Immediately after the 99th Indianapolis 500, Jeff Olson proclaimed Juan Pablo Montoya to be the best racer of his era. I guess that proclamation isn’t totally off base and some would say it’s probably spot on. Olson also admits that Tony Stewart is in the running because of his victories in open wheel, sprint car, and stock car. To be clear, I’m 33 and the era we’re talking about is from about 1995 until 2015. 20 years is probably a good and fair window to define an era. INDYCAR and NASCAR fans are – for whatever reason – always at each other’s necks about which form of racing is better. There are plenty of cases for both and each is unique in its own special way.
Up front, I have to say that I think Juan Pablo Montoya has been a better racer over the past 20 years than Tony Stewart. Montoya has participated in CART, Formula 1, INDYCAR, and NASCAR. Montoya boasts two Indianapolis 500 wins, one Monaco Grand Prix win, and three 24 Hours of Daytona wins. In addition he has seven Formula 1 wins, two NASCAR Sprint Cup wins, 10 ChampCar wins and four INDYCAR wins.
Montoya, along with Jacques Villenueve, are the only two active drivers who have won two legs of the Triple Crown of Motorsport (Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Monaco Grand Prix).
Montoya’s missing achievement – and probably what would put most people over the top in his favor – is an oval win at a NASCAR track. Many will argue NASCAR is the most difficult car to drive in sports. Others will argue NASCAR is easier because you can bump n' grind your way around other cars. Bumping and grinding in INDYCAR or Formula 1 might net you a R. Kelly-type rape charge.
NBC’s Dustin Long makes the case for Jimmie Johnson. He’s quick to point out that he’s only talking about American racing, which I think is purposely disrespectful to Montoya because he ignores all the work Montoya has done in other places. A fair point about Johnson that Long mentions is that over the course of Johnson’s six Sprint Cup championships, NASCAR changed the rules many times (read: every year) to keep the championship closer and "more entertaining". I read that as NASCAR did everything to make sure someone different won the championship and Johnson overcame those odds.
The biggest detractor for Johnson is unless he decides to drive in another type of car after he retires from NASCAR, we’ll never know how well he would have done racing somewhere else. Sure, Johnson’s six Sprint Cup championships are nothing to sneeze at, but the resume isn’t nearly as complete as fellow NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.
Even when we look at Tony Stewart’s career over the extended course of 20 years there’s nothing to compete with the likes of Montoya. Stewart has raced the Indianapolis 500 five times, has never won and his best finish is fifth. Stewart’s participated in 18 Daytona 500’s with no victories and his best finish is second. To his credit, Tony Stewart does own USAC’s Triple Crown, winning all three national championships in one season (1995). J.J. Yeley is the only other driver to win the Triple Crown in one season.
Stewart does have three Sprint Cup championships and across both NASCAR championship formats. In 566 wins, Stewart has won 48 races and 298 top-tens. Don’t forget Tony Stewart is also the 1997 IndyCar champion.
I think we can break this down two ways: If you’re looking only at American racing it would be hard to not say Tony Stewart isn’t the best driver of his era, but when looking at motorsports overall denying Juan Pablo Montoya that crown would be stupid.
When your resume spans multiple forms of racing, and your arguably two biggest motorsports wins (Indianapolis 500) come 15 years apart and in the middle you raced a completely different type of car and won two races, it’s tough to argue that you aren’t the best.
So, what do you think? Who is the best driver in this era?