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

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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.

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

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Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

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Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.