By all accounts, Lewis Hamilton, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden are having really good seasons. Two championships will come out of this group (and possibly three) and they’ve got 30 victories among them as Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar wind down 2020.
But what constitutes a great season? Number of wins? Victories in different disciplines? Strength of competition? All of the above?
Identifying the best season ever is a good argument and looking back at all the candidates’ resumes was some factual fun that might even get a thumbs-up from Donald Davidson.
For instance, in the early days of Formula 1 there weren’t that many races so the numbers of Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark aren’t as impressive until you look a little deeper.
Alberto Ascari, who was Mario’s hero growing up, ran the Indy 500 in 1952 and missed the first two races but won the remaining six in a row to capture the world championship. He opened 1953 with three consecutive triumphs to give him nine in a row.
Fangio’s best year was 1954 when he won six times but there were only nine races and his staggering winning percentage (24 out of 51 starts) always puts the five-time world champion in the “greatest” conversation.
In 1961, Phil Hill became the first American to take the F1 title and also won Le Mans and Sebring.
Clark stood on the top step of the podium seven times in 1963 when there were only 10 races and only your six best results counted towards the title. Then in 1965 the Flying Scot captured Indianapolis and six of the first seven F1 races to wear the crown again and also the F2 championship but it was given to a non-F1 driver instead because JC was a graded driver.
Michael Schumacher won 13 out of 18 races in 2004, Sebastian Vettel captured 13 of 19 in 2013 and Hamilton owns seven victories in 11 starts this season with six races remaining.
Two of IndyCar’s best share the top spot for seasonal wins. A.J. Foyt won 10 out of 13 starts in 1964 (including seven in a row) and Al Unser kicked butt in 1970 with 10 triumphs in 18 outings.
But Foyt also won five sprint shows and three stock car features in ’64 to give him 18 total wins – just like his pal Parnelli Jones that same year with eight in USAC stocks, seven in midgets, two in Champ Cars and one in sprinters. Super Tex’s best year in terms of overall numbers was 1961 when he took the checkered flag nine times in midgets, six in sprinters and four in ‘Big Cars’ (including his initial Indy 500).
Mario Andretti just missed double digits with his nine-win IndyCar season in 1969.
NASCAR was all Petty all the time in the late ’60s as King Richard amassed 27 wins in 48 races in 1967 – including 10 in a row. He also won 15 times in 1968 – same number as David Pearson in 1966.
This year Harvick has nine wins and Hamlin seven with three races remaining.
Most of the staggering numbers are usually reserved for sprints and midgets because they race much more often than the Big 3 series.
Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell and Doug Wolfgang took winged sprint cars to new heights in the ’80s and ’90s as the World of Outlaws captured the imagination of open-wheel fans.
Kinser was a 20-time WoO champ who rang up an unthinkable 690 A Main wins – including 46 in 1987, 36 in 1991 and 31 in 1992. Swindell scored 394 victories (28 in 1981 his best year) and is still racing at age 64 while Wolfgang waxed the competition in 1976 with 45 wins, visited victory lane 52 times in 1985 and added 43 to that total in 1989.
Before heading to NASCAR, J.J. Yeley threw down some big numbers in the 2003 USAC campaign as he triumphed 13 times in sprinters, six in midgets and four in Silver Crown on his way to the Triple Crown.
Bryan Clauson put up 15 sprint and seven midget wins in 2013 and was on his way to topping those numbers when he lost his life in 2016 while leading a USAC midget race. In 2000, Jay Drake chalked up 10 sprint, six midget and one Silver Crown win while Tyler Courtney scored nine sprint, eight midget and one Silver Crown triumph during 2019.
But it may be a long time before we ever see a year like Kyle Larson is putting together. After being ostracized by NASCAR for using a racial slur, the 28-year-old Californian returned to his roots and harvested a tour de force on dirt tracks all across North America.
In 82 starts in midgets, sprints, Silver Crown and dirt late models, he’s claimed an astounding 42 victories — including Sunday’s Tony Bettenhausen 100 USAC dirt-car classic at Springfield, Ill. Between the All-Star series, WoO and other 410 events, Larson has 31 wins. He won four times during USAC’s Indiana Midget Week after capturing his initial Chili Bowl last winter. He won the Hoosier Hundred in August to join Foyt, Jones, Andretti and Ward on that prestigious list. And in only his second-ever start in a dirt modified stocker he triumphed at Port Royal Speedway.
Many of the badasses we’ve talked about so far were successful in one type of car while the old USAC brigade raced various venues of pavement and dirt and the new guard of USAC is pretty much confined to dirt.
But Larson is as great without wings as he is with them and obviously has proved his pavement talent with NASCAR. Still, it’s difficult to quantify the kind of versatility he’s displayed in 2020.
He’s applied for reinstatement to NASCAR and I imagine there are a lot of midget and sprint drivers praying he’s got a roof over his head in 2021.