Top 8 Indy 500 Racing Storylines of the Last 30 Years

105th running of the indianapolis 500
Top 8 Indy 500 Storylines of the Last 30 YearsStacy Revere - Getty Images

There’s nothing as exciting in the sports world than the last lap or two in the Indianapolis 500. It’s high drama that results either in the greatest of highs to the winner or the lowest of lows to those who are deprived of getting to victory lane due to a last-minute pass, crash or mechanical failure.

Not to mention the most disappointing thing of all that keeps a driver from taking the checkered flag: running out of fuel.

The IndyCar world has evolved quite a bit over the last 30 years, including the war that developed between the upstart Indy Racing League and CART in 1996 that effectively kept most CART teams out of the 500 for a dozen years, depriving American open-wheel fans of seeing their favorite drivers.


Reunification of the IRL and Champ Car World Series (the successor to CART) finally came about in 2008 and the Indy 500 continues to be the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

In no particular order, we’ve selected eight of the top 30 finishes or key on-track storylines since 1993. Strap in, it is going to be a bumpy ride:

Fernando Alonso Takes on Indy - 2017

When Formula 1 star Fernando Alonso decided to try his luck at IndyCar racing with a one-off start in the 2017 Indy 500 (does it REALLY seem like it’s been six years since then already?), he created one of the most talked-about months of May in a long time.

Alonso didn’t disappoint, leading 27 laps in the 101st running of the 500, and appeared comfortably headed to regaining the lead late in the race and the eventual win.

Unfortunately, the engine in his McLaren Andretti Honda let go with 19 laps to go and rather than a win—or a podium at the very least—Alonso went back to Europe with a disappointing 24th-place finish but with an eagerness to return to the 500 again in 2020.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have the kind of car under him that he had three years earlier and once again went back home to Europe with a disappointing finish of 21st. He had been rumored to race again both in 2022 and 2023, but those rumors proved not to be true, and it’s questionable whether we’ll ever see Fernando-mania back in Indy again.

101st indianapolis 500
Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images

Helio Castroneves Wins No. 4 - 2021

As the nation began coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, it needed something to get sports fans cheering and inspired again, especially after the 2020 500 was not only delayed nearly three months, but was also held in front of Z-E-R-O fans due to the pandemic.

Enter our hero, Helio Castroneves, who in his first career start for Meyer Shank Racing, and with a limited maximum crowd of 135,000 in the stands, gave fans what they wanted and needed by becoming the fourth driver to win the Indy 500 four different times, joining A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and the late Al Unser in the 500’s most exclusive club.

After beating runner-up Alex Palou by nearly a half-second, Helio, less than three weeks after turning 45 years old, proved old guys still rule at Indy, climbed the fence, much to the joy of his fans, and then with emotional tears in his eyes, proclaimed this win as being the greatest of his career.

auto may 30 indycar the 105th indianapolis 500
Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Alexander Rossi Wins 100th Indy 500 - 2016

After a brief foray in Formula 1, and with few other racing options available to him at the time, California native Alexander Rossi returned to the U.S. with an offer to race in IndyCar from Andretti Autosport.

Rossi repaid team owner Michael Andretti’s faith in him by capturing the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500—as a rookie, no less—in dominating fashion, defeating runner-up Carlos Munoz by 4.5 seconds. Rossi helped save the day for the Andretti group as teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay looked like the early favorite to win, leading a race-high 52 laps, before finishing 24th, two laps behind his winning teammate.

While Rossi would go on to win seven more times during his IndyCar tenure with Andretti, he never was able to win that elusive championship. Andretti and Rossi parted ways after last season, and Rossi has enjoyed a rebirth of sorts with his new team, Arrow McLaren, including a third-place finish at this year's Indy Grand Prix. Rossi arguably looks stronger than he has since his rookie season.

Could his second win in the 500 come next week?

indianapolis 500
Jonathan Ferrey - Getty Images

Buddy Lazier's Win Opens IRL Era of Indy 500s - 1996

In perhaps the first time since the first edition of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911, fans in 1996 truly needed a program to figure out who was driving what car in the Indy 500.

With the upstart Indy Racing League essentially blocking out most CART drivers from competing—the IRL was only guaranteeing eight spots to CART drivers—CART boycotted the event. And by looking at the stands, thousands of fans also boycotted the race as well in solidarity with their CART favorites.

Buddy Lazier wound up winning by .695 seconds over Davy Jones. It would be the first of eight eventual IRL wins for Lazier, who wound up also winning the 2000 IRL season championship. But admittedly, IRL fields were watered down compared to CART: Lazier won his eight races in 100 IRL starts, but won zero races in 55 CART starts.

car indy 500 lazier

Helio Misses No. 4 By Car Length - 2014

There was a 12-year span between Castroneves’ third and fourth wins in the Indy 500 (2009 and 2021). But had it not been for one reason or other, Helio could have had seven wins in the 500 by now.

He finished second in 2003 (losing to teammate Gil de Ferran by .229 seconds), which deprived him of a three-peat of winning the 500 after capturing the checkered flag back-to-back in 2001 and 2002. He won No. 3 in 2009, and then had two more close calls—again, finishing runner-up each time—in 2014 and 2017 (.201 seconds behind winner Takuma Sato).

But it was 2014 that Helio BARELY missed winning No. 4, losing to Ryan Hunter-Reay by essentially the length of one car and .06 seconds. After trading the lead with RHR a couple of times, Castroneves was ahead going into the final lap before Hunter-Reay pulled ahead coming out of Turn 4 and held on to deprive Castroneves yet again.

98th indianapolis 500 mile race
Chris Graythen - Getty Images

Sam Hornish Jr. Keeps Andretti Curse Alive - 2006

Three-time IRL champion (2001, 2002 and 2006) Sam Hornish had been following in Dan Wheldon’s tire tracks the entire race in 2006, with Wheldon leading three-quarters of the event (148 of the 200 laps). But Wheldon slipped back late in the race to finish fourth, preventing him from winning the 500 in back-to-back years.

Michael Andretti looked like he’d finally break the dreaded Andretti winless curse, leading as late as Lap 197 before surrendering the lead to son and 500 rookie Marco Andretti, on Lap 198.

While it looked as if one or the other Andretti’s would take the win, in one of the best comebacks the 500 has seen in a long time, Slammin’ Sammy from Defiance, Ohio, managed to outdrive the younger Andretti, passing him as they both exited Turn 4 on the final lap and streaked toward the checkered flag, with Hornish winning by .0635 seconds, the third-closest finish in 500 history.

irl indianapolis 500
William Manning - Getty Images

No Fans, No Worries for Winner Takuma Sato - 2020

What if they held an IndyCar race and no one showed up?

That was essentially what happened in the 2020 Indy 500. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the original race date on Memorial Day weekend was canceled and eventually rescheduled to August 23, 2020.

But there was the biggest caveat in 500 history: the race would be televised live, but due to pandemic restrictions, there would not be even one fan admitted into the 300,000-plus seats at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The only people allowed at-track were team and safety crew members and a very small corps of media.

Sato took the lead on Lap 185 and would hold on for the finish, although he’d win under caution due to Spencer Pigot’s crash with five laps left. It would be Sato’s second Indy 500 win, to go along with his triumph in 2017. As weird as the overall day was, perhaps the strangest outcome was when Sato crossed the finish line and eventually went to victory lane with no cheering or applause from the stands.

104th indianapolis 500
Gregory Shamus - Getty Images

Kurt Busch Doubles Up in 2014

There’s no question Kurt Busch is a talented race car driver. He’s known primarily for his exploits in NASCAR, but he’s also dabbled in dirt track racing, drag racing and in 2014, he became the most recent driver to attempt the so-called “Double”—competing the same day in both the Indianapolis 500 in the morning and early afternoon, and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the evening.

For a guy who had limited experience in an Indy car, the Las Vegas native definitely opened a lot of eyes when he roared to a sixth-place finish in the 500 (Ryan Hunter-Reay was the race winner).

Unfortunately, in the NASCAR nightcap in suburban Charlotte, Busch saw his hopes of completing both races in their respective 1,100-mile total entirety, fall short when he suffered engine failure about two-thirds of the way through NASCAR’s longest race of the year.

98th indianapolis 500
Jonathan Ferrey - Getty Images