The race set a then-record 30 lead changes at the Indy 500 (a record that would stand until 2012, and Rathmann and Ward would trade the lead solely between themselves FOURTEEN times from lap 96 to the finish. Rathmann earned his well-overdue Indy 500 win after Ward cut a tire with three laps remaining, but even though Rathmann had also cut a tire (less severely), both of them stayed on the track and did not go to the pits to change their tires, and both avoided crashing (unlike Eddie Sachs who played it safe a year later and cost himself the 1961 win.) After Rathmann's 500 win, he didn't do much, failing to finish four of his remaining five races, but what a run he had on the large superspeedways! Unfortunately, by my rules, his Monza sweep and Formula Libre wins (giving him an undefeated 4-0 record in nonpoints races) don't count but obviously still deserved mention, as I made the decision long ago to only count non-points races if they came from years when there was no championship. If you do count those races, push him up another 20 positions or so. Maybe Rathmann was a one-trick pony (paved ovals) but he was one of the best one-trick ponies ever, and despite only counting three wins here, I am still placing him with drivers with more dominant looking and consistent runs and more longevity like Dan Wheldon and Sam Hornish. He certainly deserves at least that.
After earning 2nd place finishes in both of CART's feeder series in 2000 and 2001, Wheldon entered IndyCar racing at an awkward time, as both CART and IRL fields were truncating due to the 2001 recession and the rapid decline in ratings and media attention due to the split with few points of entry for new drivers, but Wheldon was fortunate to get a lifeline from Michael Andretti, who announced Wheldon as his replacement after his retirement from full-time competition after the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Wheldon got to start a bit earlier than he expected when Dario Franchitti was injured in a motorcycle crash and steadily improved throughout the season. Although he rarely led, he finished the season with three straight top five finishes including a third in the season finale at Texas, and broke through very early in the following year in 2004. He was lucky that Andretti Green Racing had a Honda engine because Toyota essentially gave up on its IndyCar program in 2004-05 to prepare for its entry into NASCAR in 2007, which suddenly made Andretti Green the dominant team while Penske was pretty good and not great and Ganassi was horrific. This was a tremendous advantage for all the Andretti Green drivers, and Wheldon certainly made the most of it, winning three times in 2004 on very different ovals (Motegi, Richmond, and Nazareth), and exploding into dominance at the start of the 2005 season when he won four out of five races to start the season (including the first ever IRL road/street course race at St. Petersburg and his first Indianapolis 500, which was sadly overshadowed by Danica Patrick's decent but not spectacular rookie run.) Wheldon cruised to the 2005 championship, winning it by nearly 2 full races, dominating the season like no one since Sam Hornish in 2001 (but against much stronger competition, including Hornish.) Despite only having competed in three top-level road races at the time, he was even the only IRL driver to be seriously discussed for Formula One rides! However, after the Sauber team refused to promise that he would start, he remained in the IRL, moving to the Ganassi team. This seemed like a bad move at the time as Ganassi was so miserable with the lame duck Toyotas in 2005 that Scott Dixon finished 13th in points and only earned one top five finish, but now that Penske and Ganassi were on equal footing with the same spec Hondas Andretti had, Wheldon continued to thrive on oval tracks while Andretti took a hit (particularly because Marco Andretti was not quite an equivalent replacement for Wheldon.) Despite Dixon's past championship, Wheldon was the most dominant driver in 2006, dominating the Indy 500 and having the highest average percent led in the season in general, but in an epic four-way scrap between the two Penske and Ganassi drivers, Wheldon ended up losing the championship to Hornish on a tiebreaker and that might have been the beginning of the end. The cookie cutter ovals that previously dominated the IRL schedule were increasingly replaced by road courses as the big box attendance model of the intermediate superspeedways required purchasing season tickets for all events to attend any event. When NASCAR attendance began falling, this ruined the economic model for IndyCar ovals to this day, and the drivers who thrived in this period, including Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, and Hornish, were suddenly lost, while Dario Franchitti (who Wheldon had easily bested in 2004-05) and Dixon came to the fore, and after a still good season (4th in points with two wins in 2008), Wheldon was fired to make way for Franchitti, who would reward Ganassi with the next three championships. Wheldon was now stuck with Panther Racing, a well-funded but horrifically-managed team that specialized in oval racing from the early days of the IRL, and Wheldon rewarded them with back-to-back 2nd place finishes in 2009-10 (but considering Vitor Meira and J.R. Hildebrand managed to do the same for them in the bookend years, and both of them were career-winless, I'm not sure how impressed to be with that.) Wheldon did contend on other ovals more than Meira had been doing in 2007-08, but he and the team had terrible chemistry as he wanted to leave and Panther wanted to fire him, but neither could find anything better. Most appallingly, John Barnes refused him to pay him despite receiving a sponsorship from the National Guard in excess of $17 million, forcing Wheldon to sue. Now seen as damaged goods, few expected what happened next. Taking a one-off ride at the Indy 500 in 2011 with Bryan Herta's team, a satellite of the rapidly improving but still not great Sam Schmidt team Wheldon actually won, becoming the only driver to lead the last lap of the race after Dixon (who had dominated) ran out of fuel on the next to last lap and Hildebrand (stretching his fuel mileage) crashed on the last lap, allowing Wheldon to stick it to BOTH Ganassi and Panther and finally getting the respect he deserved as an Indy legend after being overshadowed by the Danica show in 2011. Wheldon stayed inactive for most of the season rejecting partial ride offers while waiting for something better (helping to design the new Dallara chassis for 2012 and guesting in the broadcast booth for a few races) and had just signed a return to the former Andretti Green Racing, now renamed Andretti Autosport in 2012, but it was not to be. After Randy Bernard was unable to find sufficient interest for his gimmick to award $5 million to a winner from another discipline of motorsport to enter the season finale at Las Vegas, Wheldon was selected instead and forced to start last regardless of where he qualified. An unusual entry list of 34 cars (since the previous chassis was being retired) combined with the usual pack racing typical on intermediate tracks and many inexperienced drivers created a situation that scared many drivers before the race began, but Bernard, who lacked auto racing experience and seemed to care more about marketing than safety (judging by his Texas random-draw gimmick where drivers drew random starting positions for the 2nd race of the Texas doubleheader, where a previously crashed car drew the 2nd spot), and Brian Barnhart, who had had a recent trend of officiating races more and more incompetently (as evidenced by him starting the cars in the rain at Loudon), were no help, and almost predictably, disaster struck. After Wade Cunningham spun out causing the track to be blocked, Wheldon was left with no place to go and went airborne, leaping over Paul Tracy's car and hitting a pole against the track fencing. He was killed instantly, but was not forgotten as the new IndyCar chassis, the DW12, was unofficially named for him, and did make safety advances over the previous chassis, and IndyCar has mostly gone against the pack racing superspeedway paradigm that dominated most of the early IRL years. As for rating him, I honestly don't think he had a lot of wins left. Much like Kanaan and Hornish were seldom able to compete with the full field after Champ Car and IRL merged the same seemed to be holding true for Wheldon. Wheldon's Indy win for Herta (a team which still has not won since) was amazing, but Kanaan more or less matched it with his KV win two years later and Kanaan hasn't exactly been very dominant in his Ganassi starts to date, and Andretti has been far off Ganassi in recent years. I do think the team might likely be better if Wheldon was still there, but maybe not, as I definitely think James Hinchcliffe is a better road racer and road racing continues to dominate the schedule more and more from year to year as only the road races are selling. However, even though I think Wheldon probably had already won the vast majority of his races, what he did was impressive, but I can't go much higher than this because he was so oval-centric and because he did most of what he did from 2003-07, a period when both sides of the split had very poor competitive depth.