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Forward Bite: Who is the greatest driver of this era? How many winners before Chase?

Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson

Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson


NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan and Dustin Long are back for another edition of Forward Bite where they debate various NASCAR topics and share their unvarnished (and sometimes unpopular) opinions.

Here’s their take on key topics this week … what’s your take?

A USA TODAY story posited after the Indianapolis 500 states that two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya could stake a claim as the greatest driver of his generation. True?

Nate: With varying vehicles, tracks and rules across its myriad series, auto racing’s infrastructure makes it inherently impossible to definitively determine how a driver rates on a macro level – particularly given the demise of bygone eras in which hopping between circuits was common. But having raced in Sprint Cup, IndyCar and Formula One, Montoya can stake a serious claim to being a transcendent talent. Though he didn’t win on an oval in a stock car, he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup and showed speed that others lacked in trying to make the transition from open wheel. The impediment to his NASCAR success mostly was attributable to his cars, and the same narrative was true in F1 (check out his 2002 season when Williams’ mechanical failures). Indy proved again that when he has the right car, Montoya can deliver world-class results that evokes the crossover success of Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

Dustin: I don’t see that claim for Montoya. He can be applauded for his diversified portfolio, but let’s be honest about something. The only reason Montoya even had the chance to win a second Indianapolis 500 is because he didn’t have the results to remain in NASCAR. If the performance had been better, Montoya would have never left for IndyCar. That said, when I look at the best driver of this era - at least in American racing - it’s hard not to go against Jimmie Johnson because of his six championships in NASCAR’s top series, winning titles under varying forms of the Chase and often dominating in a system that was intended to keep the points battle close to the final race. Johnson, in part, forced NASCAR to change how it determines its champion with the winner-take-all format at Homestead now.

Nate: But there always will be the lingering question about how Johnson would have fared in open-wheel cars, Dustin. Unfortunately, it will go unanswered. As far as the best American driver of this era, it’d be hard to disagree with Tony Stewart. He has contended for Indianapolis 500 wins, won an IndyCar title (albeit against diluted competition) and captured the near-impossible USAC Triple Crown title. While Johnson has twice as many Sprint Cup championships, Stewart’s resume is more complete. It’s possible to say Johnson is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time … but that Stewart is the best of this generation. And let’s not forget that Montoya had the opportunity to stay in NASCAR – Furniture Row Racing was very interested – but he seemed to have grown disinterested in latter seasons. That the winningest Indy 500 owner in history still was interested in his services speaks volumes about Montoya’s worth.

Dustin: I’d put Tony in that class as well, Nate, but if I’m being asked best in an era, I’m looking at who did the most against the top competition. Johnson’s six titles trumps Stewart’s three in Cup.

There have been nine different winners in the first 12 races of the season, yet drivers without a win at this point include Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and others. How many more drivers will win before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins and who do you think they will be?

Dustin: I don’t foresee 16 different winners entering the Chase. Last year’s total was 13 and that could be about right if no one can catch Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who have shown to have among the fastest cars. It’s hard to imagine Martin Truex Jr. not winning a race before the Chase. Same with Jeff Gordon. I think what will be interesting to see is who wins the wildcard races - Daytona in July (Aric Almirola last year), Sonoma (Carl Edwards) and Watkins Glen (AJ Allmendinger). Will those tracks again provide a first-time winner this season? If so, the number of drivers who make the Chase via a win could expand.

Nate: Three: Kasey Kahne, Truex and Gordon. I’m not feeling the wild-card magic this season for the underdogs, Dustin, and I think Gordon, who is nine years removed from a road-course victory and way overdue, will prioritize Sonoma and Watkins Glen as must-win races. Barring a rain-shortened ending akin to last year, the first two restrictor-plate races didn’t offer much hope of a surprise. The Stewart-Haas Racing dominance of Busch and Harvick will continue, the similarly built Hendrick cars will continue to improve, and Team Penske and JGR will round into title-contending form entering the Chase – locking out Richard Childress Racing from victory lane in the regular season for the second straight year.

Dustin: As for Kyle Busch, I think he has a chance to win, but he will be limited where. I see his best chance coming at Kentucky, Bristol, Richmond and Watkins Glen. Will he win one? I’ll lean his way that he does.

What stood out more to you at during the Coca-Cola 600 weekend — Joe Gibbs Racing winning and having all four of its cars finish better than 12th or Hendrick Motorsports not having a car start in the top 10 and having only one car finish in the top 10.

Dustin: I thought it was a good sign for Joe Gibbs Racing to sweep Charlotte with Denny Hamlin winning the All-Star race and the success the organization had in the Coca-Cola 600. JGR had two of its cars finish in the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway once this season before last weekend. Folks from Gibbs had said they were pointing toward Charlotte with upgrades and it worked. The question, though, is if this team can transfer what worked at Charlotte to other tracks because, even with the success, JGR is still behind the top teams at the speedways.

Nate: JGR deserves a lot of credit for its execution– both through driver racecraft and team strategy – that allowed it to sweep Charlotte without having the fastest cars. But what stood out most significantly for me from the weekend is that for the first time in 31 years, a Rick Hendrick-owned car didn’t lead a lap during the Coca-Cola 600. The qualifying struggles were indicative of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets again lacking speed when compared to the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevys of Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick – despite having the same engines and chassis. While it isn’t time to hit the panic button at Hendrick, it must be maddening to be getting beat by your own cars every week.