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On-Track Passing in IndyCar Year by Year

by Sean Wrona

Here I pretty much reprise the analysis I previously did regarding on-track passing in NASCAR for the Verizon IndyCar Series. This analysis generally required considerably less hazy guesswork than the NASCAR analysis did since every IRL/IndyCar race to date from 1996 to present is available online, or was at the time I was doing the analysis. To be sure, there are certain judgment calls I have to make determining whether certain passes counted or not, but I generally found that to be a bigger issue during the earlier CART years, when there were lots of instances of drivers passing other drivers with equipment that was steadily breaking down. Equipment was a lot more reliable by this period, even in the early IRL years, so that wasn't much of a problem here and most passes were easier to evaluate. There were also somewhat fewer passes on in-laps or out-laps as occurred in the CART years so there probably weren't as many judgment calls to be made there either. There are certainly some farcical results (such as Bertrand Baguette being scored as the TNL for the 2011 Indy 500, or Tony Kanaan being scored as the TNL for the Sonoma finale in 2015, as a result of passing cars while both were off of pit sequence and weren't exactly race factors) that I may eventually correct for in a future analysis if I ever were to publish this in book form, which I am thinking to do.

I genuinely tried to make my paragraphs shorter because a few people had told me that my paragraphs were so long that the columns were largely unreadable. I tried to do better this time but I think again I failed. I probably should be giving myself a different title than "Managing Editor" if I'm going to struggle so much at self-editing, but I think producing walls of text is an unfortunate consequence of my typing ability, which is what I am most known for online. I'm aware of the issue and I'm going to be trying to do better to fix this and not write too much, but I'm probably going to fail because this is just a hobby and also because it takes me several weeks on and off to write many of these sorts of columns in the first place, even considering my typing skill. At least this time, I did break my analysis of each year into several paragraphs, while in the previous equivalent NASCAR column, I had several absurdly long paragraphs.

1996 | 1996-1997 | 1998 | 1999 | 2000
2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005
2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010
2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015
2016 | 2017 | 2018


Although one can criticize the level of competition in the first few IRL seasons not to mention a three-race season, co-champion Buzz Calkins was likely the overall most impressive driver in the three races that counted towards the 1996 season unless you give substantially more weight to the Indy 500, which would make sense since it had a much larger field and somewhat more depth than the other IRL races. Although Tony Stewart was the only driver to lead two races naturally, he won neither of them and was passed for the lead in the debut race by Calkins. Although Scott Sharp tied for the championship and was listed as co-champion, he was not as impressive as Calkins, although more impressive than his stats made him look as he did have a TNL at Phoenix.

Despite winning the Phoenix race, Arie Luyendyk failed to make an on-track pass for the lead in any of the three races that counted towards the 1996 season. Although he won the Phoenix race from the pole, he made no on-track passes for the lead while he was passed three times, including Sharp's pass for the TNL, and only won the race ultimately because Sharp stalled on a caution flag pit stop. Tony Stewart was the only driver to take the lead on track in two different races, but because he tended to do so early in the race, he ended up having fewer lead shares than Calkins and was only tied with the other two drivers who had TNLs, Sharp and Buddy Lazier. Because this season only had three races, there is little else of interest.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Buzz Calkins11-011110.6670.650
Buddy Lazier11-111010.5000.355
Scott Sharp11-001010.5000.200
Tony Stewart22-100000.5000.460
Robbie Buhl11-000000.3330.105
Davy Jones11-200000.3330.230
Alessandro Zampedri11-100000.1670.100
Roberto Guerrero00-000100.0000.235
Arie Luyendyk00-310100.0000.610


In terms of on-track passing, this season was entirely dominated by Tony Stewart and Arie Luyendyk. While many other drivers had brief flashes of brilliance here and there, no one came even close to the IRL's two biggest stars at the time in on-track dominance. As most of the IRL's teams were very fledgling with relatively inexperienced drivers, almost no one was even close to being consistent at this juncture. Stewart for instance had five DNFs in ten starts in this season, but also led the most laps in seven consecutive races, which no driver had done in any previous IndyCar season since Tony Bettenhausen led the most laps in eight consecutive races in 1951 (excluding the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, where he did not compete.) This drastically overstates how dominant Stewart actually was, as he had only three races where he had the most lead shares, three TNL, and only a single win and a massive difference between his 4.25 cumulative races led and 2.83 lead shares, but he was still in general the most dominant driver in the season by any metric and did deserve his championship more than anyone else did.

Despite not winning the championship, Luyendyk arguably stole more headlines than Stewart in 1997 when he won the Indy 500 leading his Treadway Racing teammate Scott Goodyear in a 1-2 finish, followed by the Texas race two weeks later where he won despite Billy Boat being erroneously scored as the winner because some of the laps in which Luyendyk crossed the start-finish line in the pits weren't counted, leading to A.J. Foyt infamously knocking him down when he protested in victory lane. Luyendyk made an on-track pass for the lead in both of his wins, passing Goodyear at Indy and Stewart at Texas, and even though Luyendyk's Indy 500 win was in part a fuel mileage win, it's hard to say he was not deserving considering his past history there and the fact that he managed to avoid losing control even when Stewart blocked him aggressively into the grass. If Stewart's season was a bit overrated (but still clearly the best), Luyendyk's season was very underrated considering he had 1.833 lead shares despite only 0.596 cumulative races led. He did not finish second in points because he was not as consistent as some other drivers, but he obviously had the second best season.

There were no other real standouts as besides Stewart and Luyendyk, there were different contenders almost every race. No other driver besides Stewart or Luyendyk led more than a single race naturally, so therefore no other drivers had multiple wins, TNL, races in which they led the most laps, or races where they had the most lead shares. It is impressive Kenny Bräck and Scott Sharp tied for third in lead shares even though both of them ran partial seasons, with Sharp missing several races due to injury and Bräck not competing in the IRL until the 1997 season because he was competing in Formula 3000 during the 1996 races. Sharp, who won the first of the 1996 races during this season, began a streak of winning races in seven consecutive seasons, and Bräck would go on to win the championship and the Indy 500 in the next two seasons. It does seem that once again lead shares predict future series success, as I often noticed on the NASCAR lists. Bräck's TNL was barely noticed because he made the only on-track pass for the lead at Loudon during a commercial break on the US broadcast, and then pitted having only led nine laps, but it did likely presage his dominance nonetheless. However, in general, this season was entirely about Stewart and Luyendyk. Davey Hamilton may have finished second in points, but he was massively overrated throughout his entire early IRL career and never really was a remote factor in terms of race wins, finishing an extremely disappointing 14th in lead shares, actually last among all the drivers who led a race naturally.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Tony Stewart33-313732.8334.251
Arie Luyendyk34-322021.8330.596
Kenny Bräck11-001011.0000.194
Scott Sharp11-111011.0000.110
Richie Hearn12-211110.6000.480
Buddy Lazier11-111010.5000.588
Affonso Giaffone11-001010.4000.142
Robby Gordon12-200000.4000.300
Billy Boat11-300000.3330.250
Jim Guthrie11-010000.3330.442
Mark Dismore11-000000.3000.216
Jeff Ward11-000000.2000.442
Jimmy Kite11-000000.1670.053
Davey Hamilton11-200000.1000.024
Eddie Cheever00-010100.0000.451
Scott Goodyear00-100000.0000.199
Eliseo Salazar00-110100.0000.546
Robbie Buhl00-210000.0000.153


Although Tony Stewart failed to defend his IRL title, perhaps because his attempt to regularly compete in the IRL and the NASCAR Busch Series simultaneously distracted him and prevented him from meeting his potential in either, he was still overwhelmingly the most dominant driver in the series, leading nine races naturally when no other driver led more than five. Once again his team seemed to overrate his performance as he led the most laps in four races but only led in lead shares twice. However, it was very slight this year and nowhere near as noticeable as 1997. Just as in 1997, Stewart still arguably had the best season thoroughly dominating in both lead shares, races led, and cumulative races led even though he did not win the championship. However, differentiating between Stewart and eventual champion Kenny Bräck is still difficult because it is clear that Stewart had a huge equipment advantage, considering the very weak champion Greg Ray replaced Stewart and largely matched or even improved on his 1998 results for the Menard team.

Although Bräck won the most races, was the most consistent driver, and was the first driver in IRL history to win three consecutive races, that seems to overrate the actual level of his performance, as he was only fourth in lead shares, only led in lead shares once, and only led the most laps once. If you want to still argue in favor of Bräck, the best argument would be the difference in his equipment strength relative to Stewart. Bräck was driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, which seems that it did not quite have the race pace of the Menard equipment. Although Foyt was considered one of the early IRL powerhouses along with Menard, it's noteworthy that Bräck's teammate Billy Boat only led one race naturally and had a rather poor 6-11 lead change record even though Boat won six consecutive poles. Foyt's dominance in the early IRL is often overstated, because Bräck is actually the only driver to win multiple races for Foyt since Foyt's retirement, even to this day. Additionally, Stewart had Firestone tires while Bräck had Goodyears in an era when the Firestone tires had absurd dominance (although the Goodyears were more competitive in the IRL than they usually were in CART.) Ultimately, I would say Stewart and Bräck probably had fairly even seasons when you consider everything, and I'd probably have to do more research and mathematical modeling to come to a true conclusion for this season.

Although Stewart and Bräck got far more attention than any other drivers in 1998, several others posted quite underrated performances. Jeff Ward was extremely unlucky to not win a race despite leading three different races in lead shares and leading five races naturally, more than any other driver except Stewart. Ward was the TNL at the fall Texas race before running out of fuel and was also the last driver passed by Br&aum;lck in two of his three wins in the three in a row streak. Although Eddie Cheever led only two races naturally - his Indy 500 win and the Phoenix race that preceded it, he was the TNL in both of those carrying him to third in lead shares and perhaps the most underrated season. Although he failed to win a race, Buddy Lazier had the best lead change percentage at 3-1. Making it more impressive for these three drivers, Ward, Cheever, and Lazier all were also on Goodyear tires. Either Stewart was drastically overachieving in his Firestone tires and Goodyear actually had an advantage in the IRL (although Firestone was thoroughly dominating in CART at the time) or all three of these drivers as well as Bräck were massively overachieving despite a tire deficit. I tend to believe the latter. Finally, despite finishing second in the championship again, Davey Hamilton once again finished last in lead shares among the drivers who led naturally, proving he was probably the most overrated IRL driver of this era.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Tony Stewart914-1222422.7032.881
Jeff Ward59-801131.3021.604
Eddie Cheever22-212121.1670.424
Kenny Bräck36-332111.1630.707
Scott Sharp45-321111.1400.905
Buddy Lazier33-101000.9710.694
Billy Boat16-1111110.5610.769
Arie Luyendyk12-310110.5000.583
Greg Ray33-300000.3460.114
Robbie Buhl11-001000.2500.065
Mark Dismore12-100000.2500.303
Scott Goodyear23-300100.2240.744
John Paul, Jr.11-010000.1900.383
Roberto Guerrero11-100000.1670.136
Davey Hamilton11-400000.0670.327
Raul Boesel00-200000.0000.172
Andy Michner00-200000.0000.043


As if Tony Stewart had never left to go to NASCAR, Greg Ray continued the Menard team's absurd dominance in on-track leading, although not quite to the degree that Stewart had. While Stewart led 9 out of 11 races naturally in 1998, Ray led only 6 out of 11 races in 1999, with the main difference being that Stewart was dominant on all ovals and for the most part Ray was only dominant on the superspeedways and a bit weaker on the short ovals (except for Pikes Peak, where he swept), which certainly indicates he was less versatile. However, what Ray's dominance does say (especially since he became a punchline among many fans after crashing in the Indy 500 six times in a four year span from 1999-2002) is that Stewart's IRL career is indeed overrated and pretty much anybody could have won in the Menard cars in those years probably because they were the only well-funded, powerhouse team that used the then-dominant Firestone tires, as Jaques Lazier later proved in 2001 immediately after Ray was fired, and few would have rated Jaques nearly as highly as his brother Buddy at any point (although by then Goodyear had withdrawn from the sport.) Ray may have been assisted by the Menard team dropping from two cars to one allowing him to be the team's entire focus and he did beat Kenny Bräck straight up to win the championship after Stewart had failed to do so. Ray did thoroughly dominate this season by essentially every metric and led every advanced leading statistic except for lead change percentage. Only five future drivers: Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2002, Dan Wheldon in 2005, Will Power in 2010 (even though he lost the championship), Power again in 2014, and Simon Pagenaud in 2016 would follow Ray in leading all these categories in a season. While I think Ray is probably legitimately underrated now, I think this speaks more to the dominance of the Menard equipment and would rather argue that Stewart is overrated while most of the Goodyear runners in this period were probably a bit underrated.

Despite a surprisingly lackluster 1997 and 1998 in terms of on-track leading given his vast CART experience and multiple race wins, Scott Goodyear stepped it up in a major way in 1999 and matched Ray with three races where he led the most laps, only one fewer race led, and the second best lead change percentage at 5-2 among the drivers who led several races. Sam Schmidt took a noticeable step up leading four races as Firestone's leading non-Menard threat. Ray and Schmidt split domination of both Pikes Peak races almost entirely by themselves, likely perhaps indicating a major tire advantage. Eddie Cheever had another fairly underrated seasons as he had twice as many lead shares as cumulative races led. Scott Sharp led the way in lead change percentage with 3-1. Bräck by contrast was fairly disappointing this year other than his Indy 500 with a 5-6 lead change record and actually slightly higher in cumulative races led than in lead shares, but it seems the A.J. Foyt equipment got a lot weaker in 1999 than in 1998 as well, when considering that his teammate Billy Boat went from having six pole positions and a dominant win at Texas to being almost a complete non-factor in 1999. Goodyear, Bräck, Cheever, and Sharp were all more impressive than you might realize because they were on Goodyears, but I continue to reiterate that I do not think the Firestone dominance in the IRL was as much as in CART, although I still think it was there given Ray and Schmidt's performance and how much they struggled in other years.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Greg Ray69-933342.4332.291
Scott Goodyear55-222311.8571.619
Sam Schmidt48-611011.4671.027
Kenny Bräck35-612221.1901.224
Eddie Cheever34-411011.1070.546
Scott Sharp33-111110.6671.036
Mark Dismore34-610100.6110.816
Arie Luyendyk11-200000.2380.315
Jaques Lazier11-100000.1900.159
Buddy Lazier11-000000.1430.024
Donnie Beechler11-000000.0950.130
Billy Boat00-100000.0000.155
Stéphan Gregoire00-200000.0000.153
Robby Unser00-200000.0000.111


With Firestone dropping out of both CART and IRL competition after the 1999 season, there was suddenly incredible parity in the IRL that had never existed prior to this point. Astoundingly, in the nine races that season, the TNL and the lead share leader was different in every single race, and there was only one repeat winner (Buddy Lazier) and two repeat drivers who led the most laps (Al Unser, Jr. and Scott Sharp.) The departures of the dominant series drivers like Arie Luyendyk, Tony Stewart, and Kenny Bräck left a massive power vacuum and it was unclear who would eventually fill it.

Even though he was not a full-season regular, the most dominant driver clearly was Juan Pablo Montoya. There is no question the CART drivers were better than the IRL drivers at this time and despite only entering the Indy 500, he won it and earned TNL, most laps led, and most lead shares as well, placing him an absurd third against the regulars who all drove eight more races than he did. However, over the entire season it seems like the best driver was Lazier, who did manage to pass Montoya's CART teammate Jimmy Vasser for second place at Indy shortly before Vasser ran out of fuel with a few laps remaining. He managed to win twice when nobody else did so, led more races naturally than any other driver as well (albeit tied with Eddie Cheever) and managed to lead a race in lead shares despite not leading the most laps in any race all season. It seems he was clearly punching above the level of his equipment (as it seems he did usually, but his 1997-99 were a bit of a struggle because of his tire deficit to the Firestone teams.)

Although Cheever only finished third in the championship, he actually led in lead shares despite rating only ninth in cumulative races led during this season. His lead share/CRL ratio exceeds 3/1, which is higher than any other such ratio among drivers in any season in IRL IndyCar history who led multiple races in a season (although Arie Luyendyk's 1997 comes very close.) There is something to be said for Cheever and Luyendyk's vast major league open wheel experience that most of the other early IRL drivers lacked that probably indicates why they were more dominant through their own efforts than through the efforts of their teams, because the drivers without CART experience like Tony Stewart and Greg Ray tended to have higher CRLs lead shares indicating their teams were doing more of the work. It's worth remembering that Cheever was an owner-driver and the only successful one in the IRL in these years, which likely indicates why his cumulative races led were so weak (probably because his fledgling owner-driver operation wasn't as strong as some of the more established teams like Menard, Foyt, and Hemelgarn), although alternatively there is the engine factor to consider. Cheever in 1999 and 2000 used the Nissan Infiniti engine in most races while almost all other drivers used Oldsmobiles, and it is possible that this could be the reason he was more dominant in on-track passing than other drivers were. It still does not explain why his passing was greater than his leading, and probably indicates in these years that Cheever was actually underrated despite now being treated by much of the IndyCar fandom like he's the open wheel equipment of Michael Waltrip or something. However, Cheever definitely seemed to significantly fall off after this even after obtaining the marquee Red Bull sponsorship shortly before his retirement.

One key piece of evidence for the idea that the Firestone tires made both Tony Stewart and Greg Ray look better than they were is Ray's sudden decline in this season once all the other drivers had Firestones. Although Ray was still blindingly fast and won six pole positions, including that at the Indy 500, he only took the lead on track in one race and didn't do a good job maintaining it even after winning the pole, only winning one race. At this point it seems clear that his cars were still arguably the fastest (he outqualified Montoya at Indy after all), and his team in general may have been the strongest considering he was still the most dominant driver, but Ray's ranking only 9th in lead shares despite leading in CRL is extremely disappointing essentially making him the anti-Cheever in this season. Despite losing his Penske ride at the end of 1999 and being considered totally washed up, Al Unser, Jr. suddenly looked credible again, which probably says something about the weakness of the IRL fields. Scott Goodyear looks especially disappointing considering his replacement Sam Hornish's dominance in almost all stats over the next two seasons. Robbie Buhl and Eliseo Salazar both posted impressive 3-1 lead change records in a year when honestly few people stood out. I think it's telling that Cheever and Lazier led in lead shares though, considering they would both go on to win IROC races in roughly the same period while none of the other IRL crossover drivers really came close (remember that Kenny Bräck's 2001 IROC season came when he was a CART driver, and Tony Stewart's real IROC success came when he was a NASCAR driver.) Although there is little doubt Cheever and Lazier would not be Indy 500 winners had the split never happened, it does seem both of them are likely over-criticized. Greg Ray's criticism however makes sense as 1999 was the only season where it seemed like he lived up to the dominance of his cars. Although Tony Stewart's NASCAR career is probably actually underrated, I think I conclude based on the general Menard dominance and Stewart only winning three races in spite of that that his IRL career and his non-NASCAR career in general is horrifically overrated.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Eddie Cheever45-411011.4670.459
Buddy Lazier410-1021011.0871.190
Juan Pablo Montoya12-011111.0000.835
Al Unser, Jr.310-810210.9301.062
Scott Goodyear38-811110.8340.638
Robbie Buhl23-111110.5670.585
Airton Daré11-001010.5000.063
Mark Dismore34-700100.4840.762
Greg Ray12-411110.4671.455
Robby McGehee33-200000.4200.148
Eliseo Salazar33-100000.3820.149
Sam Hornish, Jr.13-300000.2670.190
Jaques Lazier12-100010.2670.045
Jimmy Kite11-001000.2000.080
Scott Sharp12-311200.1300.872
Billy Boat00-100000.0000.035
Jimmy Vasser00-100000.0000.025
Jeff Ward00-100000.0000.055
Donnie Beechler00-200000.0000.079
Stéphan Gregoire00-200000.0000.220


This year and the following year mark the beginning of the transitional period of the IRL between being the supposedly all-American oval league that the CART teams all boycotted and a refuge for the ex-CART teams after Honda and Toyota withdrew from CART. This period is generally associated with Sam Hornish, and his dominance in all regards was every bit as impressive as it seemed, even if you can quibble about the quality of the regular fields, and even though Hornish had a history of struggling to get good Indy 500 finishes until his win in 2006. Hornish, who had quietly Although defending champion Buddy Lazier actually led in most categories, earning the highest lead change percentage, one more win, TNL, and race with the most lead shares, Hornish had a slight advantage in lead shares and massive advantage in cumulative races led, and his 24-25 lead change record if anything indicates the excitement he brought to the series, given that he became especially noted for his seemingly never-ending side-by-side duels. While no doubt this was artificially inflated by some of the car specifications designed to induce NASCAR-style pack racing, it's equally clear that arguably no driver took better to this style than did Hornish. Despite not winning the most races, he still won the first two races and the season finale and led the points standings for the entire season, which no one else ever did before or since except for Buzz Calkins in the three-race 1996 season. This is even more impressive considering his predecessor Scott Goodyear won some races but wasn't really one of the leading championship contenders or dominant drivers in his previous years for Panther Racing. While Goodyear did finish second to Buddy Lazier the previous season, Hornish beat Lazier by two full races worth of points due to extraordinary consistency even though Lazier again won the most races this season.

However, while Hornish likely had the best season even though Lazier won the most races, this does likely overstate the difference between the two. Although Hornish nearly doubled Lazier in cumulative races led (3.82 to 1.97), he barely beat him in lead shares (3.10 to 2.87) indicating that Hornish's season although still the best was certainly overrated while Lazier's was certainly underrated. Lazier led as many categories as Hornish did that season even though it seems clear that his cars weren't as fast as Hornish's nor was his team as strong (which says a lot when you consider that he did manage to beat Scott Goodyear in the same cars the year before.) Lazier did seem to look better than his teams most years probably indicating he was largely responsible for Hemelgarn Racing's success himself. It's very telling he had eight wins and eight TNLs even though he only led the most laps in a race once. That means he was unbelievably clutch relative to most of his contemporaries, and that is probably most obvious in this season as he won all four races naturally despite only leading the most laps in the Richmond race he nearly led from start to finish after taking the lead from his polesitter brother Jaques on the opening lap.

It's hard to say anyone else was especially impressive this season from a leading perspective. Greg Ray continued his dominance from 1999 and 2000 and was more responsible for his own dominance in 2001 than in the previous two years, but the only reason he has more TNL, races with the most lead shares, and races where he led the most laps than wins, is because he crashed out of the lead at both the Indy 500 and the Texas race immediately thereafter. If I were to redefine TNL so that passing a crashed car counted as an on-track pass for position, Ray's season would likely look as overrated as it was. Menard got fed up with Ray's crashing and less than two years after his championship season concluded replaced him with Jaques Lazier, who dominated at Chicagoland in only his second start for the team. While Lazier seemed to crash less than Ray, neither of them usually factored much for the win outside the high-speed superspeedways (although to be fair Jaques did win the pole at Richmond in an inferior car, which is probably how he got the Menard ride in the first place), while at least Tony Stewart was dominant on the short ovals as well. Robbie Buhl managed to also have a .600 lead change percentage with a 6-4 record, and fought a ferocious duel with Buddy Lazier at Kentucky, which he lost. Other than that, almost all other drivers disappointed from this perspective, even the CART drivers. While Montoya dominated the 2000 Indy 500 largely through his own efforts, the CART drivers in 2001 generally only took the lead when IRL drivers crashed or there were pit stop exchanges. None of the CART drivers were anywhere near as impressive this time as Montoya had been, and Hélio Castroneves's win in particular looks a lot hollower than a lot of the other wins of the period, as Castroneves cut off Stewart to take the lead in the pits. His teammate Gil de Ferran, who had been leading entering the pits, came out second ahead of Stewart. The IRL ruled Castroneves switching lanes as an illegal pass and ordered him behind Stewart, but for some reason I have yet to understand ordered de Ferran behind Castroneves even though he beat Stewart out of the pits and even though de Ferran committed no violation. This ultimately decided the race for Castroneves and began the massive overrating of Castroneves's entire career. Neither de Ferran nor Castroneves led Indy naturally (Ray was the TNL), but I think de Ferran would have deserved the win more. Ultimately, this year was a lackluster disappointment for a lot of reasons while it was an awesome season for CART, but the entry of the CART drivers full-time in future seasons would obviously shake things up further.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Sam Hornish, Jr.724-2533633.1003.820
Buddy Lazier59-644142.8691.966
Greg Ray37-713232.3611.815
Jaques Lazier29-811110.8410.695
Stéphan Gregoire11-001010.6670.045
Robbie Buhl36-400000.6380.515
Eddie Cheever28-411110.6240.840
Scott Sharp26-910100.5180.830
Jeff Ward22-400000.3670.250
Al Unser, Jr.11-110000.3330.380
Billy Boat11-100000.2670.130
Felipe Giaffone23-500000.2630.255
Donnie Beechler11-100000.1030.020
Airton Daré11-100000.0360.030
Eliseo Salazar11-200000.0130.384
Hélio Castroneves00-010100.0000.280
Mark Dismore00-100000.0000.270
Robby Gordon00-100000.0000.110


After the CART teams and drivers lapped all the IRL drivers in the field in the 2001 Indy 500, most observers expected that Gil de Ferran and Hélio Castroneves would dominate the 2002 IRL schedule particularly after they finished 1-2 in the Indy 500, de Ferran won the CART title, and Castroneves was the most dominant driver in terms of CRL that CART season. Strangely, it didn't happen like that. Instead, Sam Hornish continued his domination and it was seemingly by an even larger margin than Hornish's advantage over Lazier in terms of on-track leading although the Penske drivers were certainly much more consistent than Lazier had been. While de Ferran was obviously a better driver than Hornish overall, and Castroneves arguably was given his versatility (even though Hornish generally dominated Castroneves when they were Penske teammates later), Hornish was probably a better oval driver than both of them were, which led him to easily dominate each category despite the entry of the Penske drivers. Although fellow ex-CART driver Alex Barron had a slightly higher 3-1 lead change percentage, Hornish was involved in so many more passes that it would be easy to make a strong case for him as the best passer of the year anyway with a 31-21 lead change record. Even more than in 2001, Hornish became well known for his side-by-side dueling/pack racing ability and although those races tended to be a crapshoot, he won far more often in photo finishes than one would expect by chance. This era of the IRL probably rewarded dueling for the most and that was a strength for Hornish and a relative weakness for de Ferran and a rather massive weakness for Castroneves, which likely determined this championship even though one would expect that the Penske cars would have been faster than the Panther cars based on their Indy dominance in their 2001 return. While Hornish's 2001 season was arguably overrated, his 2002 was if anything underrated as he had 4.164 lead shares to 3.267 CRL, a fairly large difference.

Although both Penske drivers disappointed relative to expectations in 2002, de Ferran was much more impressive than Castroneves was even if Castroneves beat him in points and won the Indy 500. Castroneves's lead change record of 8-15 for this year is shockingly weak compared to expectations. If you think Paul Tracy's pass against Castroneves should have counted, that would have made it even worse at 8-16, far worse than you would usually expect from a championship contender. Both Penske drivers had slightly overrated seasons with more CRL than lead shares, but de Ferran's was less overrated as his 5-6 lead change record was much better, and he had more TNL than wins and the same number of races with the most laps led and the most lead shares. It's also worth noting that entering the penultimate race of the season, de Ferran was actually leading both Hornish and Castroneves in the points standings until he had his season-ending crash at Chicagoland in spite of being unlucky at Indy (where he outran Castroneves almost all race until a botched final pit stop when he lost a tire.)

Three relatively new drivers made a particular splash this year. Felipe Giaffone had a massively underrated season with 1.822 lead shares and 0.835 CRL. Giaffone's pass of de Ferran was actually the only on-track pass for the lead in that year's Indy 500 giving him an entire lead share for that race, and after Tomas Scheckter's crash Giaffone, de Ferran, and Tracy looked like they were the in best positions to win, but Giaffone was outraged when the lapped Dario Franchitti, Tracy's teammate, intentionally blocked Giaffone's attempt to pass Castroneves to allow Tracy past. It was an especially strange season in general for Giaffone as while he did pass two-time defending CART champion de Ferran to earn a TNL and entire lead share at Indy, and passed de Ferran again at Michigan, he also got passed by the likes of Shigeaki Hattori and Sarah Fisher, neither of whom ever made an on-track pass for the lead in their entire IndyCar careers except against Giaffone. The season in general is puzzling because half the time he looked like a potential championship contender and the other half of the time he looked extremely run of the mill. Having a 2-0 record against a two-time defending CART champion and a 0-1 record against a guy who had his CART license revoked a mere three years prior is definitely one of the strangest profiles I've seen.

Rookie Tomas Scheckter appeared overwhelmingly dominant on the surface leading the most laps in four races, winning at Michigan, and leading the most laps in the Indy 500 as a rookie until his crash. However like Castroneves and unlike Montoya, Scheckter despite leading that race early and often never actually made an on-track pass for the lead. He inherited the lead when Tony Kanaan crashed, but Kanaan himself only took the lead during a pit stop exchange. While Eddie Cheever in the Cheever team's early years seemed to be stronger than his equipment, at this point the rookie Scheckter was nowhere near as strong as his equipment (although still strong for a true rookie) as he had 0.85 lead shares to 2.22 cumulative races led. Although Scheckter led the most laps at Texas, he also won the pole and led going away so he actually did not make an on-track pass for the lead. He did lead two of the other four races he won naturally (Kansas and Michigan) but he only led in lead shares at Kansas as Giaffone led in lead shares at Michigan because he made far more passes for the lead, even though a lot of it came down to Giaffone and Fisher passing and repassing each other. Scheckter would no doubt look better if I somehow counted his leads from the pole at Texas, Kansas, and Michigan as natural, which I haven't been doing, and it is impressive that a driver who qualified that well still had such a great lead change percentage as 8-5, which would definitely be a career strength for Scheckter. In a way, he was more impressive than Castroneves, particularly when you consider his greater experience. He actually had more CRL than Castroneves did although fewer lead shares. However, I'm still inclined to say Scheckter was more responsible for his own dominance than Castroneves was. One might argue that certain poor lead change records from drivers like Castroneves and Ryan Newman can be explained by their strong qualifying efforts (because if a polesitter is passed they start out at 0-1 immediately), but that isn't as much of a big factor as you'd think. Castroneves only won one pole in this season yet still posted a weak lead change record, while Scheckter won three poles and posted a strong one. While there's no doubt strong qualifiers are likely hurt by this statistic since their leading from the pole isn't argued as natural, this is overstated at least in series that race frequently on ovals.

Finally Alex Barron had an especially clutch season with a 3-1 lead change record for a brand new IRL team, Blair Racing, that also crossed over from CART with much less fanfare than the Penske team. His ratio between his 0.729 lead shares and 0.245 CRL was truly exceptional when you consider his cars likely weren't as fast as the Penske cars yet he still posted the best lead change percentage of all with them (although to be fair Airton Daré also earned a 3-1 record and I am not counting that since I am requiring three races led naturally or more to determine which driver had the greatest lead change record.) Barron nearly stole the Indy 500 on fuel mileage until the late cautions and still earned the highest rookie finish in the field. He also hunted down Scott Sharp to win at Nashville, although this was an exceptionally bad year for the IRL's old guard except for Hornish. Scott Sharp and Buddy Lazier after years of steady performance could not really survive the entry of the CART drivers, which makes Hornish's performance look even more impressive. I think it comes down more to Hemelgarn Racing not being as strong of a team as we thought it was when Lazier was contending for championships with them. While I honestly do think Lazier could compete with the CART drivers (as he passed CART winners and champions in the 2000 and 2005 Indy 500s) his team could not. Sharp's decline makes a little less sense since his Kelley Racing teammate Al Unser, Jr. was much more dominant than he was despite having become a heavy alcoholic and facing a mid-season arrest for domestic battery charges resulting in him missing two races. This season definitely reflected a changing of the guard, and by 2004 the IRL would look completely different than in 2001 with the entry of several of the other CART teams.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Sam Hornish, Jr.931-2156554.1643.267
Gil de Ferran55-623332.6332.669
Felipe Giaffone37-711121.8220.835
Hélio Castroneves58-1521211.3811.726
Tomas Scheckter38-511410.8542.215
Al Unser, Jr.38-1200000.7710.970
Alex Barron33-111010.7290.245
Airton Daré23-111000.7290.090
Jeff Ward22-211010.4020.155
Jaques Lazier18-700010.3650.225
Eddie Cheever18-1000000.3050.325
Sarah Fisher12-200000.2670.150
Shigeaki Hattori11-000000.2000.140
Eliseo Salazar11-000000.2000.035
Scott Sharp11-210000.1000.562
Buddy Lazier11-100000.0670.015
Buddy Rice11-100000.0110.185
Will Langhorne00-100000.0000.045
Robby McGehee00-100000.0000.065
Vitor Meira00-100000.0000.040
Billy Boat00-200000.0000.242


In 2003, the IRL looked suddenly different than it had any year in the past with the entry of Honda and Toyota resulting in the full-time addition of Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing, effectively marking the beginnings of the modern IndyCar period. The earlier IRL stars all faltered at this point with the exception of Sam Hornish, while Hornish's Panther team was really the only team that was not in CART in 2001 that remained competitive at all, and even he struggled with very slow cars in the first half of the season until the IRL allowed the Chevy teams to badge an ex-Ford Cosworth engine as a Chevy in the latter races of the season, leading Hornish to dominate several of the later races of the season.

However, it was the Ganassi team that made the biggest splash when it crossed to full-time competition, and an even bigger splash than the Penske team had done the year before. Scott Dixon, despite failing to win a race in 2002 where he started with PacWest Racing before switching to Ganassi after PacWest went out of business mid-season, was retained and transferred to the IRL in 2003 alongside teammate Tomas Scheckter. Dixon was certainly the most dominant driver of that season leading all categories but lead change record, and impressively setting a record for consecutive laps led in the IRL and doing so across three separate races by leading an entire rain shortened Richmond race, winning the previous race at Pikes Peak, and starting on the pole and leading early at Kansas. While I think Castroneves's poor lead change records reflect more than the strength of his qualifying, I think Dixon's may not. Dixon won five poles in 2003 and there was suddenly much less passing this year than there had been in some previous IRL seasons, indicating that Dixon's strong qualifying probably makes his lead change record look worse than his actual performance. The fact that he still has more lead shares than cumulative races led implies that his season at any rate isn't particularly overrated. He clearly deserved this championship by all accounts.

Tomas Scheckter managed to match his teammate with eight races led and post a better lead change record but still continued his reputation for crashing and not winning as often as his dominance would imply, causing him to be fired by Ganassi at season's end. Regardless, Scheckter was much more dominant and more responsible for his own dominance in 2003 than he had been in 2002, although for the second consecutive year he led the most laps in four races despite only earning the most lead shares in one. This clearly seems to indicate that he was stronger early in the race than he was late, which makes sense considering how often he crashed and also because he did tend to also have absurd bad luck in this season. I do think he probably shouldn't have been fired since he did come closer than it would appear based on the raw stats to Dixon's dominance and also led the most laps at the Indy 500 for the second year in a row no less (this time leading entirely naturally.)

Although Penske teammates Gil de Ferran and Hélio Castroneves were essentially tied in cumulative races led, de Ferran was far more impressive this time, posting the best lead change percentage of any driver at 7-3, tying Dixon and Hornish for most wins, scoring the highest average points per race in 2003 (as he missed a race due to injury but only lost to Dixon by 18 points), and showing consistent performance in all categories with three wins, TNL, races leading the most laps, and races with the most lead shares. His lead shares and CRL are essentially equivalent as well. Castroneves on the other hand was even worse than he looked. Despite winning two races, he won neither of them naturally, and despite leading the most laps twice, he never had the most lead shares either. His 4-9 record is abysmal given his reputation and he had three times as many CRL as lead shares. This general trend was most obvious at the 2003 Indy 500, when de Ferran passed Castroneves for the win, proving in my mind beyond the shadow of a doubt that de Ferran was better when they were teammates, even though Castroneves is much more hyped now. Honestly, de Ferran outran Castroneves in all three Indy 500s when they were teammates from 2001-03 but Castroneves won 2001 because de Ferran was ordered behind him due to a bad pit call and de Ferran probably would have likewise beat him in 2002 had he not had a botched final pit stop. Yet I suspect the general public would rate Castroneves higher solely because he won more 500s even though de Ferran's Indy 500 win was arguably more impressive than any of Castroneves's (only his 2009 win was truly impressive.) Or perhaps that he gained more fame via Dancing with the Stars and the like.

Castroneves's countryman Tony Kanaan on the other hand was a lot more impressive. Although Kanaan merely was intended as a replacement for Paul Tracy at the Andretti-Green team after Michael Andretti and Kim Green bought the team from Kim's brother Barry Green and took it to the IRL with Tracy refusing to make the switch after he believed the Indy 500 had been robbed from him, Andretti's early season retirement and Dario Franchitti's injury in a motorcycle crash suddenly and effectively upgraded Kanaan to team leader and he performed brilliantly, leading the points standings for much of the season, leading six races (more than any other non-Ganassi driver) and earning more lead shares than cumulative races led. Kanaan in fact thoroughly dominated his teammates, with Dan Wheldon only leading one race naturally, Michael Andretti leading only once, and Bryan Herta leading no races naturally at all (although he still won at Kansas on fuel mileage.) Scott Sharp did manage to score a win for the IRL's old guard but it wasn't natural either as he inherited the win at Motegi after Kanaan and Dixon crashed while battling for the lead.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Scott Dixon87-935243.8833.639
Sam Hornish, Jr.518-1333232.6321.967
Tomas Scheckter820-1300412.3882.446
Gil de Ferran57-333332.1141.994
Tony Kanaan68-1012332.1001.691
Hélio Castroneves44-920200.6111.998
Tora Takagi11-001010.5000.135
Al Unser, Jr.11-411010.5000.515
Felipe Giaffone12-000000.3330.335
Dan Wheldon14-400000.3030.165
Kenny Bräck33-200000.2890.115
Alex Barron13-311000.2470.145
Michael Andretti11-300000.1000.320
Richie Hearn00-100000.0000.185
Bryan Herta00-110000.0000.105
Buddy Lazier00-100000.0000.020
Roger Yasukawa00-100000.0000.029
Scott Sharp00-210000.0000.191


Although the Toyota teams arguably dominated in 2003 with Ganassi's success on the overall season schedule and Penske's success at Indianapolis, Honda clearly turned the tables in 2004 as Honda in general and the Andretti Green Racing team in particular thoroughly dominated the next two seasons. Tony Kanaan was by all means the rightful champion as he utterly destroyed his teammates in every regard. Kanaan led ten races naturally, more than his three teammates Dan Wheldon (5), Dario Franchitti (2), and Bryan Herta (2) combined, and none of these drivers were anything resembling pushovers either as they were all very talented. He also had more lead shares and cumulative races led than all of his teammates combined. The team was likely not as strong as its results looked as all four drivers posted greater cumulative races led than lead shares, but Kanaan's performance versus his teammates here is actually pretty mindboggling. Let's not forget he became the only driver ever to finish on the lead lap in every race in an IRL/IndyCar season this year and led every category except lead change record and TNL. Kanaan was likely a little lucky since he had more wins than TNL and one more CRL than lead shares and more races leading the most laps than earning the most lead shares, but he was still unquestionably the best driver this season.

If Kanaan was the best driver, then Sam Hornish was easily the most underrated driver this season. Despite the Andretti Green team's general dominance in winning eight of the 16 races this season, Hornish's performance was probably barely worse when you consider the fact that Hornish's Toyota engines had a massive speed deficit to Kanaan's Hondas. Although Hornish only won the season opener at Homestead, he was the TNL three times and in two of those races he made the only pass for the lead (Richmond and Nazareth) before losing the lead on pit stops later. In all three of those races, Hornish made his TNL pass against his teammate Hélio Castroneves. This resulted in Hornish having an exceptional 8-5 lead change record (considering the Toyotas were clearly slower than the Hondas) while Castroneves's lead change record of 9-11 was again disappointing. Both drivers did deliver Toyota their only two wins of the season, bookending the season in fact with Castroneves winning the season finale at Texas. Castroneves ended up beating Hornish in points for the only time in the four years they were both teammates, but even that year I wouldn't say Castroneves outperformed him. Even though Castroneves had an entire cumulative race led greater than Hornish, Hornish had three times as many lead shares! Castroneves just wasn't that great an oval racer especially considering his reputation, although he would get better later when road and street courses returned to the schedule.

On the superspeedways, the Rahal Hondas of Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira looked as impressive as the Andretti Green Hondas. Although Rice proved little outside this year (although I think he would have proven much more had he not been injured in practice for the 2005 Indy 500) and Meira had a winless career, they both performed strongly on the high-speed ovals with Rice winning at Indianapolis, Kansas, and Michigan all naturally (and passing Kanaan to win two of those no less) along with winning a frantic duel against teammate Meira to win a photo-finish race at Kansas. However, neither driver seemed as strong on the shorter ovals, so probably a lot of this can be regarded as a reflection of the dominance on their equipment. Considering he finished second in points and won three races, Wheldon's 9-14 looks like a disappointment, as does Franchitti having only two races led naturally despite two wins. Wheldon's season looks particularly overrated since he only earned one TNL despite three wins, and in that race at Motegi he essentially led start to finish and was not challenged. Franchitti at least earned TNL in both of his wins and they came on short ovals, which likely does indicate that Franchitti had more of a future than Wheldon although Wheldon was the better superspeedway driver, which helped him in this era. Adrián Fernández abruptly switched from CART to IRL mid-season missing the first few IRL races but won three times and posted the best lead change record at 10-5. Honestly looking at the data here it seems that driving a Honda made all these drivers look better than they were, but Kanaan was so far above the rest of them that he was still performing at an elite level even though it's easy to see in retrospect how few of the other Honda drivers except for Franchitti and briefly Wheldon had much staying power.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Tony Kanaan1016-1332433.5294.434
Sam Hornish, Jr.68-513033.1111.354
Buddy Rice413-1433231.7901.761
Dan Wheldon59-1431111.6262.078
Vitor Meira37-701111.4840.760
Adrián Fernández410-533121.4120.867
Dario Franchitti24-322321.3671.534
Hélio Castroneves39-1111411.0862.418
Tomas Scheckter22-100000.4220.160
Bryan Herta23-300000.1510.316
Scott Dixon11-100000.0220.015
Alex Barron00-100000.0000.017
Darren Manning00-100000.0000.060
Kosuke Matsuura00-100000.0000.055
Mark Taylor00-100000.0000.020
Felipe Giaffone00-100000.0000.025


Dan Wheldon, who was the last driver to clinch the championship before the final race and won the Indy 500, was the best driver this year but not nearly by as much as it looked like. Just as in 2004 he and teammate Tony Kanaan finished 1st and 2nd in points but the Andretti Green team was almost entirely responsible for Honda's dominance this year as the Rahal team suddenly declined. Although Kanaan and Wheldon switched positions in the points standings, it's hard to say Kanaan fell off that much either. He still tied Wheldon in races led naturally, races with the most lead shares, and nearly matched him in lead shares. Wheldon's season was clearly overrated as he had 3.82 CRL to 2.6 lead shares, while Kanaan and Dario Franchitti had slightly more lead shares than CRL, nearly matching Wheldon's total. While Wheldon had the best performance, those three were a lot closer than they looked based on the stat lines. Wheldon did lead every category but lead change record, and his six wins set an IRL record at the time. However, with two fewer TNL than wins and two fewer races where he had the most lead shares than races where he led the most laps, it's clear he was fairly lucky (granted, one of the races I did not count was his sole street course win at St. Petersburg, where it seems Ryan Briscoe hitting the wall is what gave Wheldon the lead, but it wasn't shown on camera.) Kanaan, Franchitti, and Tomas Scheckter all matched Wheldon in races with the most lead shares, and all had more races with the most lead shares than races where they led the most laps indicating all had underrated seasons.

Scheckter particularly is the biggest surprise of this year. Despite Panther Racing falling off markedly from the years when Sam Hornish drove for them, Scheckter posted the best lead change record at 12-5, dominated at Texas, was the TNL in two other races, and didn't come too far to matching Wheldon in lead shares, even though Chevrolet had a major disadvantage to Honda (although they were much better than Toyota in this season.) Clearly by this point he had developed nicely even after being fired from Ganassi, but he never really got a chance in competitive equipment after this season. Scheckter took the lead from Wheldon on a late-race restart at Motegi but ran out of fuel in the closing laps and he passed Kanaan for the TNL at the season finale at Fontana before Franchitti beat him out of the pits (admittedly, in that race Kanaan passed Franchitti on the last lap before letting off the gas and allowing Franchitti to win, which might have been the difference between Kanaan leading in lead shares and not.) Scheckter struggled with inconsistency as usual and finished ninth in points, but he was far better than that implies.

The Penske and Ganassi teams, burdened with lame-duck Toyota engines (as Toyota had announced it was leaving the series to focus on its NASCAR Cup program) struggled badly. Although Hélio Castroneves and Sam Hornish still won, they were bigger non-factors than in 2004 but for the first time Castroneves finally beat his teammate in lead shares. Hornish was a bit luckier than Castroneves this year, as he beat Castroneves in cumulative races led but finished behind him in lead shares. Regardless, both were essentially non-factors. The Ganassi drivers ran much worse on a regular basis on the ovals but were competitive on road and street courses, with Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon each earning one entire lead share on those tracks. The Rahal team's near dominance collapsed in 2005, with Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira mostly becoming non-factors, and both finishing behind their rookie teammate Danica Patrick in lead shares. However in part due to Patrick's strong qualifying (she won three poles) she also had the worst lead change record of the three at 3-8. It's sort of understandable she became such a big star after passing the eventual Indy winner and champion late in her debut 500, but the team was obviously very strong there, with Meira finishing second despite never winning a race in his career and Kenny Bräck setting the fastest qualifying time in the field after a year and a half absence. I think we can all agree the comparisons to Sally Ride and Amelia Earhart were overblown.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dan Wheldon1021-1564532.6003.818
Tony Kanaan1023-2621232.4022.158
Dario Franchitti613-922132.3152.127
Tomas Scheckter612-513232.1041.825
Hélio Castroneves45-811111.5681.296
Bryan Herta34-812111.5631.563
Sam Hornish, Jr.711-1321311.3991.720
Ryan Briscoe10-001111.0000.630
Scott Dixon12-011111.0000.417
Scott Sharp13-211000.3430.300
Patrick Carpentier11-200000.2670.150
Danica Patrick23-800000.1980.315
Vitor Meira33-300000.1950.235
Buddy Rice11-100000.0480.085
Alex Barron00-100000.0000.030
Tomas Enge00-100000.0000.218


While most people tend to spotlight his 2005 because he won a dominant championship and won the Indy 500 as well, there is actually a strong case that this year, not 2005, was Dan Wheldon's best season. Although Wheldon made the surprising move to leave Andretti Green Racing at its peak to go to Chip Ganassi Racing at its seeming nadir, it was probably a good idea. The departure of Toyota and Chevrolet in the series along with the chassis manufacturer Panoz meant that essentially from this point onward, the series would be entirely spec, especially from 2006-2011, making this probably the dullest period in IndyCar racing for decades. It's clear that a great deal of Andretti's advantage came down to its Honda engines when Penske and Ganassi were burdened with underpowered Toyotas, and Penske and Ganassi would essentially dominate the next decade with only occasional incursions from the Andretti team after that. While Wheldon in particular was somewhat lucky in his championship season, he was definitely majorly unlucky in 2006. Although he had five TNL, six races where he led the most laps, and five where he posted the most lead shares, he only won twice, which is easily enough to make the difference between Wheldon repeating his championship and losing a tiebreaker to Sam Hornish, as he did. After winning the season opener at Motegi with a last lap pass of Hélio Castroneves, he passed Castroneves early at Motegi before Castroneves beat him out of the pits and led the rest of the race. Then Castroneves beat him again on a pit stop exchange at Texas where he was TNL and Wheldon's teammate Scott Dixon inherited the lead on a pit stop at Nashville as well. Although the championship looked extremely close with the four Penske and Ganassi drivers separated by a mere thirteen points and Castroneves only being two points behind the tie for the championship, it's clear that Castroneves and Dixon benefited from Wheldon's misfortune and shouldn't have been nearly that close, while Wheldon if he had had any luck at all would have easily repeated the championship.

The difference between Hornish and Castroneves was just as stark this year as the difference between Wheldon and Dixon. While Wheldon had an underrated season and Hornish and Dixon ran at least as well as they looked, Castroneves once again had the most overrated season this year. Besides the two races he beat Wheldon out of the pits, he also beat Vitor Meira out of the pits at Michigan. The difference between Castroneves's four wins and one TNL is particularly stark, and since he led the most laps twice and led in lead shares only once, it seems clear that the one TNL comes far closer to matching Castroneves's actual performance than his four wins. He was massively overrated by the strength of his pit crew, while Hornish strangely did not seem to be. With one more CRL than lead share and a very weak lead change record of 6-10 when compared to Hornish's 18-15, this is one of the most overrated seasons in modern IndyCar history, although Scott Dixon would post a very similar season the next year. It's pretty telling that even in a year when Penske had fairly dominant equipment and Castroneves had the luckiest year of his career that he still came up short in the championship. That definitely seems to say something fairly second-rate about his career in general.

The other teams all rapidly declined this year, but none more than the once-dominant Andretti Green Racing, which only won twice (one of which was a flukish fuel mileage win by rookie Marco Andretti.) Despite winning the next year's championship, Dario Franchitti shockingly went winless while Kanaan returned to his usual status as team leader. Despite having a major equipment deficit at this point, he still led three races naturally at tracks where the driver arguably plays more of a factor than the car (Watkins Glen, Indy, and Milwaukee) while being more out to lunch at the intermediate superspeedways where he usually dominates. His Indy performance was truly impressive as he managed to pass Wheldon late in the race, a race where Wheldon had led nearly three quarters of the event, before the late caution allowed the Andrettis and Sam Hornish to catch up, which screwed things up for Kanaan (although I believe Michael Andretti likely would have won Indy on fuel mileage had that caution not come out.) Just as in 2003 and 2004, he dominated his teammates hugely, leading as many races naturally as his teammates did combined, and actually doubling his teammates combined in lead shares. Kanaan also posted the best lead change record of his career at 6-1. He was still performing at an elite level but the Andretti team perhaps got complacent in its dominance and did not realize the Penske and Ganassi teams would immediately start dominating again once they had the dominant Honda engines themselves.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dan Wheldon822-1825654.8804.051
Sam Hornish, Jr.718-1544343.0053.073
Scott Dixon58-922122.1561.674
Hélio Castroneves46-1041211.4282.487
Tony Kanaan36-111111.3330.775
Vitor Meira11-101110.5000.415
Bryan Herta11-200000.3330.095
Dario Franchitti11-100000.2000.256
Marco Andretti11-210000.1640.568
Michael Andretti00-100000.0000.020
A.J. Foyt IV00-100000.0000.015
Kosuke Matsuura00-100000.0000.075
Buddy Rice00-200000.0000.171


Although I have criticized Castroneves a lot in these columns, I have to give him props for the next two seasons. Despite being hyped as one of the best drivers of his generation due to his two Indy wins, that's hard to justify especially when looking at advanced statistics. However in 2007 and 2008 he finally appeared as an elite IndyCar driver for the first time, but admittedly for a relatively short period, making him look closer to the likes of Dan Wheldon than to the likes of Dario Franchitti, Will Power, or Scott Dixon. With the addition of more and more road and street courses onto the IRL schedule, that played directly into Castroneves's hands as he earned an entire lead share in four of the five road/street course races, and he also earned an entire lead share at Milwaukee where he made all three on-track passes for the lead. However, despite his five TNL, he only won once at St. Petersburg. Two of the races where he was the TNL but did not win were arguably his fault, as he crashed at Milwaukee where his countryman Tony Kanaan inherited the win and he crashed at Watkins Glen, allowing Dixon to inherit the win. The other two races at Mid-Ohio and Belle Isle he lost on pit stop exchanges. However, his road/street course qualifying was particularly impressive and there was very minimal passing on those races in these years, which allowed him to be the TNL almost any time he won the pole. He probably still didn't have the best season, especially since he was very unsuccessful at closing his dominant runs, but this is the first time he appeared to have any kind of explosive dominance in the IRL, and he also posted his first ever positive lead change record at 6-5 albeit only in his sixth season. However, Castroneves was maddeningly inconsistent due to five crash DNFs, which lowered him to sixth in the points. Considering such a high rate of crashing is probably his fault, I wouldn't say he had the best overall season, but it was probably his best overall season to date, and definitely presaged his 2008, which I think was clearly Castroneves's career peak. Castroneves's teammate Sam Hornish despite being the defending champion and Indy 500 winner was surprisingly lackluster this year en route to NASCAR although he did still post the best lead change record at 7-2 for the first time in his career.

Andretti Green Racing finally returned to something resembling its 2004-2005 dominance, particularly on ovals, in 2007. Although they were limited by Marco Andretti replacing Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick replacing Bryan Herta, Kanaan and especially Franchitti took giant steps up this year. Franchitti, who hadn't really looked championship-caliber in any series since 1999 in CART, suddenly returned to form matching Castroneves in races led naturally and leading in cumulative races led in addition to winning the championship. Kanaan was the sole IndyCar win leader for the only time in his career. They combined for nine out of 17 wins, more than all other teams managed. However, Franchitti and Kanaan were both lucky, with Kanaan beating Wheldon out of the pits at Motegi and inheriting the lead when Castroneves crashed at Milwaukee, although Kanaan was extremely unlucky at Indy when he pitted shortly before it rained after dominating the race and then later spinning out. Franchitti was particularly lucky at Indy, where Kanaan badly outran him, not to mention the season finale at Chicagoland, where he won the race and title on fuel mileage after Scott Dixon ran out of fuel on the last lap (they were both outrun by Sam Hornish and TNL Wheldon there.) Franchitti was even luckier that despite flipping twice at Michigan and Kentucky that he was not injured, even though that did scare Ashley Judd into telling Franchitti to leave to go to NASCAR, where ironically he was injured at Talladega in a Nationwide Series race.

Although my instinct told me that Franchitti majorly backed into this title due to his great luck (not to mention clipping his wing at Sonoma and having Kanaan sacrifice his championship chances to block for him rather than fighting for the win, allowing Franchitti to finish 3rd instead of around 14th), I think the differences in their lead change profiles indicate that he was indeed the best driver of this year (I don't think you can argue Castroneves since he crashed five times.) Dixon was very lucky in 2007 aside from the finale, inheriting the lead when Castroneves crashed at Watkins Glen, beating Castroneves out of the pits at Mid-Ohio, and inheriting the lead when Franchitti clipped his wing at Sonoma (I don't count passing damaged cars for TNL.) Having said that, one can also argue that Castroneves's and Franchitti's crashes were their fault and Dixon's passes should count, which would make him look considerably better and less overrated than he looks here. Having said that, even if those passes counted, Dixon would likely be behind Franchitti in all statistics here, and it actually appears that Wheldon outran Dixon again this year on the ovals but was much less lucky, while Franchitti may have actually outran Kanaan even though Kanaan won more races. Overall, based on that, it seems the right man won the title.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Hélio Castroneves66-515355.1063.400
Dario Franchitti68-643533.8103.966
Dan Wheldon610-1123333.0442.994
Tony Kanaan510-654232.6242.018
Sam Hornish, Jr.37-211221.2391.179
Scott Dixon33-741211.0242.030
Marco Andretti11-300000.1520.359
A.J. Foyt IV00-100000.0000.065
Buddy Rice00-200000.0000.263
Scott Sharp00-200000.0000.071


If you want to argue Hélio Castroneves deserved a title, this year is the only good argument. Although he relatively narrowly lost the title to Scott Dixon in spite of outdueling him in a photo finish in the season finale at Chicagoland (probably the best race of his career actually, since he started last and won), and won only two races to Dixon's six, it's not that hard to argue that Castroneves actually outran Dixon this year when looking at advanced statistical metrics. Dixon actually only won one of his six races naturally, passing Marco Andretti to win at Texas. He also had two other TNLs, at Kansas, where he got trapped a lap down during a caution, and Belle Isle where there were no on-track passes for the lead. However, in his other five wins he had fairly absurd luck passing Kanaan when he clipped his wing at Homestead, beating Vitor Meira out of the pits to win the Indy 500 (even though Meira had perhaps shockingly passed Dixon on track), staying out of the pits to take the lead from Kanaan at Nashville and never losing it, beating Castroneves out of the pits at Edmonton, and inheriting the lead when Castroneves ran out of fuel at Kentucky. Admittedly, Kanaan is technically listed as the TNL at Edmonton due to his pass of A.J. Foyt IV (when both were off pit sequence) and Marco is technically listed as the TNL at Kentucky since both Dixon and Castroneves tried to stay out of the pits there and Dixon outlasted him. However, if you just flip the Edmonton and Kentucky races and give Castroneves both of those wins over Dixon, which almost came down to a coin flip, both drivers would have four wins and that would have made enough difference for Castroneves to win the title. When you further note that Castroneves had a lead change record of 21-16 to Dixon's 13-18, that makes the case for Castroneves as well. I think he probably was the best driver this season, but he would never come close to doing so again. If he ever deserved a title, this is probably the year it should have happened. Despite Dixon posting an entire CRL more than Castroneves and four more wins, he lost to him in lead shares.

The big surprise this year is Marco Andretti. Although much like Greg Ray in the previous decade, Marco has become the butt of jokes among fans, he really was putting up high-quality performances in some of the early years after the split ended, this year particularly. He posted an entire lead share and TNL after his pass of Jaime Camara at Richmond but got trapped a lap down. He earned another TNL at Kentucky passing Dixon on track before Dixon and Castroneves beat him on fuel mileage. He made on-track passes for the lead in six different races, tying the two championship contenders, and he actually by some metrics outperformed perennial team leader Tony Kanaan, leading one more race naturally, posting a similar lead change percentage, and earning more lead shares despite fewer CRL. All of his on-track passes came on ovals and that may be the issue here as the number of oval races on the schedule started declining markedly after this point because many of the intermediate oval races could no longer sell after the intermediate oval tracks stopped offering season ticket packages that forced recipients to buy IndyCar tickets if they wanted to go to the NASCAR races. However, Marco was not only factoring on the intermediates, as in addition to his TNL at Richmond, he also was a strong contender for victory at Indianapolis and made the next to last pass for the lead at Iowa. It seems Marco was poised for an extremely big breakout and was very unlucky not to win this year, but it didn't ultimately add up to much. Kanaan was also unlucky, as in addition to his series-leading 7-5 lead change record he was the TNL at Homestead, Nashville, and (debatably) Edmonton, none of which he won. However, he was not as unlucky as Marco, who only finished 7th in points despite being 3rd in lead shares.

Besides those four drivers, nobody else did much of anything this year. Although the Champ Car/IndyCar merger led to some interesting talent joining the series, the Champ Car equipment was so weak that most of those drivers didn't factor for more than a race or two. Although Ryan Briscoe's pass of Dixon to win at Milwaukee was impressive, his season generally wasn't and was maddeningly overrated as he had 1.943 lead shares to 0.725 CRL, not even coming close to Castroneves's performance. Dan Wheldon's brief period of greatness ended big time this season as he won two races but neither of them naturally, and he did not even come close to Dixon. Wheldon particularly was hurt by the addition of road and street courses to the schedule when he was mostly only a superspeedway master. However, there were still enough superspeedways on the schedule that he probably should have done better than this, and one can understand why he was fired by Ganassi at this point if he was only 10th in lead shares behind drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick, Will Power, and Graham Rahal in weaker equipment or with much lower expectations. Admittedly, Patrick's entire lead share hinges on whether you think her pass of Castroneves at Motegi should count, and there are many people who to this day think it should not. Castroneves and Dixon were obviously the two best drivers this year if they both managed to earn over five times the lead shares of their teammates.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Hélio Castroneves621-1624643.9673.676
Scott Dixon613-1863543.6214.719
Marco Andretti68-602122.7181.502
Tony Kanaan57-513232.1251.944
Ryan Hunter-Reay11-111011.0000.198
Danica Patrick11-011011.0000.020
Will Power11-011111.0001.011
Ryan Briscoe23-321210.7251.943
Graham Rahal11-011110.6670.229
Dan Wheldon211-920000.5350.759
E.J. Viso11-000000.3330.269
Vitor Meira22-001000.3100.578
Enrique Bernoldi00-100000.0000.036
Jaime Camara00-100000.0000.147
Ed Carpenter00-100000.0000.015
Milka Duno00-100000.0000.025
A.J. Foyt IV00-100000.0000.033
Darren Manning00-100000.0000.179
Mario Moraes00-100000.0000.027
Buddy Rice00-100000.0000.040
Bruno Junqueira00-200000.0000.054
Justin Wilson00-210000.0000.544


This year was probably one of the most boring in IndyCar history. Penske and Ganassi managed to sweep the entire schedule except for one race, and on most of the ovals, the Andretti Green cars were usually right behind the Penske and Ganassi cars as well. Practically on every oval race especially, those eight drivers would be somewhere near around the top eight and you got the sense those cars had such an advantage that those eight cars would be pretty much locks to be in the top ten on ovals regardless of who you put in them, as Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, and Hideki Mutoh were all disappointing non-factors but frequently outran superior drivers like Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, and Dan Wheldon solely based on the cars they happened to have. There are no big surprises here as the three drivers who dominated the season are also the top three on this list, although not in the order you might expect.

While I'm forced to conclude Dario Franchitti was the best driver in 2007 and did not luck into that title (even if he did win on fuel mileage), I don't think I can make the same conclusion this year. Franchitti won the 2009 championship by winning the season finale on fuel mileage again over his now-teammate Scott Dixon but Dixon generally outran him throughout the year. Both of them were a bit lucky with more wins than TNL, but Dixon led 9 races naturally to Franchitti's 6 and posted a positive lead change record while Franchitti posted a negative one. Dixon also had a sizable enough lead share advantage to argue he generally outran him. Furthermore, two of Franchitti's six races led naturally were races where he won the pole and was not passed on track, while only one of Dixon's nine was, so Dixon made an on-track pass for the lead in eight races to Franchitti's four. I think it's pretty clear Dixon was better this year and just slightly less lucky.

The real question is whether Ryan Briscoe was more impressive than both of them. Although this was really Briscoe's only impressive year as an IndyCar driver (he disappointed incredibly compared to his hype after beating future F1 champion Nico Rosberg in the Formula 3 Euro Series in 2004), he was pretty amazing this year, flat out turning the tables on his more established teammate Hélio Castroneves in 2009. While Castroneves had five times as many lead shares as Briscoe in 2008, Briscoe beat him by an even bigger advantage this year - nearly eight times as many. I realize Castroneves missed the season-opener at St. Petersburg due to his tax evasion trial, but he still won Indy afterwards with an on-track pass of Dixon for the win (his only impressive Indy win.) Castroneves also had made up his deficit from missing St. Pete to be only five points behind Franchitti for the points lead. I don't think we can really blame the tax evasion trial as the turning point of Castroneves's career, because one would assume he had his momentum back and was back in the groove after his Indianapolis win. He was after all slightly ahead of Briscoe in the points (by only 3 points admittedly) at that point as well. However, Briscoe led six of the remaining races of the year naturally while Castroneves only led once. Briscoe posted a lead change record of 16-11 while Castroneves went back to negative at 4-5, and Castroneves's only other win at Texas came when he beat Briscoe out of the pits, which might itself have made a difference in the championship. Castroneves's 2009 season was so disappointing outside his Indy win (particularly considering how only the Penske and Ganassi cars were competitive most weeks) that while his 2008 seemed to indicate to me that he would be a future champion, his 2009 was so weak that I no longer really thought so. Even though he only started six races, far few than Castroneves, part-time teammate Will Power beat Castroneves in lead shares (by a margin of 4-1) and in cumulative races led, and also certainly beat Briscoe's race averages as well, definitely a predictor of the future.

Briscoe's year in general is usually considered a write-off since he threw away a title that almost certainly would have been his while crashing at the penultimate race at Motegi. A caution came out while he was in the pits but before Franchitti and Dixon had pitted. Since there was almost no passing in that race, Briscoe would have been seemingly guaranteed the win upon leaving the pits since Franchitti and Dixon would have had to pit later, and had he won, he would have only needed to start at Homestead to win the title. However, he crashed leaving the pits and ended up finishing many laps down and entered the finale in third place. Since Castroneves had long been eliminated from the championship, Ganassi could split strategies and have Franchitti on one pit strategy and Dixon on another to effectively triangulate Briscoe and keep him from winning the championship, which wouldn't have happened had he not crashed. Having said that, there is more than one factor that decides a championship, and maybe the fans are wrong to argue Briscoe solely lost the title due to his Motegi choke. He led the series with 6 TNL, two more than any other driver, and also led the series with 6 races where he earned the most lead shares, two more than any other driver. He was not the TNL in Motegi (there were no on-track passes for the lead there and Dixon won from the pole and was TNL), but in the three races where Briscoe was TNL and did not win (Texas, Iowa, and Homestead) he passed one of the Ganassi teammates before being beaten out of the pits, by Castroneves at Indianapolis and by Franchitti at Iowa and the finale at Homestead. Considering Briscoe was the fastest driver at Homestead, he was probably unlucky as well that there were simply no cautions in that race, which is probably the only reason Franchitti could have won the title with that aggressive fuel strategy. Briscoe only lost the title by 12 points, and if you flip either the Iowa or Homestead race where Briscoe was the TNL but Franchitti got lucky to win, Briscoe wins the title just as easily as if he did not crash at Motegi, so I now think people are unfair to critique his career based on the championship choke, when it looks like his team's pit strategists choked the title just as much as he did. It did seem losing the championship demoralized him and he sort of went through the motions during his last three seasons at Penske, but the other alternative explanation is simply that Will Power's addition to the team as a full-time teammate in 2010 simply exposed Castroneves and Briscoe as overrated all along, and I think there is merit to both of those arguments.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Scott Dixon913-1254644.4534.154
Ryan Briscoe816-1136563.9803.789
Dario Franchitti64-653333.5103.556
Will Power33-312132.3641.286
Justin Wilson33-211211.6671.666
Hélio Castroneves24-521000.5091.003
Ed Carpenter13-400000.3180.179
Tony Kanaan22-200000.1990.426
Tomas Scheckter00-100000.0000.091
Graham Rahal00-200000.0000.055


Will Power's dominance in IndyCar would be fairly absurd from this point on through the next decade. In five of the six years from 2010-2015 Power led in lead shares (only finishing second to Scott Dixon in 2013) and he would typically lead several if not most of the other categories each year as well. However, he also had an unfortunate penchant for crashing and losing the points lead in the final race in three straight seasons from 2010-12 and earning a reputation as a championship choker. However, as we have just seen with Ryan Briscoe in 2009, that may not tell the whole story. Did Power lose those titles solely because of his choking or because he was unlucky as well? Just as in the case of Briscoe in 2009, I would argue it was a little of both, and had Power had anything resembling Dario Franchitti's luck, he could have easily crashed in the finale without losing the title.

I had long thought this was Franchitti's best season since he won the title, dominated the Indy 500 almost from start to finish, and seemingly lucked into it less than all his other titles, as he won in 2007 and 2009 due to fuel mileage and in 2011 because Power got wrecked in the pits while leading. At least in this season Power made an error in the season finale at Homestead rather than just merely getting unlucky as one can argue Power did in '11 and Dixon did in '07 and Dixon and Briscoe both did in 2009. However, as it turns out this season also comes out overrated for Franchitti, and seemingly justifies my fairly low ranking for him on my top 100 IndyCar drivers list. It does not really appear that Franchitti ever had a season in his career that was unambiguously best. 2007 and 2010 are the best cases you can make, and after looking at this in more detail, I probably would argue he was the best driver in 2007, but he was not even close in this season.

Franchitti's win at Indianapolis from the pole in 2010, where he led the entire race except for when he pitted and for a brief five lap stint when Power passed him before repassing him shortly before they both pitted, was likely one of the most impressive races of his career, but the rest of his season really wasn't. In his other two wins, he beat the TNL drivers out of the pits (Alex Tagliani at Mid-Ohio and Power at Chicagoland), while Power was unlucky both at Chicagoland and at Long Beach, where he led and was the TNL until his shifter failed briefly handing Ryan Hunter-Reay the ultimate win there. Recall that Power lost to Franchitti in points by only five points and led the points standings for the entire season until the series finale and you will realize that with Power earning seven TNLs to Franchitti's one, he basically outperformed Franchitti by every metric imaginable except for oval performance. However, Power's oval performance was a lot better than it looked as he was indeed the only driver to pass Franchitti for the lead in his Indy 500 win and he outdueled superspeedway legend Dan Wheldon to claim the TNL at Chicagoland (admittedly in a faster car) before Franchitti beat him out of the pits. One can correctly argue the crash cost him in the championship, but had the luck even been balanced prior to that, Power easily could have crashed at Chicagoland and still won the championship. Despite winning the Indy 500 and championship, Franchitti was not the best driver this year.

The usual narrative that Ryan Briscoe lost his drive and motivation after narrowly losing the 2009 title that I also held myself may be wrong also as he was still second in lead shares, and still easily dominated Hélio Castroneves. Castroneves continued his good luck streak in IndyCar while Briscoe continued his bad luck streak. Although when most people think of Castroneves's 2010 season they'll remember the race at Edmonton where he lost the race to Scott Dixon due to a blend line/blocking violation that many observers found bogus, he was actually very lucky as he took the lead in all three of his wins due to an off-track pass, beating Marco Andretti on fuel mileage at Barber, beating TNL Wheldon on fuel mileage at Kentucky, and beating Briscoe out of the pits at Motegi. While he may well have deserved Edmonton, he was still badly outperformed by both of his teammates and the three wins overrates him. Briscoe however had almost an entire lead share greater than his CRL and was still better than you'd think. This seems to provide evidence that what really led to Briscoe's downfall was Power (and that could have been predicted by his 2009 partial season), not necessarily a loss of motivation after his Motegi crash and losing the title as a result.

Although it appeared that Franchitti grossly outperformed Dixon in 2010 as well as 2011, curiously in this year Dixon had the best lead change record, a fractionally greater number of lead shares despite half the cumulative races led, and two more races where he earned the most lead shares than led the most laps. This indicates that Dixon's season was likely as underrated as Franchitti's was overrated and they continued to be much closer in performance than it seemed when you consider that Franchitti won both the Indy 500 and the championship. Curiously, Dixon tied Marco Andretti for the best lead change percentage. Although one would not have expected Marco to have led many categories in the advanced leading statistics, he actually fares much better than most people would realize and surprisingly barely worse than his now long-time teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Marco led two categories (lead change percentage here and co-led in races led naturally in 2008), while Hunter-Reay only led three categories: lead change record and wins in 2012, and wins in 2014. It's pretty clear Hunter-Reay is extremely lucky to have as many wins as he has, while Andretti is extremely unlucky to have as few wins as he has. In this season particularly, Andretti arguably outperformed both of his veteran teammates Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, as he was arguably more dominant in the Barber race before Castroneves won on fuel mileage than Kanaan and Hunter-Reay were in any race.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Will Power86-557475.6494.587
Ryan Briscoe512-1012222.5631.614
Scott Dixon47-533132.0911.607
Dario Franchitti515-1231421.9273.340
Marco Andretti57-501111.5740.772
Dan Wheldon23-301111.2560.539
Hélio Castroneves33-531111.2451.393
Tony Kanaan24-211000.4260.292
Ryan Hunter-Reay22-310100.2691.103
Alex Tagliani00-000100.0000.518
Ed Carpenter00-100000.0000.070
Simona de Silvestro00-100000.0000.066
Sarah Fisher00-100000.0000.050
Raphael Matos00-100000.0000.105
Danica Patrick00-100000.0000.004
Graham Rahal00-100000.0000.044
Tomas Scheckter00-100000.0000.025
Paul Tracy00-100000.0000.185
Justin Wlison00-100100.0000.432


No matter how you slice it, only three drivers were remotely relevant in this season, even if a few others grabbed wins. Although Dario Franchitti won the title and led more races naturally than any other season of his career, I still think Will Power had a superior season and possibly the best season of his career in 2011 (although his 2014 is very close.) Power managed to lead every statistical category except races led and record in a very down year for Penske as both of his teammates Ryan Briscoe and Hélio Castroneves went winless, and not only that, Briscoe and Castroneves basically never factored. Note that Castroneves doesn't even appear on this list in any capacity: no lead shares, natural passes, races led naturally, or even losing the lead due to an on-track lead change. This is unusually shocking for a Penske driver particularly in an era when Penske and Ganassi were dominating everything, and Castroneves's 11th place points finish was the most dismal for Penske at this point since they switched to IRL full-time (although Simon Pagenaud matched this in 2015.) It has been said that Castroneves was startled by how badly Power dominated him in 2010 and decided to try to adjust his style to be more aggressive like Power's in this season and it badly failed, leading him to return to a more conservative style in future seasons. After Franchitti wrecked Power in the middle of the Toronto race and shortly thereafter Alex Tagliani took him out of the race, Power trailed Franchitti by 75 points but managed to make an amazing comeback and take the points lead entering what turned out to be the last race as the Las Vegas race was canceled. However, despite winning the pole and dominating at Kentucky, he got wrecked in the pits by Ana Beatriz, effectively taking him out of the championship. Power was a bit lucky as he had more wins than TNL and more races where he led the most laps than races where he earned the most lead shares, but he still beat Franchitti in every category except races led and should have been the champion by any account. He also finally got his first oval win at the 2nd race of the Texas doubleheader in 2011, even if that was rather farcical since his win was greatly aided by drawing the 3rd qualifying position in a race where a random draw set the starting grid. Most people would rate Castroneves somewhere between Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal, but Power beat Castroneves way worse than Franchitti beat Rahal. It could be clearly argued that Franchitti's spinout of Power at Toronto was the deciding factor in this championship just as much as the pit road crash, neither of which was Power's fault.

Franchitti did admittedly take a big step up this year from his 2009 and 2010 in terms of being competitive in every race. While I more or less do think he backed into all three of those titles, which is one of the main reasons I find him so massively overrated, I also think this was his most impressive Ganassi season and maybe the season he actually came closest to being the best, as he did come a lot closer to matching Power's performance in 2011 than he did in 2010 or than he did vs. Ryan Briscoe in 2009. By every metric he deserved to have at least four wins, which was not the case in any of his other championship seasons. On the surface based on these statistics, he was not particularly lucky and nowhere near as lucky as he was in 2009 and 2010. However, he was lucky to not get penalized several times (when most expected an avoidable contact penalty for him at Toronto along with other possible infractions at Milwaukee and Motegi that ended up being ignored) and he was also lucky that Power's luck was so bad. Having said that, Power did get lucky with the random draw at Texas and also got lucky that IndyCar responded to his double bird at Loudon by deciding to not have the final restart count, which gave him some points. Both Power and Franchitti had more or less balanced luck I suppose, with lucky and unlucky aspects of their seasons, but I think Power's season was stronger, especially when you consider the rest of the Penske team went winless while the Ganassi team looked much stronger with Dixon earning the best lead change percentage and Rahal honestly performing better than this implies from my recollections.

This season was noteworthy for an apparent massive increase in competitive depth from the preceding few seasons with many more teams beyond the usual Penske and Ganassi powerhouses showing the ability to win races. However, looking at this more closely, most of those races were kind of flukish and most of the one-off winners were drivers who didn't contend elsewhere. Mike Conway only led at his Long Beach win, Ed Carpenter only led at his Kentucky photo finish win, Marco Andretti only led at his Iowa win, and Dan Wheldon never led naturally at his Indy 500 win (because he inherited the lead after Dixon ran out of fuel and then J.R. Hildebrand crashed), and neither did Ryan Hunter-Reay, who inherited the lead at Loudon after Franchitti crashed and was extremely lucky the last restart did not count as he was passed by Oriol Servià in the rain but IndyCar decided ultimately not to count the pass. I still think Wheldon especially was impressive because the Bryan Herta Autosport team only had two other races where they even contended for wins besides Wheldon's Indy 500 win, but Hunter-Reay seems lackluster considering two of his much lower-rated teammates (Mike Conway and Marco Andretti) managed natural wins, not rather flukish ones, and Marco at least qualified at Indianapolis without doing a ride-buy to make the field after failing to qualify. This season may have looked substantially more competitive with the surprise winners, but it really wasn't much more competitive than 2008 and 2010.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Will Power53-265755.0005.884
Dario Franchitti810-1044644.6645.265
Scott Dixon36-222332.0451.976
Tony Kanaan24-401011.0240.589
Takuma Sato11-201011.0000.732
Mike Conway11-111010.6670.190
Ed Carpenter13-211010.6000.055
Marco Andretti13-311010.5000.168
Alex Tagliani23-600000.4240.156
Ryan Briscoe11-100100.3330.514
James Hinchcliffe11-000000.3330.306
Bertrand Baguette11-001000.1670.055
Graham Rahal11-200000.1360.301
Oriol Servià11-200000.1060.090
Ryan Hunter-Reay00-010000.0000.367
Dan Wheldon00-010000.0000.005
Danica Patrick00-200000.0000.085


While the 2011 season was much less competitive than it looked, the same cannot be held true for this season. The introduction of the DW12 chassis really did greatly improve the competition level of the field, with nobody putting up nearly as dominant results as the Penske and Ganassi drivers generally did from 2009-2011. Only two drivers led more than three races naturally and you have to go back to 2001 to find anything comparable in IRL/IndyCar. A lot of this stems from the increasing road/street course heavy focus of the schedule because street courses and especially road courses tend to have substantially fewer lead changes. Although it seems counterintuitive that natural road courses would have fewer lead changes than street courses, it appears to be correct because street races tend to have more caution flags bunching up the field further. As most of the oval tracks could not attract enough attendance to remain viable in the years leading up to this, this would naturally seem to lead to fewer lead changes and natural lead changes. However, what happened was the opposite as a lot more drivers managed to lead one or two races naturally, and for a wider variety of teams. The new chassis revitalized competition back to levels more like 2008 and 2002-03, which were more intensely competitive, as opposed to 2004-2005, where only the Hondas were competitive, and 2006 and 2009-11 where generally only the Penske and Ganassi cars were competitive. Penske and Ganassi cars were no longer guaranteed to dominate this time around.

However Penske's lead driver Will Power and Ganassi's new lead driver Scott Dixon (who clearly took over the Ganassi team this year and years following after Dario Franchitti mostly failed to figure out the new chassis) continued to remain dominant and were easily the most consistent threats on the season schedule. Power was generally stronger, beating Dixon in lead change record, TNL, races leading the most laps, races earning the most lead shares, and lead shares, with Dixon only leading in races led naturally, races leading the most laps, and cumulative races led, indicating Power was a little unlucky while Dixon was a tiny bit lucky. Power was especially unlucky at the Sonoma race where he led the whole event until Ryan Briscoe beat him out of the pits because he pitted right before a caution came out and Power could not pass him because he was stuck in lapped traffic and forced to go slower coming back to the caution. That race ended up deciding the championship for Ryan Hunter-Reay just as much as Power's crash in Fontana did.

Hunter-Reay was both simultaneously lucky and very, very clutch. He led IndyCar with four wins including three consecutive wins and a 5-2 lead change record, not to mention the fact that he had twice as many lead shares as cumulative races led, indicating he was running much better through his own efforts than those of his teams. However, it's worth noting that Power beat him in terms of every other statistic except for lead change record, wins, and actual points. With four wins and three TNL, Hunter-Reay was lucky, particularly at Toronto, where he won despite Power being the TNL. With three wins and four TNL, Power was unlucky. Considering he only lost the championship by three points, these slight differences in luck may have been enough to swing the title to Hunter-Reay by themselves. In this period, Penske seemed to have a history of outperforming other teams in races but losing out on the championship as much due to unluckiness on pit road relative to the Ganassi cars/drivers who were usually luckier, or the highly touted championship chokes, a regular occurrence for Penske from 2009-2013. However, if you look at most of these seasons more clearly, you can easily see that there were many other factors besides the "chokes" that one could easily argue decided these seasons as well. I do still think clutch performance matters somewhat, but not as much as most fans do. When Dale Earnhardt lost the 1989 NASCAR title for instance, everybody blames his spinout at North Wilkesboro, even though he had a last-place camshaft failure at Charlotte the week before, which caused him to lose far more points. It's far too complex to determine championships down to one single cause or two. Baseball statisticians acknowledge that even the 162-game Major League Baseball season might not be long enough for a long run (for luck to even itself out over the end.) If even that is not long enough, how much does luck affect a 16-race IndyCar season? Quite a lot I think. I care about career statistics than individual year statistics much more, although I do think individual year statistics matter, and I do think drivers with a lot of red ink should be ranked over drivers who don't have it.

Particularly when you look at how Hunter-Reay basically never had a year this good any other year in his career (or really anything particularly close) it's clear that he was never the best driver in IndyCar and this season was a gigantic fluke that portended little for the future. Those who would defend Hunter-Reay would argue that his equipment was nowhere near as good as the Penske and Ganassi cars, but I am not so sure of that. IndyCar was still a spec series at this point with all drivers driving the same chassis, and I'd honestly argue Power beat Hélio Castroneves and Briscoe worse than Hunter-Reay beat James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti (Hinchcliffe was in the top five in points for most of the first half of the season but faded later, and Marco led the most laps in the Indy 500.)

While a lot of other drivers factored in a minor way in this season, none of them particularly stood out relative to the others. Franchitti's comeback from spinning in the pits to win the Indy 500 was impressive but he showed little else all season. Castroneves and Briscoe both got extremely lucky with substantially more cumulative races led than lead shares. Justin Wilson got absurdly lucky to win at Texas after Graham Rahal crashed with two laps to go (particularly because Wilson's Dale Coyne entry was ruled illegal after the race), but he was also the TNL at Long Beach, where he faded due to pit strategy, so that more or less evened out. Ed Carpenter as usual for him in this period had one absurdly dominant intermediate run at Fontana but hardly contended elsewhere. Most other drivers were ultimately pretty lackluster, but Tagliani is a big surprise as his pass of Franchitti on the start at Edmonton gave him an entire lead share, which in a year of such intense competition, actually placed him fourth on the entire lead change leaderboard. Unfortunately for Tag, Castroneves beat him out of the pits, but that single race was enough to give Tagliani a slight lead in lead shares over Castroneves despite what was grossly inferior equipment.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Will Power53-234443.9673.386
Scott Dixon611-1122423.0433.457
Ryan Hunter-Reay35-243232.2381.089
Alex Tagliani23-301111.1570.848
Hélio Castroneves11-221111.0001.673
Justin Wilson11-011011.0000.225
Dario Franchitti28-1011010.5590.584
Ed Carpenter17-511110.4640.248
Graham Rahal11-001010.4000.130
James Hinchcliffe34-600000.3980.215
Simon Pagenaud11-000100.2380.763
Takuma Sato22-300000.2340.637
Tony Kanaan23-200000.1300.223
Ryan Briscoe14-610000.0780.739
Marco Andretti23-300100.0740.319
J.R. Hildebrand11-200000.0200.266
James Jakes00-100000.0000.044


This season likely had the deepest competition of any season after the CART/IRL split ended. Nine drivers led three or more races naturally, an IRL/IndyCar record, and five drivers led five or more races naturally this year, matching the records in 2003 and 2005, but 2013's competition is much more impressive both because the split ended and because there were a lot fewer ovals. Ovals make it easier to have a lot of different leaders since there is more passing on ovals. For a season like this to be just as seemingly competitive despite a staunch road/street course focus that those other seasons did not have is particularly impressive. Much of this of course comes down to the most competitive Indy 500 in history, which had 68 different lead changes (50 of them natural) among 14 leaders (9 natural.) At the time this race was second all-time to the 2001 CART finale at Fontana in terms of all-time lead changes with 73. However, that does not explain all the competition, as besides Indianapolis, only the Fontana race had more than six lead changes. The main difference besides Indy is actually is that most of the road and street course races had multiple on-track passes for the lead, which was not the case in most of the surrounding seasons. This thereby gave drivers who were both stronger on ovals and stronger on road courses chances to shine in terms of on-track leading. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Scott Dixon, the driver best associated with dominance on both track types, even if he was only the best on natural road courses himself, claimed the championship.

Even though Hélio Castroneves led the points standings for most of the season despite having only won one race (and despite having his car ruled illegal after that Texas race as well; he would look even worse career-wise if I chose not to count that as a TNL for him, but since he did not lose any championship points, I reluctantly gave him the TNL, though maybe that is inconsistent with how I viewed the 1994 Jimmy Spencer wins in NASCAR), he wasn't even close to the best driver this season and the right man won the title. Going along with the general strong level of competition in this season, there were more different drivers leading categories than usual, but Dixon's advantage here looks pretty clear cut. He earned the most wins, TNL, races with the most lead shares, and lead shares (nearly by a full lead share over Will Power, even though Power beat him pretty substantially in cumulative races led.) Power as usual led more than anybody else, leading the most races, leading the most laps in the most races, and leading in cumulative races led, but those categories are more team-dependent than the categories in which Dixon led. When you further consider that Power trailed Castroneves in the points standings for most of the season while Dixon was at least the top Ganassi driver all year around, there's really no contest here. I can understand people possibly arguing Dixon had a massive equipment advantage when you see how strong Charlie Kimball appears here, a driver who never did anything so remarkable in any other season. Kimball was however legitimate, making a slick pass of Simon Pagenaud to win at Mid-Ohio and also surprisingly earning a TNL at Detroit where he passed the dominant Mike Conway before Pagenaud beat him on pit strategy. He was also the last driver passed for the win at both Pocono and Fontana, where he also earned the most lead shares. Both Dixon and Kimball are arguably inflated as Dixon made his Pocono pass of Kimball and Kimball made his Mid-Ohio pass of Pagenaud the lap after the previous leaders pitted. Although it was a tough call in both cases whether the drivers passed were up to speed or not, I decided they were up to speed enough to have the passes count. Still, I don't think Kimball's semi-dominance is enough reason to critique Dixon's season, especially because Dario Franchitti suddenly declined even before his career-ending crash.

The Andretti drivers were particularly strong this year and it's honestly hard to tell which of them had the best season. Marco Andretti beat Ryan Hunter-Reay by 15 points and James Hinchcliffe by 35. However, Hinchcliffe won three races, more than the other two combined, while Hunter-Reay led narrowly in lead shares and matched Andretti in races led. Hinchcliffe's lead change percentage of 4-1 was particularly impressive as he was incredibly clutch passing Takuma Sato to win on the last lap at Sao Paulo, passing Castroneves to win at St. Petersburg (actually the only time he was ever passed for the lead there, as he had an incredible 5-1 record on that track), not to mention the Iowa race that he pretty much dominated start to finish, only briefly losing the lead to Graham Rahal on a restart (that being the only reason Hinchcliffe did not have an undefeated lead change record over the entire season.) I think between the three, I have to go with Hinchcliffe as having the most impressive year, and it's disappointing Andretti let him go and kept the others since he seemed to have a faster progression than Hunter-Reay did in his early career and won more races in this season than Andretti did in his entire career to date (although it seems clear looking at most of the seasons from 2008-2013 that Marco was a lot better than he is regarded, even if he has faded to mediocrity since.)

Lots of other drivers had strong runs here and there but besides Dixon, Power, the Andretti drivers, and surprisingly Kimball, there were few other massive standouts. Takuma Sato did win at Long Beach (not naturally) but was strong elsewhere setting the TNL at Houston and he was the last driver passed at both Sao Paulo and Milwaukee, not to mention that he led the points in an A.J. Foyt car albeit only for one race, which may even rival his Indy 500 win as his career highlight (and exceed anything he did in Formula One.) Kanaan ends up appearing rather weak here despite his Indy 500 win, mainly because he was making most of his passes for the lead on ovals and those races tended to have the most passes, so each pass was worth less. Simon Pagenaud broke out with his first two wins but only made one natural pass for the lead all season, and this would actually become a general trend with him even in his championship-caliber seasons. Mike Conway dominated at Detroit and did little else. An unusual ten drivers led races naturally and didn't win, which does say something for the amazing competitive depth in this season.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Scott Dixon54-744332.7622.509
Will Power79-832411.9433.001
Ryan Hunter-Reay515-2122121.7682.228
James Hinchcliffe34-133131.7331.236
Charlie Kimball35-412131.6430.724
Marco Andretti524-2300121.5161.464
Takuma Sato32-211311.5001.421
Hélio Castroneves56-611211.2281.486
Mike Conway23-211211.2001.114
Dario Franchitti11-201010.6670.773
Graham Rahal22-100000.6670.071
Sébastien Bourdais26-600000.5670.802
Tony Kanaan415-1411000.5010.638
Simon Pagenaud11-121010.5000.506
Tristan Vautier11-000000.3000.028
E.J. Viso22-200000.2200.065
Alex Tagliani13-300000.1430.025
A.J. Allmendinger13-100000.0650.115
Ed Carpenter15-500100.0430.261
Carlos Muñoz11-100000.0350.060
Justin Wilson00-200000.0000.185


In Will Power's championship season, he became the first driver in IndyCar Series history to lead every advanced statistical lead change category in a single season in addition to finally winning his by then long-overdue championship. However, I end up being more impressed with Power's 2011 considering he beat his teammates much worse in that season, not to mention that he won a career-high six races in 2011 while the other Penske drivers went winless, as opposed to 2014, when Power won only three races while both teammates Hélio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya won and Castroneves finished second in points in 2014, arguably posting his best season since 2008, albeit still an overrated one as he had two times as many cumulative races led and lead shares. Montoya despite winning at Pocono had a surprisingly lackluster season, leading only two races naturally, posting a negative 3-4 lead change record (although that was nowhere near as bad as Castroneves's 4-8) and ranking only 12th in lead shares. However, since Penske was much stronger in 2014 than in 2011 and Power himself was not as strong as he was in 2011, I think Power's 2011 was his career peak, but he was still inarguably the best driver this season.

Surprisingly even though he did not make an on-track pass for the lead in 2014 and was driving for the mid-pack KV Racing Technology, Sébastien Bourdais scored the second most lead shares in the 2014 season based on his two TNLs at Toronto and Mid-Ohio where he won the pole and there were no on-track lead changes. Even though this was a fairly amazing accomplishment for the mediocrity of that team, I still wouldn't make the case that he had the second strongest season. A better argument could be made for Ryan Hunter-Reay as he utterly dominated his teammates Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe by all metrics, earning six times as many lead shares as both the other Andretti drivers combined, winning three races (tied for the most with Power) while his teammates went winless. This might be a contender for Hunter-Reay's best season especially when you consider the Indy 500 win as well, since his edge over his teammates in terms of dominance is just as massive as his advantage in 2014, but his consistency in 2012 probably makes the difference here.

While 2012 and especially 2013 had a lot of regular contenders, this year was a particularly disappointing season from that regard relative to the previous two. Few drivers other than Power and Hunter-Reay were really consistently significant competitive threats at all, which is how a driver who did not make an on-track pass for the lead can rank second here. Ed Carpenter had his most impressive season as he led two races naturally for the only time in his career, and his Texas win where he made the only pass for the lead gave him an entire lead share for that race. It seems Carpenter giving up on racing the road and street courses this season was a wise move initially, as Mike Conway collected two wins and led two races naturally, although only his Toronto win was natural. Carpenter and Conway led a combined four races led naturally, which was the most impressive season for Ed Carpenter Racing as a team. Although Josef Newgarden obviously was a much better driver than either of them and managed to get results on all sorts of tracks, while Conway was unimpressive on the ovals and Carpenter was unimpressive on the road/street courses, even he did not match the combined team in most of these statistics in either 2015 or 2016. This was an incredibly disappointing season for Chip Ganassi Racing, which seemed to be missing Dario Franchitti badly. Surprisingly, Tony Kanaan had a more impressive season in terms of on-track leading than Scott Dixon did, although Dixon was always more consistent than Kanaan. In addition to winning Fontana, Kanaan thoroughly dominated at Iowa and easily led in lead shares and laps led but only lost to Hunter-Reay because he passed him on a late restart when he had fresh tires and Kanaan did not. Simon Pagenaud had his second best season from a leading perspective this year as he made a natural pass of Castroneves at Houston, probably one of his most impressive passes considering Castroneves's excellent dueling ability on street courses. Finally, Carlos Huertas this season became the only driver ever in IndyCar history to win a race without ever making an on-track pass for the lead, matching Chris Buescher's rather unusual NASCAR statistic in that regard. Buescher still has time to change that, but I don't think we will see Huertas in IndyCar again.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Will Power86-434444.7363.684
Sébastien Bourdais20-012122.0001.332
Ryan Hunter-Reay48-833321.9971.850
Hélio Castroneves34-811411.3142.806
Ed Carpenter23-311011.0810.517
Tony Kanaan35-511221.0501.566
Simon Pagenaud11-121011.0000.693
Takuma Sato11-101011.0000.730
Mike Conway22-221010.8330.476
Scott Dixon22-221110.7000.931
Justin Wilson11-101010.6670.340
Juan Pablo Montoya23-411110.6430.761
Jack Hawksworth11-000100.3330.392
Graham Rahal11-000000.3330.355
Marco Andretti13-100000.1620.133
James Hinchcliffe22-200100.1500.703
Carlos Huertas00-010000.0000.088
Ryan Briscoe00-100000.0000.071


This season in essence is the title nobody wanted to win. None of the top contenders really stood out as being that much more impressive than anyone else. Will Power as usual for him from 2009-15 was absurdly dominant in terms of all leading statistics and he clearly had an underrated season, as he had four TNLs to only one win and five races where he had the most lead shares to three races where he led the most laps, with nearly 50% more lead shares than cumulative races led. He also led more races naturally than any other driver (eight), leading that category for the third consecutive year. However, one can argue he was too inconsistent to be a truly worthy champion.

The two actual championship contenders, Juan Pablo Montoya (who led the points standings after every race except for the season finale), and Scott Dixon (who ultimately won a come-from-behind championship) both had overrated seasons but for different reasons. Dixon was incredibly lucky lucky with three wins to only one TNL and four races where he led the most laps to two races where he had the most lead shares. He had only 1.52 lead shares to 2.14 races led and probably had the most overrated season and one can argue he wasn't a deserving champion on that basis. However, would Montoya have been any better? He barely exceeded Dixon's lead share total and was honestly less responsible for his own leading than even Dixon was. Both Dixon and Montoya only led four races (half of Power's eight) and Montoya actually had a negative record. He is credited with two TNLs but only his Indy 500 win was really impressive all season, as he beat Power out of the pits to win at St. Petersburg and his second TNL came at the rain-shortened New Orleans race, where he was only awarded the pole before qualifying was rained out. Since there were no on-track passes in the race, he got a TNL even though he didn't actually really do much of anything, and his pit crew gave him the win in the previous race that gave him the points lead allowing him to start on the pole at NOLA in the first place. He then proceeded to coast for most of the season after that without ever really dominating afterward, aside from arguably the 500 win. Both Montoya and Dixon's seasons were weaker than they looked, which I think justifies how lowly I rated Montoya on my top 100 list, but perhaps does not justify how highly I rated Dixon (although a part of that came down to him also winning the 24 Hours of Daytona this year and being the team leader.)

On the top 100 list for this year, probably a lot of people were surprised that I actually rated Josef Newgarden higher than Montoya, but at this point, especially considering what he's done since, and how little the Ed Carpenter Racing team has done since, I might seriously argue that despite finishing 7th in the points that Newgarden, not Dixon or Montoya or Power, was the most impressive driver. He led the way with a 4-2 lead change record among drivers with three or more races led naturally and also tied Dixon and Power with four races in which he led the most laps. Newgarden and Power tied for leading the most laps at Toronto but I gave it to the winner Newgarden (even though he got lucky on a pit strategy) solely rather than giving it to both of them because Newgarden finished higher in the race and I wanted all the columns to add up to the same amount. Although Newgarden definitely lucked into that one, he was very unlucky to lose at Iowa where he flat out dominated before Ryan Hunter-Reay beat him out of the pits. Most impressively, Newgarden managed to lead the most laps on all four track types in one season, a superspeedway (Pocono), a short oval (Iowa), a road course (Barber, where he won and posted honestly the most impressive road/street course win for the Ed Carpenter Racing team in its history, much more impressive than either of Mike Conway's 2014 Barber wins), and a street course (Toronto.) To be fair, Will Power had actually led the most laps on all four track types the previous year en route to his championship as well. Despite receiving far less hype, he managed to beat both Montoya and Dixon in lead shares in a worse car and was already a championship-caliber performer even if he wasn't in a car capable of it.

Perhaps surprisingly, Montoya and Dixon's veteran teammates Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan outperformed their championship contending teammates in terms of lead shares despite both of them going winless. Both of them definitely had underrated seasons. However, Kanaan particularly is clearly overrated here since his high ranking largely results from his on-track pass of Sebástian Saavedra when both of them were off pit sequence, which I counted as the TNL since it was the last on-track lead change in the race. A more accurate analysis would probably not give him TNL for this race. His TNL at Texas however where he was the last driver to take the lead on track before being beaten out of the pits was indeed legitimate, and since Dixon ultimately won that race that may have by itself have decided the championship. Castroneves's high lead share total stems from him being the TNL at Long Beach before Dixon beat him out of the pits. Based on those two races, it's clear that Dixon's season was overrated and both Kanaan and Castroneves's seasons were underrated, and Dixon probably wasn't the most deserving champion. Having said that, on the flip side, there is no obvious driver to replace Dixon with as the best driver of the year, since Power and Newgarden were probably too inconsistent, Kanaan and Castroneves weren't as dominant as this implies, and Montoya was more disappointing than his consistency implies.

The year generally appeared to have less parity than it looked, but had a wide range of winners who got fairly lucky. While Sébastien Bourdais's season was fairly even across all metrics (unless you refuse to give him the TNL for the Milwaukee win where he lapped the field and got a penalty after the race but lost no points), several other winners had rather lackluster seasons. Carlos Muñoz's sole career win came down entirely to pit strategy in the rain, as did James Hinchcliffe's NOLA win. Hunter-Reay's season was quite overrated as he only won at Iowa because he beat Newgarden out of the pits and at Pocono largely because almost all his main competition had previously been eliminated in wrecks; he merely had to pass rookie Gabby Chaves in what might have been the consistently worst car that year to win. Hunter-Reay was outside the top ten in points for almost the entire season until he jumped several positions to an absurd sixth thanks to finishing 2nd in the season finale at Sonoma, which counted for couple points. He probably had the most overrated season in general. His only other natural lead came at Fontana, which had 68 natural lead changes, the all-time IndyCar record. I wouldn't say Graham Rahal's season was as overrated as it looks here though. Although his Mid-Ohio win was not natural (and rather absurd considering that race entirely hinged on benefiting from three different pit strategies based on who pit before the cautions came out, which also arguably mucked around with the championship too much) Rahal did an excellent job on the road and street races at punching above his weight, particularly when he finished 2nd at the Indy G.P. nearly matching Power's pace and finishing only a second or two behind, but beating all the other drivers with Honda engines by 30 seconds. I do think coming back from a penalty to win the Fontana race does say something for him as well, but Rahal's most impressive performances in this year generally were not races he won, which is why he appears worse than his actual performance.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Will Power826-2914353.8992.656
Tony Kanaan620-1502021.7760.928
Hélio Castroneves414-1601011.6021.358
Josef Newgarden34-222421.5391.927
Juan Pablo Montoya46-722211.5281.794
Scott Dixon413-1031421.5182.139
Sébastien Bourdais22-022121.5000.791
Takuma Sato38-700000.5660.394
Simon Pagenaud49-1300000.4280.626
James Hinchcliffe11-110000.3330.379
Sebástian Saavedra11-100000.3330.141
Gabby Chaves13-500010.2110.155
Ryan Hunter-Reay24-221000.2110.304
Marco Andretti18-900100.1310.669
Sage Karam24-200000.1290.055
Ryan Briscoe15-500000.1160.043
Graham Rahal14-221100.0910.658
Justin Wilson11-100000.0560.091
Carlos Muñoz12-410000.0340.241
Jack Hawksworth00-100000.0000.119
Charlie Kimball00-100000.0000.106
James Jakes00-200000.0000.043


Simon Pagenaud's 2016 championship season best exemplifies all his strengths and weaknesses at once. He's always been fast and he's always been incredible at avoiding mistakes, which usually makes him extremely difficult to eliminate (although I honestly think he is already eliminated from the 2018 championship chase right now.) However, he is unusually weak at on-track dueling for a perennial championship contender, particularly in his Penske years. Although he did lead all leading-related categories this year except for lead change record, which is fairly impressive and indicates that he did have the best season, his 1-3 record is the weakest ever lead change record for an IRL/IndyCar champion. Champions having negative lead change records are rather common, but no champion has had a lead change record this bad. His one successful lead change when he passed teammate Will Power on a restart to win at Mid-Ohio was impressive, but the other times he was passed during situations that it seems he should have run away from the field. He was passed by both Power and fellow teammate Hélio Castroneves at the second Detroit race, and passed by his fourth teammate Juan Pablo Montoya at the season opener in St. Petersburg, which gave him control of the race (even though Montoya's pass of Conor Daly was technically the TNL pass.) Montoya despite showing signs of rust and arguably being washed up in this season and having a steering failure in his car managed to pass Pagenaud and pull away. Most astonishingly, Josef Newgarden passed him on the opening lap and led basically the entire race at Iowa despite cracking his sternum less than a month earlier. Particularly the Montoya and Newgarden passes are completely inexplicable for a guy who dominated the season like this. If you count the Montoya pass of Pagenaud as the pass for the win at St. Pete, which some would argue, that would mean Pagenaud was 1-4 against his Penske teammates. His only advantage was he outqualified them and there was very minimal passing this season, which allowed him to control races start to finish. Oddly, one wonders if Pagenaud might have had more potential to be a great F1 driver than an IndyCar driver because F1 values qualifying pace more and dueling ability somewhat less. Regardless, it worked for Pagenaud this season because he was a killer qualifier and started on the pole six times.

Penske's dominance in this season in general might have been the most absurd since the 1994 season when they won 12 out of 16 races with their three-car ensemble of Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, and Paul Tracy. Pagenaud, Castroneves, Power, and Montoya combined for 10 out of 16 wins and 11 TNLs. The dominance was particularly noted on road and street courses where only two of the eleven races on those tracks were won by non-Penske drivers, and even those races were won by Sébastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon, the two four-time champions still active. The ovals however had impressive parity with all five oval races being won by different teams and several other teams besides those teams being competitive (except for Phoenix and Iowa, which weren't very competitive.) Although Dixon, Newgarden, possibly Bourdais, and even Graham Rahal probably weren't any worse than the Penske drivers at this point, they were all bringing knives to a gunfight on the road courses most of the time, which obviously limited their potential. In a year when Penske drivers took the top three spots in the championship, even a winless Castroneves, it's pretty impressive that Newgarden, Rahal, Dixon, and Tony Kanaan all managed to beat 8th place Montoya in the championship, and that Dixon and Newgarden managed to beat Penske drivers in lead shares.

For the second consecutive year Newgarden led the series in lead change percentage and his Iowa win in particular was the most impressive IndyCar race of the decade. Despite getting injured less than a month earlier at Texas (before the remainder of that race was postponed) and being expected to be out of commission for a couple of months, he missed no races and took the lead from Pagenaud on the opening lap at Iowa and was never passed on track for the remainder of the race, only losing the lead during pit stops. At one time, he had lapped every driver in the field except Pagenaud, but IndyCar's way too generous wave-around rules allowed far more cars on the lead lap by the end of the race. Regardless, he hung in there on one of the most physical tracks on the schedule and never lost the lead nor sought relief en route to setting the all-time record for laps led in an IndyCar race. Granted, there haven't been a whole lot of 300 lap IndyCar races, but still it was impressive. He also for the second consecutive year made a pass for the lead on the opening lap at Pocono and battled Carlos Muñoz in the last ten laps for the win at Indy, before Alexander Rossi beat them both on pit strategy. Newgarden probably didn't have a fast enough car to beat the Andrettis at Indy, but an impression was still made and he outperformed Montoya so badly that his hiring at Penske became truly obvious. Considering how quickly the Ed Carpenter Racing team declined without him as well as considering he was the top duelist in both 2015 and 2016 with that team, a solid case can be made that Newgarden was already the best driver on the circuit before he even started at Penske.

With Newgarden's rapid ascent and Alexander Rossi's admittedly lucky Indy 500 win (which would clearly be justified by his later performance) along with Scott Dixon and Will Power and especially Ryan Hunter-Reay seeming to all start their decline here, this year was clearly a major changing of the guard year. Although Power finished second in the championship and won the second most races, he only finished fourth in lead shares, his worst ranking in lead shares in a full-time season since 2008. His three races led naturally were also his lowest number in a full-time season since 2008 although he won all three of those races. Power's decline happened in a year when the Penske cars were more dominant than usual, so it makes sense that when that dominance faced somewhat in 2017 and 2018 then so did he. Granted, this was a rather dull season all around with minimal passing, and Pagenaud leading only five races naturally was the smallest such total to lead in natural races led since 2000 when Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever led four races naturally in a nine-race season. Dixon didn't decline much relative to 2015 (his decline has probably been a bit more recent), but he was no longer as lucky and his cars were slower. He still probably performed a bit better than his sixth place points finish implies. Granted, a lot of this clearly resulted from the Chevy vs. Honda difference, and none of the other Honda drivers other than Dixon were remotely dominant at all. The Honda drivers usually had speed on the ovals, with Graham Rahal winning at Texas passing the dominant James Hinchcliffe (who had an illegal car) on the last lap, and Hunter-Reay and even Mikhail Aleshin having flashes of brilliance, but they were essentially non-factors relative to the Chevies on road and street courses.

Even with the Chevy dominance in general and Penske dominance in particular, Hélio Castroneves's high ranking is a surprise here since he failed to win for the second consecutive season. He was the TNL at both Phoenix and Long Beach, two races that had no on-track lead changes, but was tremendously unlucky as Pagenaud beat him out of the pits at Long Beach (and his blending onto the racetrack was viewed controversial at that time) and at Phoenix, he had a tire failure that cost him any shot of the win. He also made on track passes for the lead at Indianapolis and Detroit, becoming actually the only driver other than Pagenaud to lead four races in 2016 naturally. One thing that was common about his later seasons is that he was actually a somewhat more dominant force in on-track leading than he had been a few years earlier. Part of that is the increasing level of Penske dominance, but part of that certainly is that Castroneves, like Pagenaud, was strong at qualifying but weak at dueling, so it figures that he would show better in a year where there was minimal passing, just like Pagenaud did. It's telling however that all three of the lead Penske drivers all had negative lead change records this year, with only Montoya, the driver who was fired, actually having a positive lead change record. It definitely makes sense that Newgarden would instantly go on to more dominance considering he is actually one of the best passers in IndyCar history while his teammates were all struggling at on-track dueling at this point.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Simon Pagenaud51-355655.0004.729
Hélio Castroneves42-302122.3611.236
Scott Dixon21-022322.0002.170
Will Power32-343121.8671.634
Josef Newgarden36-511111.1551.093
Juan Pablo Montoya11-011011.0000.926
James Hinchcliffe214-1500110.6560.926
Ryan Hunter-Reay317-1500120.6090.487
Mikhail Aleshin13-500200.3110.802
Graham Rahal11-011000.2860.173
Ed Carpenter11-100000.1900.004
Tony Kanaan15-400000.1900.292
Alexander Rossi23-210000.1810.118
Carlos Muñoz12-201000.0930.249
Townsend Bell13-100000.0660.060
Alex Tagliani11-200000.0350.055
Sébastien Bourdais00-010000.0000.312
Conor Daly00-100000.0000.620
J.R. Hildebrand00-100000.0000.020


The Penske dominance from 2016 largely continued into 2017 with the team winning 10 out of 17 races that year, the same number of races as they won in 2016 albeit in one more start. This marked the first season in IndyCar history when Penske won races with four different drivers and they all finished in the top five in points, with only Scott Dixon breaking through and beating any of them with a third-place points finish. This season was particularly noted for a marked change in the balance of power. The addition of Josef Newgarden as a replacement driver for Juan Pablo Montoya was probably Penske's most visionary move in years as Newgarden delivered Penske a championship in his debut season for the team, which no driver had done since Gil de Ferran in 2000, and at age 26, he was also the youngest champion since Sébastien Bourdais's first championship season in 2004 when he was 25 at the time. Newgarden's 4-1 lead change record is one of the best ever recorded for a driver with as many starts as he had in a season, and leading in lead change record three years in a row is absolutely unheard of. Even more astoundingly, Newgarden had a 4-0 lead change record against his Penske teammates - he passed all three of them in races for the lead and none of them passed him. Part of that does stem from Newgarden's biggest flaw - his relative weak qualifying ability when compared to his teammates (especially on road/street courses), but he easily makes up for that race after race via his dominant passing ability. He passed Castroneves at Road America before Scott Dixon passed him on a later restart when he had a tire advantage (scoring his only win of the season), and then snookered Power with a slick over-under pass at Mid-Ohio, passed Power on the start at Gateway before Power crashed a turn later, then later in the race, he shocked Pagenaud with an unexpected pass on the apron that resulted in wheel-to-wheel contact. Pagenaud nearly crashed but made a brilliant save but still lost 2nd place to Dixon. Pagenaud was furious after the race at Newgarden's aggression, but for better or for worse, it was that moment when Newgarden had unquestionably taken control of the team. He made up for his relative qualifying weakness to his teammates by outperforming them race after race on all types of tracks and despite being a bit more crash-prone still cinched the title while Ryan Briscoe, who also crashed leaving the pits eight years later, did not.

Although Newgarden led all categories except for races led naturally, his season advantage wasn't as significant as I may be hyping here. While he was certainly the best of the Penske drivers - and probably best in general - I could see someone still making a case for Scott Dixon due to his slower cars. Newgarden did not quite dominate all the categories as much as for instance Will Power did in 2014, as Castroneves and Power tied Newgarden for most TNL and races with the most lead shares, and Power and Dixon both tied Newgarden in number of races leading the most laps. Castroneves particularly had unquestionably his most impressive season since 2008. Knowing it was likely going to be the last time he would get a shot at winning the championship, he seemed to put substantially more effort than he did throughout most of the 2010s, and coupled with Penske's dominance, that led to good results. He thoroughly dominated the race at Iowa for his first win in three years, passed Pagenaud on the start at Toronto (before Newgarden beat him on pit strategy), fought for the win at Indianapolis in a year all the other Penske cars had lackluster runs, and was the TNL once again at Phoenix (although Pagenaud won when he got lucky to trap the field a lap down before he had pitted.) Castroneves's final season was unquestionably his best in ages, but he still didn't really come close to Newgarden. Will Power may have won three races and still factored nearly as often as usual, but he was slower than he once was particularly on road and street courses almost to the point he was becoming an oval specialist (the same exact thing that happened to his once-rival Dario Franchitti a decade earlier) and also more crash-prone, particularly late in the season. Generally however Newgarden took over Power's dominance leaving him in a precarious position as Newgarden and Pagenaud could effectively triangulate him, with Power unable to match Newgarden's dominance or Pagenaud's consistency.

Even though he finished second in points, it's hard to argue Pagenaud really had the second best season. Indeed, Pagenaud's 2017 was probably one of the most overrated seasons in IndyCar history. Shockingly despite winning two races and scoring a series-leading thirteen top fives, Pagenaud did not make an on-track pass for the lead in the entire season. This was actually the only ever season in IRL/IndyCar where a driver won two races and never led a race naturally. As I already stated, his Phoenix win came when he extended his fuel mileage and managed to trap the field a lap down before he pitted, and his Sonoma win came when he beat polesitter Newgarden out of the pits (in a race Newgarden was intentionally choosing to remain conservative knowing he could still win the title if he finished second to Pagenaud.) Then again, it isn't that shocking if you look at it more closely. In all six of Pagenaud's full-time seasons he has only made more than one on-track pass for the lead once in 2015. In that year, and so far only that year, he was quite impressive on the ovals taking the lead in four different oval races (but he still had a negative 9-13 lead change record that year.) He had a long-running history of .500 or worse lead change records, and having cumulative races led greater than his lead shares. Although he had second-tier equipment with the Sam Schmidt team from 2012-2014 and did give them three straight top five points finishes, which is why he got hired by Penske in the first place, it's telling that his lead share rankings don't even come close: 11th, 14th, and 7th. Newgarden by contrast was not quite as consistent as Pagenaud in his years for Ed Carpenter, but he was much more impressive in the lead share rankings placing 4th and 5th in his years in second-rate equipment (which was probably about on the same level as the Schmidt team when Pagenaud was there.) Newgarden was also substantially younger, a bit less experienced, and injured some of that time but still led the most laps in the 2015 season despite a clear equipment deficit to the Penske and Ganassi cars, and still set the record for most laps led in a race the following year at Iowa. Pagenaud definitely is better than Newgarden in some ways: he is one of the least crash-prone drivers in IndyCar history and is definitely usually a better qualifier than Newgarden. Couple that with his strong speed and he is hard to pass when he starts on the pole or gets lucky on strategy. The two make a very interesting contrast as they have nearly polar opposite styles, and it was unclear entering the season whether Newgarden's aggressive race pace despite somewhat lackluster qualifying (a la Al Unser, Jr.) or Pagenaud's fast, smooth, and clean race pace despite somewhat lackluster dueling ability (a la Gil de Ferran) would win out. I think very recent history is proving that the Newgarden style seems to have won out.

As far as the non-Penske drivers went, Scott Dixon was again best in class finishing 3rd in points and 4th in lead shares but his highlight was obviously his win at Road America where as earlier mentioned he was the only driver to pass Newgarden on track for the lead. Graham Rahal's utter dominance in the two Detroit races causes him to rate really highly, although Takuma Sato was the TNL at the second Detroit race as he led from pole until Rahal beat him out of the pits. Rahal was however perhaps surprisingly the TNL at Pocono though few people likely noticed. Rahal and Tony Kanaan, fighting for his life and his future at Ganassi, had the most furious duel of the season exchanging the lead sixteen consecutive times between them - at one point they exchanged the lead on twelve consecutive laps! Rahal did lead the race entering the final round of pit stops giving him a second TNL but Power and Newgarden managed to beat him out of the pits. Sato's Indy 500 win wasn't worth for much lead share wise because as usual there were many lead changes in the race and they were split among many different drivers, but his Detroit pole and TNL rates him highly. Alexander Rossi was probably the most impressive driver besides Penske + Dixon though as his utter domination at Watkins Glen in the rain late in the season presaged his 2018 dominance and he also legitimately fought for the win at Long Beach, Indianapolis, and Pocono, even though he had some bad luck in all three of those races. Sébastien Bourdais won on his Dale Coyne debut at St. Petersburg after making an on-track pass of Pagenaud for the win (yet another instance of Pagenaud getting passed in a situation you really wouldn't expect), and Bourdais fared very well when you consider he was injured at Indianapolis and missed most of the season.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Josef Newgarden44-143333.3333.225
Hélio Castroneves57-513133.2642.540
Will Power38-1133332.5322.824
Scott Dixon48-812322.0071.236
Graham Rahal29-822221.4431.460
Takuma Sato22-212011.1090.417
Alexander Rossi312-1111110.9230.868
Sébastien Bourdais11-011110.6670.647
Tony Kanaan312-1100000.4500.274
James Hinchcliffe22-110000.3510.514
Ryan Hunter-Reay26-700010.2670.596
J.R. Hildebrand11-000000.2000.147
Fernando Alonso14-300000.1590.135
Max Chilton12-400100.1120.313
Charlie Kimball23-500000.1040.304
Tristan Vautier14-300000.0790.060
Marco Andretti00-100000.0000.068
Ed Carpenter00-100000.0000.025
Simon Pagenaud00-320200.0001.147


In the four races so far recorded in 2018 through Barber, Josef Newgarden's late-2017 dominance has continued as he has now won five of the last ten races and won on all track types except for a superspeedway, the remaining blemish on his record. In addition to leading the points standings right now, he is also leading or co-leading in every lead change category. What makes this especially scary for the rest of the competition is that superspeedways are the track type that most rewards dueling ability, and where Newgarden's (slight, relative) qualifying disadvantage is not nearly as important. Newgarden was limited on superspeedways in 2015 and 2016 because the Ed Carpenter cars simply weren't as fast as the Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti cars on those tracks and he was limited in 2017 because the Andretti cars tended to be substantially faster than the Penske cars on superspeedways in 2017. If the Penske cars return to form and dominance at Indianapolis as they inevitably will - particularly in the wake of Ganassi's decline after losing Target sponsorship - Newgarden is likely to win at Indy very shortly and perhaps often, especially in an era when Indy 500 racing now has fairly nonstop passing, which makes a win for him even more likely and a win for a driver who relies more on strategy like Simon Pagenaud much less likely. Even though he is leading the points now, it seems the Hondas are substantially faster than the Chevies on most tracks, so I don't expect Newgarden to defend the championship, but he'll likely get close since I still think he'll get a couple more wins just based on his dueling ability. And unlike in 2017, when all the Penske cars were running well, Will Power and Pagenaud have had a miserable start. Power has had unforced errors in three of four races resulting in spins or crashes and Pagenaud has been terribly unlucky but not as fast as he was (it's fairly telling he and Gabby Chaves feuded after Pagenaud was unable to put Chaves a lap down because he couldn't get alongside him, even though several other drivers were able to pass him.) Pagenaud just doesn't have the dominance to come back from his already massive dominance, nor does Power have the consistency to come back even though he sometimes has the dominance, so I'm pretty sure Newgarden will continue to lead his teammates and all the other Chevies in the championship for the entire season.

Although most people think Alexander Rossi is the story now, I think Newgarden continues to be the hottest driver on the circuit, particularly because Newgarden is now not only more dominant than Rossi but he's making fewer mistakes and I think his Penske Chevies are slower than the Andretti Hondas this year. Rossi's breakout isn't that sudden as for most of the second half of 2017 he was just as consistent as he has been for 2018. I think most of the jump Rossi has made this season really stems from the Hondas being faster with the new spec chassis than they were with the aero kits. He was a championship-caliber driver last year stuck in a non-championship caliber car much like Dixon. Now he has a championship-caliber car. Don't get me wrong. Rossi has had some blinding performances and has proven to be perhaps even a stronger duelist than Newgarden, especially when he unlapped himself on the track at Phoenix after his penalty and nearly made it all the way back to the lead. He was also incredibly impressive at the season opener at St. Petersburg, when he drove from 12th to 2nd on the track before the contact with Robert Wickens. However, I think Newgarden is still the best duelist for the lead and I think that's more important (this is now the fourth straight season Newgarden leads in lead change record, and nobody else has even led this category three consecutive years in the entire history of televised IndyCar racing as far as I can tell.) Rossi, although he was much better than Newgarden in the European minor league formula series, seems to not be as polished as Newgarden yet, as Newgarden is consistently making his wildly aggressive passes for the lead work (such as his passes of Power at Mid-Ohio, Pagenaud at Gateway, and Wickens at Phoenix) while Rossi seems to be screwing up a bit more often when he is at or near the lead (the crash with Wickens at St. Petersburg and the pit road penalty at Phoenix.) Regardless of whom you think has been more impressive so far, it's pretty obvious that if neither of them defect to F1 or NASCAR at some point that this will likely be the rivalry for IndyCar in the next decade, and if some of the early IRL-era fans are right that fans lost interest when foreign drivers started overwhelmingly dominating (which I don't think they are) it will be interesting to see if having two young budding US superstars along with a Canadian one will suddenly improve IndyCar's popularity, particularly now that they have signed a TV deal in 2019 and years following with more races on network television than any year since 2008.

Since one could argue Newgarden and Rossi are both merely continuing their trends from late 2017 (and possibly improving on them), perhaps the real story this year is indeed the Canadian rookie Robert Wickens, who became the first driver to win the pole on his debut since Sébastien Bourdais in 2003, and would have become the first driver to win on his debut since Buzz Calkins in the first IRL race in 1996 had he not gotten wrecked on a controversial and hastily-arranged late-race restart by Rossi. Wickens proved he was no one-trick pony at Phoenix where he was the first driver to make an on-track pass for the lead in his first ever oval race, passing his teammate James Hinchcliffe, whom I think is going to be regretting recommending his car owner Sam Schmidt hire Wickens as a teammate. Although they were best friends from their early days in minor-league open wheel feeder series, Wickens was considered one of the hottest F1 prospects globally while Hinchcliffe raced in the American open wheel ladder series for five seasons and never won a championship. The American open wheel feeders weren't as deep as the European open wheel feeders at that time, and while Hinchcliffe lost the Indy Lights title to J.K. Vernay, a driver who never made an IndyCar start, Wickens beat some serious heavy hitters in his last year as a full-time open wheel driver in the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2011 when he won the championship. These included Jean-Eric Vergne (the current Formula E points leader), Rossi, top five F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo, and F1 driver/defending World Endurance Championship and Le Mans winner Brendon Hartley. Wickens subsequently became a factory driver for Mercedes in the German DTM touring car series, where he won races each of the last five seasons, and was at one point considered a possible contender to drive for Mercedes's F1 team, which has lately been dominating. If a few things had been different, Wickens could likely be an F1 winner at this point, so in retrospect it probably shouldn't be that surprising that he started out that quickly. Wickens posted a 1-1 lead change record in both races getting surprisingly passed by fellow rookie Jordan King who was also making his debut before getting back around him, and then passing Hinchcliffe at Phoenix before being passed by Newgarden in the final laps. Although Wickens cooled off in the next two races, given how dominant the Hondas seem to be, I wouldn't necessarily count him out as a championship contender.

Newgarden, Wickens, and King are so far the only drivers to make a natural pass for the lead in 2018, but that is not exactly atypical for the first four races of the IndyCar schedule, particularly considering the only races so far have been on street courses, road courses, and short ovals, none of which tend to have very many passes for the lead. Indy, Texas, and Pocono will probably as usual have lots of passing and it remains to be seen whether Honda or Chevy will be faster with the new spec chassis, but my guess is Honda will be since they were faster on those tracks with the aero kits and they seem to have been faster all season in general than they were in 2015-2017. I think this will likely favor the Honda drivers the rest of the season and while I do think Newgarden is the best driver right now, I don't think he alone will win a championship with the inferior engine. My guess for both the 500 and the championship at this point is Rossi as a result. It's certainly possible that just as Honda focused almost exclusively on the Indy 500 to the detriment of the other races on the schedule in 2015-2017 that Chevy could be doing that now, and Penske could return to its historical dominance, but I lean toward thinking that Honda is going to be faster all season and Rossi, Wickens, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, and Sébastien Bourdais will all benefit. Weirdly, even though Scott Dixon is usually the dominant Honda driver, he really hasn't shown me much of anything this year particularly when you consider the Hondas have been faster, and has often been slower than his teammate Ed Jones. I don't have a really good reason for thinking this other than the fact that Ganassi has led 0 laps so far and the fact that Dixon made a wildly uncharacteristic mistake at St. Petersburg (and also the fact that with Hinchcliffe and Wickens and the loss of Target sponsorship, the Sam Schmidt team seems to be sliding into the Ganassi team's old position), but I am going to publicly predict that I think Scott Dixon will go winless this year snapping his career-record 13 winning seasons, and I am also going to predict that Jimmie Johnson's 16-year NASCAR streak also comes to a close. Knowing both of their histories, I'll probably have egg on my face long before the season is over. I think Dixon is more likely to prove me wrong than Johnson is, however, particularly considering the Hondas seem to be faster in IndyCar but the Chevies do not seem to be faster in NASCAR.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Josef Newgarden21-022121.6671.045
Alexander Rossi10-011111.0000.884
Robert Wickens22-201111.0000.803
Jordan King11-100000.3330.045
Sébastien Bourdais00-010000.0000.670
Will Power00-000100.0000.391
James Hinchcliffe00-100000.0000.080


Just as with the year-by-year on-track passing in NASCAR breakdowns, these lists do reveal that certain IndyCar drivers do tend to be overrated and underrated by fans. Ignoring off-track lead changes such as lead changes in the pits or drivers inheriting the lead when a previous leader crashes or suffers a mechanical breakdown does give a somewhat different perception of who the most dominant drivers were than the championship standings do, although this is not nearly as pronounced in IndyCar as it is in NASCAR, as IndyCar has usually had points systems that better reward dominance, even if the points systems particularly in the last five to ten years have left much to be desired.

Dario Franchitti is tremendously overrated. Although he is tied for the most championships (4) with Scott Dixon and tied for the most Indy 500 wins (3) with Hélio Castroneves, he has surprisingly led far fewer statistical categories even in his championship seasons than you would expect. Although I used to consider Castroneves the most overrated driver of the era and to some degree still do, even he led IndyCar in lead shares in two different seasons while Franchitti despite winning four championships never led in lead shares once. To some degree, this is not as much of a surprise as it seems because almost all of Franchitti's championships were coin flips. His 2007 and 2009 titles both came because he got better fuel mileage than Scott Dixon did. In 2010 and 2011 he came from behind in the final race because Will Power crashed (although Power's 2010 crash was his fault, his 2011 crash was not.) He really never had a season where he clearly and unambiguously was the best driver. In all four of his championship seasons, he had more cumulative races led than lead shares, and he only led in either TNL or races with the most lead shares once (leading the latter once in 2005 tied with three other drivers.) He tended to consistently have more wins than TNL in his peak seasons, and more races leading the most laps than earning the most lead shares, indicating that the strength of his Ganassi team was putting him into the lead a lot, and that was likely enough to make the difference in most of his championships. Although I used to think Franchitti's 2010 championship was his most impressive because he pretty much led the Indy 500 start to finish and benefited from a mistake by Power instead of sheer dumb luck to win the championship, I now think his 2007 was superior and probably his best. Although Castroneves beat him in lead shares rather badly, he also crashed multiple times from the lead, and Dixon was actually luckier with twice as many CRL than lead shares. Franchitti was probably barely the best driver in this season, but not in any of his other three championships, where the Penske drivers just got unlucky. People want to criticize Ryan Briscoe and Power for their championship chokes. However, it actually seems that the advantage that Franchitti gained from having better luck than them was more than what he gained from Briscoe and Power's crashes.

Scott Dixon is a little overrated, but nowhere near as much. Although most people would argue his 2008 was his best season since he won the championship, won a career-best six races, and won the Indy 500, he actually was tremendously lucky that season as Castroneves beat him in lead change record, TNL, and lead shares. While Dixon won six races to Castroneves's two, Castroneves actually had 4 TNL to Dixon's 3, indicating Dixon primarily won that championship because he was lucky, and if there was any season in which Castroneves deserved the championship, that was clearly it and he probably actually did. Even Dixon's Indy 500 win was not natural as the career-winless Vitor Meira passed him on track before Dixon beat him out of the pits. However, while Dixon's 2007 and 2008 are a bit more disappointing than I expected, he definitely showed strength elsewhere and led in lead shares three different seasons (2003, 2009, 2013); two of which he won the championship and one where he did not. Dixon's main advantage over Franchitti is not merely that his peak seasons were better (and more unambiguously better, as he was clearly the best driver in 2003 and 2013 even if not so clearly in 2008 and 2015) but that Dixon simply had bad seasons far more rarely than Franchitti. While Franchitti as I have said before was essentially championship or bust (and honestly pretty lucky to win most of those championships), Dixon was a far more consistent threat year after year, no matter whether the series had an oval, road course, or balanced skew, and no matter what chassis or engine combination he had to face. There was a reason on my top 100 list in 2016 that I rated Dixon so much higher than Franchitti when I suspect many people wouldn't. However, he still tended to more often than not have more wins than TNL and more CRL than lead shares, indicating he too likely benefited from Ganassi's pit strategy often. He was probably still the best driver of the era, but not nearly by as large a margin as one would think.

If Franchitti and Dixon were overrated, it should come as no surprise that Will Power was underrated. From 2010-2015 his level of dominance was more extreme than even most fans will realize. One can argue that lead share tables will be biased towards drivers who win poles on road and street courses, because there is less likely to be on-track passing there, and that obviously benefits Power, who definitely outqualified Franchitti and Dixon on those tracks more often than not. However the fact that Power nearly posted a .500 career lead change record despite winning poles far more often than he won races indicates that he was actually pretty exceptional at on-track passing too, particularly when you consider how other IndyCar and NASCAR drivers who were better qualifiers than racers such as Castroneves and Ryan Newman tended to have very poor lead change records. Power led in lead shares five out of six years from 2010 to 2015, and even in the other year (2013) he was second. He invariably was more dominant than his points position would indicate and his 2014 particularly was the only season ever in which a driver led in every statistical category, fairly analogous to Jimmie Johnson's 2009 in NASCAR although I find Johnson's season much more impressive. I think his 2010 and 2011 were arguably more impressive than his 2014, even if he was a much weaker oval driver at that time. In 2010, he had fairly absurd advantages in most statistical categories over everyone else and in 2011 he led wins, TNL, lead shares, CRL, races leading the most laps, and races with the most lead shares singlehandedly in a year teammates Briscoe and Castroneves were basically non-factors. Obviously most would say the only difference between Power being a one-time champion now and a four-time champion are his three straight crashes in the season finales in 2010-2012, but the 2011 crash was not his fault and it's hard to argue that Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay didn't back into the other two titles. Power substantially beat Franchitti in all statistical categories, and while Power had 5 wins to Franchitti's 3 in 2010, Power had 7 TNL to Franchitti's 1. It seems Power's bad luck in the pits cost him this title more than his crash did. Similarly in 2012, although Hunter-Reay won more races, Power still beat him in nearly all other statistical categories indicating Hunter-Reay was luckier to win the most races and that luck was probably enough to swing the title just as much as Power's crash at Fontana did. (The fact that Hunter-Reay never had a top five points finish outside of that season to this day also supports this.) People like to emphasize dramatic events at the end of the season, but sometimes the undramatic events earlier in the season actually have more impact. Penske repeatedly had bad luck (and I would say bad pit strategy) in the long period from 2007-2013 when they weren't winning titles, but it is fairly telling that Penske drivers have led in lead shares every single season from 2007 to the present except for Dixon in 2009 and 2013. Were the Ganassi drivers winning all those titles because they were better or because they were luckier? I'm starting to think it's more because they were luckier.

Even if I think Franchitti's four titles massively overrate him, Dixon's four titles slightly overrate him, and Power's one title massively underrates him (although Power is in massive decline now and I don't really see him posting a championship-caliber season again), they were still the three most dominant drivers of the last fifteen years clearly, but the three other major stars of that period weren't necessarily as far behind as it looked. Dan Wheldon had a very short peak but his 2006 was actually in many respects stronger than his 2005 even though he won six races in 2005 and only two in 2006. Despite the series shrinking from 17 races in 2005 to 14 races in 2006, Wheldon actually improved his statistics in most lead change categories except for wins and seemed to be unlucky to lose the championship tiebreaker to Sam Hornish, a reverse of the usual situation where Ganassi drivers benefited from Penske misfortune. However Wheldon's weakness on road and street courses caused him to fade very quickly as they came to dominate the schedule in his later years.

Wheldon's onetime teammate Tony Kanaan was a lot more impressive than most would realize as he matched or exceeded all his teammates combined in races led naturally and lead shares in 2003, 2004, and 2006 (the latter season of which he posted a staggering 6-1 lead change record in what was a dismal season for Andretti Green Racing), then managed to earn a better lead change record and more wins and TNLs than teammate Franchitti in 2007 in a season he won the championship. Although Kanaan certainly faded afterward, he continued to show flashes of brilliance after Champ Car and IndyCar reunited and more than I think most people realized.

While I do still think Castroneves is overrated, I was perhaps underrating him too much as I was surprised to see that he did manage to lead in lead shares twice in 2007 and 2008 while Franchitti never did. I still don't think you really can argue that he was the best driver in any season except for 2008, and a lot of his seasons do look really overrated, particularly his early IRL seasons like 2002 and 2003 (which makes some sense because he was definitely a better road racer and particularly street course driver than he was on ovals even in the CART years, which is why he so seldom won on ovals against strong fields.) While his Indy 500 record is nowhere near as impressive as it looks, I think I am forced to conclude that his championship record is slightly more impressive than it looks. However, it's easy to argue that the focus on lead shares as my chief ranking mechanism may overrate all Penske drivers somewhat considering Ganassi drivers won substantially more championships even though Penske drivers seemed to pretty consistently lead this ranking. While I don't think it's wrong to say that Ganassi had stronger pit crews and pit strategies than Penske, which was often enough to make up the difference in championships, the focus on lead shares likely rewards drivers who are better qualifiers than racers, so the truth is probably somewhere in between. However, I still think Castroneves genuinely outperformed Dixon in 2008 even if the championship results, win total, and Indy 500 win say otherwise. Probably his tax evasion trial in 2009 took the wind out of his sails last year, and then Will Power instantly becoming team leader the next year weakened him. It does look like he was genuinely pretty great, but for a short period, very similar to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Both of them probably deserved a championship, but I still wouldn't come close to arguing either was the best driver who didn't win one.

Among the early IRL stars before the CART/Champ Car invasion, Tony Stewart is sort of overrated and underrated at the same time. He is overrated because too many NASCAR fans use his IRL crossover as proof that he is an all-time diverse driver and some modern equivalent of A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. While he is likely one of the most diverse American drivers of his generation, his fans' hyperbole of him is overkill since outside NASCAR he wasn't as impressive and consistent. The fact that his replacement Greg Ray, who is now completely forgotten, had a very similar season in 1999 to Stewart's 1997-98 indicates a lot of the dominance stemmed from the dominance of the Menard equipment. However, it's also fairly clear that he should have won more than he did by almost all metrics and a lot of it was not his fault. Sam Hornish was the most impressive of the early IRL period, particularly in 2002, when he outscored Gil de Ferran and Castroneves combined in almost all statistical categories, and even in 2001, he led in lead shares while his predecessor Scott Goodyear only finished fifth in 2000. Ray was briefly impressive but probably due to the Menard dominance. Buddy Lazier was relevant for a longer time than most others; although he never led in lead shares he finished third in three different seasons. Eddie Cheever's early career as an owner-driver is fairly underrated now as in his 1998-2000 seasons he had about 3 times as many lead shares as cumulative races led, indicating he was likely being hurt by owning and driving simultaneously. Arie Luyendyk and Kenny Bräck and Scott Goodyear and Scott Sharp looked to have overrated careers in the early IRL as they didn't really come close to leading in the lead share rankings. However, it is still possible to argue Luyendyk and Bräck had equipment deficits since neither the Treadway or Foyt teams managed to win multiple races with any other drivers other than them and they outperformed their teammates.

In recent years, while Penske continues to dominate in lead shares for the most part, the balance of power has shifted as Power's past half decade of dominance has now ended and he has definitely faded behind his current teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud. While Juan Pablo Montoya's IndyCar return for Penske was clearly overrated (even in 2015 when he led the points standings almost the entire season, he was only fifth in lead shares), Newgarden and Pagenaud have now since surpassed Power, especially Newgarden, who is the first driver in the televised era of IndyCar racing to lead in lead share record three years in a row, and is at the moment leading it for the fourth consecutive year as well. As I earlier revealed, he is the best duelist in IndyCar history in this period and he is also proving to be less mistake-prone than Power was. Newgarden in fact at the moment in addition to leading the points standings is leading every statistical category this year, which only Power in 2014 has previously done, although it's unclear whether Newgarden's current dominance will hold. Although Montoya only won four races in his three years for the Penske team, Newgarden has now exceeded that with five wins in the last ten races. Making his current season even more impressive, so far in 2018 he is leading the points and leading every statistical category in a year that the next highest Chevy in points is Power in 10th. Newgarden has scored more points than his teammates Power and Pagenaud combined this season.

Pagenaud looked in 2016 that he, not Newgarden, was ultimately going to take over the Penske team from Power. He was greatly benefited by Penske's dominance that year and also greatly benefited by the fact that Power missed the season opener due to an inner ear injury and that Newgarden was not yet in equivalent equipment (and had a mid-season injury also.) However, Pagenaud is probably the worst passer of all champions in the period, and his 1-3 lead change record looks fairly dismal for a guy who won five races in 2016, and his 0-3 record in 2017 despite winning twice and finishing second in the points is even worse. Pagenaud is very fast but a weak duelist, so while he is great at staying in the lead when he gets it, he is weak at taking control of a race without pit strategy, but his main advantage is that he almost never crashes. Newgarden is more aggressive but is proving consistent at pulling off wild passes, and his wild pass at Gateway on Pagenaud is probably going to be remembered as a defining moment of IndyCar this decade. It was at that moment he unambiguously became the Penske team leader. However Newgarden's advantages (race speed and passing ability) perfectly complement Pagenaud's (qualifying ability, making the fewest mistakes, and strategic thinking), which mean they will both likely stay at Penske for some time to come since Penske can effectively triangulate the field by winning either due to on-track dominance or off-track strategy. Despite dominating the first half of the decade, Power suddenly looks expendable because Newgarden is better at being an aggressive duelist than Power while making far fewer mistakes, while Pagenaud is just as fast as Power but also less mistake-prone. Power's main advantages now are his qualifying advantage and lately, his increasing superspeedway dominance (which, as it did for Dario Franchitti ten years earlier, is starting to replace his former road/street course dominance). However, his frequent crashing, always a problem for him, seems to be getting worse (as he has had an unforced spin or crash in four of the last seven races) while he doesn't seem to be as fast as he was, a disappointing combination. Power's recent speed at Pocono and Texas does seem to indicate he will be a strong contender to win the Indy 500 (I'd put him as the #3 favorite behind Alexander Rossi and Newgarden), but if he doesn't win the Indy 500 in the next two years, I would suddenly not be surprised to see Penske cut Power loose, which is something I would not have said as recently as three years ago.

The main conclusion to be derived from these results in general is that the Penske team has overwhelmingly been the fastest team for quite a while and the Ganassi team mainly benefited championship-wise largely because Ganassi was luckier and especially because they had better pit strategy. While invariably Penske drivers would lead the championship most of the season in most seasons, they would lose it late usually due to supposed championship chokes. However, just as in Dale Earnhardt's 1989 where he clearly outperformed Rusty Wallace, the championship chokes actually weren't the main factor as to why Briscoe and Power lost those championships. They consistently matched or outperformed their championship rivals in terms of TNL and lead shares and were simply unlucky not to win more, and that could have easily made the difference in those championships just as much as the late-season championship crashes did. People simply tend to notice events like that more because they are more dramatic than a Ganassi driver beating a Penske driver out of the pits earlier in the season. Just as in Earnhardt's 1989, when everybody wants to blame him losing the championship on his last-lap crash with Ricky Rudd at North Wilkesboro, when honestly, his last-place finish due to a mechanical failure at Charlotte the week before was more likely the bigger factor. This should prove that narratives are more complicated than fans often make them. Lots of championships are decided by several factors, some of which may be the driver's fault, and many of which are not. To be fair, especially in Scott Dixon's case, pitting a lap later on road courses than whoever he was closely chasing and then beating that driver out of the pits was a strategy he personally concocted, and he is maybe better at doing this than any IndyCar driver ever, and he did seem to benefit from dumb luck far less than his teammate. Regardless, I think it's clear that Dixon and Franchitti's championship dominance was actually due to Ganassi's strategy than the Penske drivers' supposed championship-losing crashes. Just as with the previous NASCAR year-by-year lists, these IndyCar lists should definitely change the perception we have of certain drivers.

Sean Wrona is the Managing Editor of racermetrics.com, the Webmaster of race-database.com, the winner of the 2010 Ultimate Typing Championship at the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, and the ratings compiler and statistician for the Mensa Scrabble-by-Mail SIG. He earned a master's in applied statistics from Cornell University in 2008 and previously digitized several seasons of NBA box scores on basketball-reference.com. You may contact him at sean@racermetrics.com.