Which is harder, an Indy 500 win or an NTT IndyCar Series championship

INDIANAPOLIS — In most sports, the biggest stat to judge greatness in ones profession as an athlete is how many championships have you won. That’s the one thing that separates greatness from good. But, in the NTT IndyCar Series, another thing defines an Indy Car drivers’ career – Indy 500 rings.

A championship is great. That’s not debatable. But, we hold Indy 500 wins almost to a higher standard. Helio Castroneves has three of them but zero titles. Scott Dixon has six championships but one Indy 500 win. Josef Newgarden has won two titles in the last four years but is 0-for-8 here at Indy.

So, which is judged above the other?

You have to be perfect to accomplish feats in both. An Indy 500 talents an immense amount of talent as well as concentration for 500 miles. A slight slip of focus can be the difference in a win and a crash. But, as the fields have grown tighter and the speeds higher, an Indy 500 win is truly a team victory.

You have to be flawless on track. You can’t turn a wheel wrong and that means four corners per lap and 200 of them during the day. That’s 800 turns with your body pushing 4-5 g’s per turn of the wheel in them. Plus, you’re doing so around 32 other cars at speeds over 220 mph.

If that’s not hard enough, you also have to be flawless getting onto and off of pit lane. You can’t have any penalties on pit road and your pit crew has to be quick changing all four tires and getting an entire tank of Speedway fuel in the Dallara.

The difference in gaining or losing track position comes down to tenths of a second on pit road these days. That’s why an Indy 500 win is so challenging. 

On the flip side, so is winning a title. The competition level in the series is as high as its ever been in recent years. The parity is so strong as you can make a solid case that 80-90% of the field can win any given race. Then factor in so many different discipline of tracks including superspeedways like Indy and Texas, short ovals like World Wide Technology Raceway, street courses like St. Pete, Belle Isle, Nashville and Long Beach and natural road courses like Barber, IMS road course, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca and to win a title for the season, you have to be nearly flawless in every discipline.

So, which is harder to win?

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon says it’s even for him.

“Both. They’re both really different,” Dixon told me on Thursday leading up to the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500. “For me, the Indy 500 just to get everything right over 2 1/2  to 3 hours period it almost impossible. That’s why it is so tough. It’s the biggest race in the world and the most difficult race in the world. I feel very lucky and privileged to have won this race once and to be on a list with less than 70 people but on that same instant it also drives you into a deeper will to want to win it again. Both are harder to win. Plain and simple.

“If you look at the Indy 500, the speed of the field, how tight and condensed the field is, there’s no small teams anymore and they’re all big and fast teams. That’s the same for the championship, it used to be years that I think you came here and understand there were people you were fighting for the race win but you were under the understanding that you wouldn’t necessarily be fighting them for the championship.

“I feel like you have IndyCar and then the Indy 500. It’s still the marquee event. Would I trade some championships for some ‘500 wins? Maybe. I don’t know. I feel like they’re so different that they don’t really related too. I feel like there’s some good emphasis on a championship but the Indy 500 is the Indy 500.”

Alexander Rossi says that he feels like it’s the opposite. He says it’s the championship that’s the most difficult to win.

“I think the championship should be held higher in someone’s regard but I think the championship should also be harder to win,” said the Andretti Autosport driver. “I think if you look at, I can talk from my side since I was that guy, in 2016 I didn’t have the car to win the race. We had a good car. We qualified 11th and were in the top 10 for most of the day. But, I was not at the same level of speed as Josef, James, Ryan, Carlos had that year yet I won the race.

“I look at 2017, I look at 2020, 2019 ish, we had the car if not the second best car to win the race that day and we didn’t. There’s so many other factors that go into winning the ‘500. It’s not easy to win, but the championship there’s a lot of other things that have to go your way over 17 races to win it. It is very ironic to me and strange that someone like Scott Dixon has won six championships and one ‘500.”

What about the other drivers? Simon Pagenaud has won both. He says his vote goes to the ‘500 as being more challenging.

“Challenging I would say is the ‘500 because it’s only one event,” said the 2016 series champion and 2019 ‘500 champ. “It’s one race, one event you put a lot of emphasis on, a lot of pressure on yourself. There’s so many factors that come in play that could go wrong or right, for team to put everything together on that day, it’s very difficult. Once you do it, it’s very rewarding. It’s much more challenging to do that on one day where on a championship you have 17 races to do it. There will be off days but as long as those off days aren’t too bad, you can prevail.”

His teammate Will Power agreed.

“Championship you have many more shots to get those points where here you have one shot to get it all right so here it’s more difficult,” said the champ of both. “If you win here you give yourself a very good chance at winning the championship, especially if you’re already in the mix.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 champion noted pretty much the same thing as Power saying that a season you have more chances to get it right where the ‘500 is one day.

“They’re very unique and different,” said the American driver. “A championship is a culmination of a whole year’s worth of work. Consistency. Race wins. Effort. It’s such an up and down roller coaster with big breaks and weeks in between races and stuff like that.

“The Indy 500 you kind of know in the first quarter of the race if you have a car capable of contending for the win and then from there it’s a matter of executing and not making any mistakes on the race track. Everything has to come together on strategy and every pit stop as well and that’s the challenging part of this is that everything has to be perfect through the race. The championship, everything doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect but you have to be executing on every different discipline of race tracks”

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