Vito Pugliese · Wednesday April 6, 2011
Kyle Busch won last year’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway in his typical dominant fashion, leading 153 laps but needing to hold off teammate Joey Logano after passing him for the lead with 24 laps to go. That’s how the Nationwide Series has gone for Busch, domineering the competition while entering this weekend’s event with 46 wins – just three shy of the division’s all-time leader, Mark Martin. Martin has conceded in recent weeks that Kyle Busch will likely pass him for the record over the course of the next couple of months, and seems rather resigned if not nonplussed by the matter.
Well, as so often is the case when comparing different drivers and their accomplishments from different eras, the inevitable question that arises from their changing of the guard is simple: which driver’s record and wins mean more?
Martin’s Nationwide (i.e., Busch Grand National) career began in 1987 – though he did make one start back in 1982. Nationwide in ’87 was Martin’s second “official” crack at NASCAR, after his initial foray into the series five years earlier left him in professional, financial, and emotional ruin. Having torn up the short tracks of the Midwest in the now defunct American Speed Association, winning three championships by the time he was 21, Martin was ready for primetime in the Cup Series, filing for Rookie of the Year – however, as the 1982 season got underway it was clear his operation was not. Sponsorship dollars never truly materialized that season, and he had to auction off virtually everything he owned by the end of it.
After a 1983 season that saw him bounce around between four different cars and teams, he went back to the ASA Series to make a place and a name for himself again in the mid-1980s, reestablishing himself before returning to the series that was traditionally the stepping stone to Sprint Cup.
It would just be one year before Martin got the call, running full-time for Roush Racing beginning in 1988 after an eighth-place finish in Nationwide points the previous year. But the veteran chose not to abandon the series; far from it. Instead, Martin would run partial schedules form 1988-1990 for fellow Batesville, Arkansas native Bill Davis, who was privy to Martin’s formative racing years and whose team at the time was one of the few to field Fords. Martin won two races in 30 starts over three seasons; then, in 1991 he made just one start for him in the Nationwide Series. It was a short-term solution, as the team was preparing to take on a young driver with little stock car experience from Indiana who had not driven a stock car before. He had a mullet, a really bad mustache, and was named Jeff Gordon.
In 1992, Martin started his own team with his crew chief from back in his ASA days, Banjo Grimm. This was back when full-time teams still ruled the roost in Nationwide (Busch Grand National back then) and Cup drivers would come in to help sell tickets. For Martin, it also was a bit of a contingency plan; while he had a successful Cup career established in just a few short years, his first go-round didn’t end so well and having something to fall back on was not a bad idea.
It was in 1993, though, that the wins really started racking up for Martin. After selling his operation to Jack Roush, Martin won seven races in 14 starts – a 50% win ratio for all you math whizzes out there and a number that even Kyle Busch has yet to come close to matching.
He would continue to enter about half of the races from 1994-2000, where he would win 31 races in 101 starts – a virtually unheard 30.69% clip. Those are the kind of victory statistics that Charlie Sheen gets excited about. And yes, I did that math all by myself with my mind tools…
During this time, Martin did a lot more than just rack up wins on Saturday while barely breaking a sweat – he also taught a generation of drivers how to race the right way. Never did the No. 60 car have to use the “bump and run” to get by somebody, even on a short track. Rubbing might be racing, but wrecking isn’t. Martin showed to win races and be competitive, you didn’t need to have at it with anybody or start fights and rivalries. If somebody was faster, you’d see his black Thunderbird yank it down to the apron as if it had an engine failure to let somebody by he might have been holding up through faulty handling.
Five laps later, he’d re-pass the same car as the tires went away and check out on the field.
Tony Stewart has lamented that one of the worst things that has happened to NASCAR in recent years has been Martin’s absence from the Nationwide Series, as a number of younger drivers are not being taught the nuances or code of competition by a veteran who has been racing longer than they’ve been alive.
In a touch of irony for this column, Kyle Busch actually was one of those who was tutored by Martin. While Busch was still driving the No. 5 car in Nationwide competition for Hendrick Motorsports, he was atop the pit box at Darlington in April of 2007 to watch Martin pilot his car to a second-place finish.
Compared to Martin, Kyle Busch’s path through the Nationwide Series has been a decidedly different one. Busch was the hottest prospect in motorsports, starting his NASCAR career in the Truck Series at just 16 years of age – and then having to sit out until he turned 18 after a rules change prevented him from continuing in 2001. The younger Busch made his Nationwide Series debut in 2003 driving a Joe Nemechek-owned Chevrolet to a pair of runner-up finishes, a warmup gig prior to his legitimate, full-season Hendrick Motorsports ride in 2004.
Busch won five times in 34 races that year but lost handily to Martin Truex, Jr. in the title chase. He would win five times in his next 67 starts between 2005-2007; however, once he left for Joe Gibbs Racing the win wick was turned up considerably.
To compare apples to apples, Busch’s last 101 starts have resulted in 36 wins; a 35.64% victory ratio, including a full season in 2009 where he won nine races – but he’s also finished second 11 times. That’s all occurred in the span of 35 races – where he eventually would win the title over Carl Edwards by 210 points, and Nationwide Series regular Brad Keselowski by 318 markers.
Jason Leffler in fourth, however, was only 1,142 points behind.
In 2010, the numbers were even more obscene. Running a limited schedule that saw Busch start 29 of 36 races, he scored 13 wins and three second-place finishes. Only four races saw him finish outside the top 10, and in all of those he led at least 10 laps.
As is often the case when comparing different eras of competition, Busch’s dominance began following the economic crisis of 2008. Nationwide-only teams had largely become a thing of the past by then, with the majority of the field being Cup drivers and teams taking part in an effort to study tires for Sunday’s race, make some extra money, and sell some die cast cars.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that; however, when the fourth-place driver in points is over 1,100 points behind at the end of the season, as there was in Busch’s championship run of 2009 there is something wildly askew with the picture. Couple that with the perpetual petulance of years prior, shoving matches and incidents of guitar smashing and ripped radio wires gone awry, and your record gets a bit tarnished as a result.
No, it’s not exactly Barry Bonds on beef ‘roids claiming it was Perpetration H, but there’s a reason why Martin’s record and reputation continues to be held in such reverence. Busch’s antics tested the patience of several race fans – and race teams – however you can’t argue with the record or the dominance he has displayed over the last four years.
So is one set of records superior to another? Again, when comparing feats from different eras, an argument can be made either way. Martin’s wins were during a time when the competition among the Series regulars kept many on a level playing field. Busch’s wins have come largely at the expense of smaller, underfunded teams in an era where technology and development have ruled the roost. Many of those wins have also came against Cup drivers in Cup-affiliated equipment, so in that sense it’s a bit of a wash. Martin traditionally ran half or less than half of the seasons through 2000, competing sparingly over the last decade, while Busch has run entire ones, claiming the 2009 Nationwide Series Championship – and just think, he has 26 years to go before he matches Martin in age.
Like Richard Petty said after Dale Earnhardt won his record-tying seventh Cup championship in 1995, “I used to beat people, but he just runs them into the ground.”
Lurking in third place on the All-Time wins list is Kevin Harvick with 37. Someday he, too, will likely eclipse Martin at the current pace – assuming he competes in the series for the next few seasons. If recent history is any indication, Martin will likely still be competing as well, with the suggestion being his recent rides (and win) in the Turner Motorsports No. 32 Chevrolets is an audition of sorts for 2012. So maybe this talk of Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick passing Martin in wins is all a bit premature after all, as they’re all on the same page and same era as it stands today.
Taking that into consideration, I guess check back with me in about five more years; there’s a good chance that the record might not be eclipsed, and we’re having the same conversation all over again.
I hope not.
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