INDIANAPOLIS — Helio Castroneves has waited 11 years for this. His third Indianapolis 500 triumph came in 2009. He felt then like it was only a matter of time before he’d join the exclusive four-win club. He came close, but it never happened.
He was left out of a full time ride with Team Penske following the 2017 season and after Penske closed up the IMSA shop at the end of last season, he was without a ride in general. Meyer Shank Racing scooped him up for a six race deal with the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 being the first.
Castroneves, qualified three full mph quicker than his one of 2020 with Penske. He’d start eighth. The popular Brazilian driver looked rejuvenated and made Penske pay for not bringing him back. The fourth win was finally his. He becomes the fourth oldest winner in the 105 year history of this event. With that said, can he get No. 5 and become the all-time winningest driver ever in the biggest race of the world? Even if he doesn’t, where does Castroneves rank among the all-time greats?
AJ Foyt got his fourth win in his 20th start. He had 35 total Indy 500 starts (most ever) but could win in a rear engine, front engine, bricks or pavement. Hell, the guy could win on any surface as he holds the record for most championships (7) and most wins (67). He finished runner-up in the race in 1976 and again in 1979. No one has completed as many miles (12,272.50) as Foyt either.
Hard to not think that he’s the GOAT still.
Al Unser Sr. also has four wins. He did so in his 22nd start as he’s made 27 overall Indy starts. He also had three runner-ups (1967, 1972 and 1983). He finished third four times (1977, 1984, 1988 and 1992) too. On top of that, Unser has led the most laps ever (644) and second most miles (10,890). Unser, had 39 career open wheel wins too (5th most) to go along with 31 runner-ups (6th), 98 podiums (fifth) and 140 top fives (sixth).
Rick Mears has four wins and he got his fourth in his only his 14th start. In fact, in just 15 Indy 500 starts, Mears had nine top fives including a runner-up (1982) and two third place runs (1983 and 1986). Mears had six Indy 500 poles (most ever) but ranks 13th in career Indy Car wins, 13th in runner-ups (22), 15th in podiums (74) and 12th in top fives (111).
Castroneves has four wins in 21 starts. The Brazilian has the third most miles completed too. He’s also had three runner-ups and all three rank among the closest finishes in the 105 year history too. Gil de Ferran stopped his back-to-back reign in 2001 and 2002 with a win by just .2990-seconds over him in ’03. In 2014, Ryan Hunter-Reay stopped him by only .0600-seconds which still ranks as the second closest Indy 500 finish ever. Takuma Sato bested him by .2011-seconds in 2017 for the sixth closest result.
Combine those results, Castroneves is .5601-seconds from being a seven-time winner. So, can he get to five at least?
Both Bobby Unser and Al Unser won in 1981 and 1987 respectively as 47 year olds. Emerson Fittipaldi won in 1993 at the age of 46. Gordon Johncock won in 1982 at the rightful age of 45. So, there’s no reason to believe Castroneves can get to at least five.
Then, where does he rank in terms of all around greats?
It’s hard to compare him in Indy lore with Foyt, Unser and Mears. To me, they’re all even. In terms of Indy Car in general, Foyt has those seven titles and all those wins to separate himself overall. Scott Dixon has only one Indy 500 win but 51 career series wins which ranks him one shy of tying Mario Andretti for second most ever. His six championships are one shy of tying Foyt for most all-time. He also has 48 runner-ups (2nd), 125 podiums (2nd) and 178 top fives (2nd).
Andretti ranks second in wins (52), first in runner-ups (56), first in podiums (144) and first in top fives (194). How do they factor into this when each have just one Indy 500 victory?
Castroneves ranks in a tie for 10th for all-time wins at 31. He’s fourth in poles (50), third in runner-ups (41), sixth in podiums (93) and fourth in top fives (141). Hard to separate him over Unser in this category but you could definitely make a case for him to put some distance between himself and Mears away from Indy.
The thing is, you can make an argument that Mears walked away early but Helio was out of the series full time from 2018 on. Where would his stats rank if he remained full time all along? Yes, he doesn’t have a championship, but he did finish second four times in the final season standings.
I say you have to put him in the top five all-time with Foyt, Andretti, Dixon and Unser.