Sunday, February 20, 2011

Johnny Rutherford...My First Greatest 33 Dilemma

After easily coming up with my first two rows (which were pretty much no-brainers) I have been vigorously debating Row 3 for quite some time.

Not really, I've been busy with real life, but I have found that the further back in the field the harder it gets to sort out the great drivers. I've tried to weigh wins over everything else when it comes to putting drivers on the grid, but there are exceptions, one being Mario Andretti of course. I'm beginning to realize that when I get to the second level  -- overall stats -- to try and separate the drivers, stuff gets a little more complicated than it seems.

Right now I'm stuck on three drivers all told, but the one I'm hung up on the most is Johnny Rutherford.
On the surface, it should be easy call for J.R. Three wins (1974, 76, 80), three poles (73, 76, 80) and 296 laps led over the course of a 24-race career. He qualified in front and rear-engine cars, was a survivor of the 1964 Eddie Sachs-Dave MacDonald crash, won from the 25th starting position in 1974, won the shortest race ever in 1976 (102 laps/255 miles) and in 1980 helped usher in the era of ground effects from behind the wheel of the gorgeous Pennzoil Chapparal. He is also seventh all time in mileage, having driven 6,980 miles in competition.

He is also one of the nicest drivers I've ever met and has been an active part of the IndyCar community for close to a half-century.

Should be easy, right? Not when I started digging. There is no doubt that Rutherford was one of the all-time greats at the Speedway, if not in open wheel racing, period. You don't win the race three times and compete for close to a quarter-century and not be in the discussion.

All told, J.R. made 24 starts and averaged just 116 laps per start. Even if we factor in the rain-shortened races from 1975-76 that average doesn't go up much further. He only finished the 500 miles (or rain-shortened length) four different occasions, winning three of those and finishing second (1975). So he certainly closed the deal when he had the chance. But he also finished 29th or worse five times.

His dominance and fine performances in the middle third of his career -- to go along with his victories -- definitely put him in the lineup. I originally thought of my upcoming Row 3, but looking at his entire body of work, I'm not so sure.

Don't get me wrong, when you look at his wins, championships and other accomplishments, he is one of the best American race drivers ever, an old-school guy who could go fast and win in almost anything. But at Indy, his window of success (or dominance) lasted a short period of time.

From 1973-81 he might have been one of the best in the business, but is it long enough to put him in the Top 9 of all time? It's a hard call.

1 comment:

  1. You're braver than I am. Aside from my Row 1 (the 4-timers), my Top 33 is in no specific order, just so I can avoid this sort of thing. :)