The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Kyle Busch's 200-Win Fantasy, Stremme's Dream Turned Nightmare, And Hendrick's Big Choice by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday May 6, 2009

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Did You Notice? … The big hubbub this week – by far – is whether Kyle Busch can get to 200 wins throughout his Cup career in NASCAR’s top three series.

What? I’ve been under the weather with some kind of flu bug this week, so at first I thought I was being delusional when I heard that. But no, that’s what Busch said after his post-race press conference, a quote that’s sent speculation soaring as to whether or not it can be done.

But for those of us who’ve been around a long time … you have to laugh. I remember during Jeff Gordon’s peak years in the mid-1990s, speculation ran rampant as to whether or not he’d be able to achieve a total of between 100 and 150 wins in Cup during his career – or possibly even come close to challenging Richard Petty and that magic “200” number. Of course, now we know 150 is a total impossibility, and Gordon will fall short of 100 as well if he only chooses to race three or four more years on the Cup circuit.

Yet for some reason, here we are 15 years later and the whole world wants to jump on that bandwagon once again. That’s not to say I don’t admire Busch for pursuing this lofty goal … but the numbers don’t lie here. Let’s break this down statistically and see exactly how much of a longshot Busch’s goal really is. Right now, Busch’s 50 wins break apart like this:

Cup: 15 wins in 160 career starts
Nationwide: 24 wins in 147 career starts
Trucks: 11 wins in 58 career starts
TOTAL: 50 wins in 365 career starts

Overall, that works out to an average of a win every 7.3 starts in any of the sport’s top three divisions. Still with me? Now, Busch will run in a total of 86 races this year in the Nationwide, Cup, and Truck Series. If that average continues to hold up, that means he’ll win a total of 12 times this year. So far, he’s already scored eight victories; but just to give him the benefit of the doubt, let’s pretend he has another remarkable year and we add 12 more victories to his total for 2009.

That would leave him on a track like this:

End of 2009: 62 wins
End of 2015 (age 30 ½): 134 wins
End of 2020 (age 35 ½): 194 wins

As you can see, based on this model Busch would be going for his 200th win in NASCAR’s top three series at the rather young age of 36 – an age that seems within reason to get this accomplished. But that future is assuming a lot; and as we’re about to find out, even the most minor of adjustments results in a shift that adds several years before this milestone gets achieved.

Let’s go ahead and make one of those minor adjustments right now. Busch should return to a reduced schedule in the Nationwide Series after just another year or two – especially if the series winds up making rules preventing Cup guys from challenging for the overall season title. Just for kicks, let’s assume such a rule gets put in place next year, which limits Busch to just 20 starts in Nationwide instead of 35. If that’s the case, Busch would drop to an average of just 10 wins per year across the top three series, putting him on the following track:

End of 2009: 62 wins (again, adding a free 12 wins to his current total before the changes)
End of 2015 (age 30 ½): 122 wins
End of 2020 (age 35 ½): 172 wins
End of 2023 (age 38 ½): 202 wins

As you can see, just one simple tweak suddenly makes the quest for 200 a whole lot tougher. And we haven’t even gotten into whether or not Busch is capable of keeping up this breakneck pace for the next 15 years on the Cup, Nationwide, and Truck Series circuits all at once.

Now, if there’s anyone who knows the difficulty associated with staying precariously perked at the top, it’s Gordon – the only other man not named Busch to win 15 Cup races before the age of 25. Gordon’s peak in the Cup Series came at a similar age to what Busch is experiencing now. Between 1995 and 1999 (the ages of 24 and 27), Gordon set the sport on fire, winning 47 times in 161 starts for a sizzling average of a win every 3.4 times he sat inside his DuPont Chevrolet. With that type of track record, people thought even Petty’s vaunted 200 wins were within reach; but at the end of the ’99 season, Gordon lost crew chief Ray Evernham to Dodge, leading to a leadership void within the organization that took several years to replace. And although the Rainbow Warriors won another title since then, Gordon’s been to Victory Lane just 33 times from 2000-09 – quite the slowdown from the record-setting pace he put himself on just a few years earlier.

While Kyle Busch has been on a tear in recent seasons, the odds are stacked against Rowdy re-enacting this scene 200 times in his career.

Parity was one of the reasons Gordon ran into a serious slowdown; during his time in the Cup Series, he watched the number of race winners grow from eleven during his 13-win, 1998 season to an average of 15 different winners throughout the first decade of the 2000s. That makes it so, so easy to fall off the top of the mountain; and it’s a problem that Busch will likely face in the future as well. When there’s any small change, like crew chief Steve Addington leaving, Toyota encountering some issues with their engines, or a rule change that doesn’t play to his liking, so many other drivers are able to step up that it can reduce the number of Busch’s wins by four or five per year.

And what if that parity makes its way over to the Nationwide and Truck Series divisions? Right now, Busch has a tremendous advantage in Nationwide of driving the best equipment out there in JGR. But any rule change or additional practice time benefiting the Nationwide-only drivers and cars would suddenly take away that upper hand.

When you take all these things into consideration, let’s say Busch “slows down” after age 30 and goes from winning an average of 10 times per year to only six over his next decade of competition. Under that scenario, the numbers would look like this:

End of 2009: 62 wins (again, adding a free 12 wins to his current total before the changes)
End of 2015 (age 30 ½): 122 wins (reduction to 10 per year with limited Nationwide schedule)
End of 2020 (age 35 ½): 152 wins
End of 2025 (age 40 ½): 182 wins
End of 2028 (age 43 ½): 200 wins

As you can see, suddenly Busch is pushing age 44 in his quest for 200 – and as we’ve seen recently, 40 is the new 60 when it comes to Sprint Cup success. After plenty of 40-somethings dominating the circuit in the 1990s, just five races in the last three-plus years have been won by guys 40 and older.

Alright, I’ve said enough to make your head swirl with confusing numbers. Here’s the bottom line: Busch’s quest for 200 may look like a piece of cake now, but there’s a long, looong way to go. It’s far more likely his career Cup win total will mirror that of Gordon’s, with the extra wins in the Nationwide and Truck Series making his career numbers all the more impressive.

But 200? It just doesn’t jive with me. Not at all. And on the Cup side only, David Pearson’s 105 wins have a better shot be beaten by Jimmie Johnson or Gordon than they do by Kyle Busch at the moment.

Did You Notice? … David Stremme’s struggles behind the wheel of the No. 12 continue? We talked early on in the season about how Stremme would be a man on the hot seat at Penske Racing – especially with big money sponsor Verizon footing the bills. Unfortunately, thus far he’s wilted under pressure, with the yearlong slump mirroring that of another longtime Busch/Nationwide Series veteran who wound up losing out on his ride after just half a season: Jason Leffler.

I first mentioned the comparison back in February, but didn’t expand on it … until now. Like Stremme, Leffler rebuilt his career in NASCAR’s second-tier series before being picked up for a top-notch ride: the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car sponsored by FedEx. But right off the bat, Leffler struggled with back-to-back DNFs of 36th and 37th to start his year, living a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare. Pulling a best finish of just 12th in nineteen starts, Leffler was gone by August and eventually replaced by current driver Denny Hamlin – who at the time was turning heads with his runs in Gibbs equipment in both the then-Busch and Craftsman Truck Series.

Fast forward to 2009, and the situation looks eerily similar for Stremme. Here’s quick comparison of both men through 10 races:

Leffler (No. 11 car in 2005): 2 DNFs, Best Finish: 12th, Average Finish: 23.5

Stremme (No. 12 car in 2009): 2 DNFs, Best Finish: 13th, Average Finish: 22.8

Funny how history repeats itself, doesn’t it? Just like Leffler in 2005, Stremme’s got a teammate contending for the championship (Tony Stewart then, Kurt Busch now for Roger Penske). And as for Stremme’s potential replacement? How about a young protégé behind him rising through the ranks, in the form of defending ARCA champ turned impressive Nationwide Series rookie Justin Allgaier.

What does it all mean? That Stremme needs to pick up the pace … or get working on dusting off his resume rather quickly.

Did You Notice? … A number of quick hits as we’re already inching close to 2,000 words (which is about all I can pop out with this pretend version of the swine flu … that’s what I get for privately making fun of an epidemic for the last two weeks)

— Notice how everyone – even Dale Jr. fans – has gotten sick and tired of the Earnhardt-Eury saga? I think we’re at the put up or shut up point in that whole relationship; I mean, what more is there to really say? Meanwhile, as much as Hendrick Motorsports butchered Captain Thunder … if they’re going to make a change, the May 16th drop-dead date Thunder mentioned for doing so is a pretty good bet. Charlotte is the two-week break where teams rest up, reevaluate, and make changes to benefit them the rest of the regular season. If Eury’s still on the pit box the end of May … expect him to be there until at least the end of the regular season in September. Hendrick has a history of being calculated with these types of things, and he just won’t pull the trigger randomly in the middle of summer.

— Notice how that’s not the first time David Stremme and Carl Edwards made contact? The two tangled during the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas in March. As we talked about last week, it was yet another instance of two guys always seeming to find each other. In the end, Stremme got the short end of the stick though, becoming the innocent victim of another accident and leaving Richmond with a DNF.

— Notice how if Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski had actually been able to run for Rookie of the Year, they’d be a solid 1-2 punch in the rookie points right now? Is it possible to give them a write-in vote?

— Notice that after all the criticism and all the nepotism and all the immaturity … Steven Wallace is 10th in Nationwide Series points – without a DNF for a crash since Daytona? Say what you want about the guy, but you’ve got to give credit where credit’s due.

— Notice that just ten drivers are entered in both the Nationwide and Cup Series events this weekend (and two of those shouldn’t even count: Cup part-timer Brad Keselowski and perpetually underfunded Joe Nemechek). Perhaps there’s hope of the Nationwide-only drivers one day reasserting themselves after all?

— Notice that not one person complains about racing at the Lady In Black? Is there anyone who hates Darlington? Anyone?

I didn’t think so, either.

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Ryan
05/06/2009 01:48 PM
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Jeff Gordon stopped winning every 3.4 times he sat in the car when Ray Evernham left the team , and Gordon hasn’t come even close to those numbers ever since . Sounds to me like Evernham had a lot more to do with Gordons’ early performance than Gordon did . And please stop with the “ competition was much better in the 90s “ lunacy . The winningest drivers of all time raced against each other every week . Gordon has only had to compete against one of them , who , if he hadn’t died , would likely have at least a few more wins next to his name .
105 total wins is certainly possible for Kyle , but its going to require a lot of luck and a good solid team . The only driver to really score a bunch of wins while driving for a number of different car owners was Bobby Allison . He even won driving his own cars ( the Chevelle and the Matador ) several times .

The Old Guy
05/06/2009 06:46 PM
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“is there anyone who hates darlington”

Yes, Kyle Petty!

 

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Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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