NBC Sports’ Dustin Long and Nate Ryan 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 this week … what’s your take?
Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson had a heated exchange on the radio late in the Pocono race. Gordon remains winless in what will be his final Sprint Cup season. Do you make much out of the radio banter at Pocono and where does he score a win to secure a Chase spot, if you think he will?
Nate: Squabbling with Gustafson was a manifestation of Gordon’s toughest season since 2012. The No. 24 Chevrolet simply hasn’t been fast enough most weeks, and when it has been (such as at Daytona, Martinsville and Talladega), Gordon has been bitten by speeding penalties and tactical errors. The storybook ending only happens if the four-time series champion can secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and too many opportunities have been squandered while half the regular season has elapsed. The July 5 race at Daytona should offer another shot at a win, but it’s hard to pick a likely target beyond that. Once an ace at turning left and right, Sonoma will mark nine years since his last road-course win, and while Gordon is the all-time Brickyard winner, Pocono (and his angry radio transmission) indicated his car needs major improvement. Short tracks are a long shot: Gordon is nearly 13 years removed from his last Bristol win, and the drought is nearly 15 at Richmond.
Dustin: I agree, Nate, that Gordon’s frustration comes from how he’s performed this season. The team isn’t showing the speed to run at the front at various tracks. Discount the restrictor-plate races and Gordon has led only 28 laps this season. Based on how he’s run so far this season, it is hard to pick many races that he could win at this moment. Daytona next month is one. I’ll say this, I’d keep an eye on Indy. While he hasn’t been leading too often at some of the bigger tracks, Indy is a place where teams bring their latest and greatest stuff to prepare for the Chase. If he’s a non-factor at Indy, it will raise a red flag about his title hopes.
Jimmie Johnson has four wins in the first 14 races – matching what he did in 2007 when he went on to win 10 races and the title. His eight top-three finishes are the most he’s scored at this point of any season. Is this the best we’ve seen out of Jimmie Johnson?
Nate: No, the No. 48’s high-water mark remains the four consecutive victories late in the 2007 Chase that stamped a 10-win season and its second championship. Johnson has seemed beatable at times during this run – witness two mediocre weeks at Charlotte Motor Speedway – but his team has flaunted the type of championship resilience and speed that was missing last year. Crew chief Chad Knaus also has been on top of his strategic prowess – the wins at Kansas and Dover were punctuated by gutsy calls – and that bodes well given that the lack of passing has put a premium on maintaining position.
Dustin: No, the best – at least this season – is yet to come. As you say, Nate, this team is showing signs of putting everything in place to make another run for the title. The early wins have given him a chance to play around with setups and strategies, to push the limits in preparation for the Chase. Three of his four wins this season have come at tracks that will host a Chase race – Texas, Kansas and Dover.
Kyle Busch makes his return to the Xfinity Series this weekend for the first time since he was injured in a crash in that series at Daytona in February. Is this a good idea for Busch to get back in the car when he’s trying to make the Chase in the Sprint Cup Series?
Nate: The more laps the better for a driver knocking off the rust from a three-month layoff, particularly if it’s Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing tried to restrain his extracurricular schedule in 2012, and it resulted in a restless Busch missing the Chase. The team took the reins off since then, and that’s the only suitable approach to a driver who rarely shows any ill effects from being confined in a cockpit for several hours per day. The downsides of inactivity outweigh the risks of more exposure to being hurt again.
Dustin: Let him race. He’s run well in his first three points races back in Cup. You’re right, Nate, he’s one of those drivers who seem to do better the more laps they run on a weekend. Remember, he has to win at least one of the next 12 Sprint Cup races to have a chance of making the Chase. If he feels that running in other series will help him toward that, that’s what he should do. Let’s also understand this is a business. Sponsors paid for Busch to be in the car. That’s not to say they want him in regardless of his health, but if he’s healthy and able to race in the Xfinity Series, then that is a consideration as well. If it’s too much, it’s up to Busch to say so.