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Kyle Busch is having what many people are already considering a dream season. So far this year he has scored 16 victories in the top-three national touring series sanctioned by NASCAR. Early in the year there was talk that he might try and run for the championship in all three divisions, but he has since cut back on his schedule and focused most of his energies on the biggest prize, the Sprint Cup championship. Inevitably the discussions turn towards Busch’s place in history and one of those discussions will center on breaking the record that most people, including this writer, have thought for years would be unbreakable: Jeff Gordon’s single season victory record of 13 races in a single NASCAR Cup season. After scoring his eighth Cup victory this weekend, it seemed like an appropriate time to take a milestone check and see where Busch ranks in comparison to Gordon’s miraculous 1998 season.
In looking back at Gordon’s season the first thing that comes abundantly clear is that this season for Busch will never come close to the overall domination that Gordon poured on his competition. Gordon started the year unceremoniously with four finishes of 16th or worse in the first seven races, but scored two wins and a second in the other three. In the next six races, Gordon started off with an eighth-place finish at Martinsville, four straight top-five finishes at Talladega, California, Charlotte and Dover, including a win at Charlotte, and a 37th-place finish at Richmond. After that point in time, Gordon was simply unbelievable. In the next 20 races Gordon finished outside the top five ONCE, and that was a seventh-place finish at Phoenix in the 31st race of the season. His final totals in 33 races included 13 victories, six second-place finishes, 26 top-five finishes and 28 top 10s. 39% of the time that Gordon took the green flag that season, he was the first driver to see the checkered flag. 79% of the time he came home in the top five and 85% of his races were top-10 efforts.
In the modern era of NASCAR Cup racing, 1972 through present day, there have only been two drivers who have had better numbers than Gordon, but they didn’t have the total package. In 1972, Bobby Allison scored 25 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes during a 31-race season which translates to an 81% and 87% top-five and -10 finishing percentage. However, he was only able to win 10 races that season which was a 32% winning percentage. The following year, Richard Petty posted the modern-era victory record, which was equaled by Gordon, of 13 victories in a season, and did that in three fewer races. That meant that Petty won 43% of the races he entered that season. However, he only scored 21 top fives and 24 top 10s, so his percentages were 70% and 80%, which both fall short of Gordon’s numbers.
Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip also had seasons in the modern era that were close to Gordon’s level of proficiency, but both fell short of Gordon’s impressive numbers. The only other driver who would have had a shot at Gordon’s results was David Pearson. Pearson only ran 18 races in 1973, but won 11 of them, which is a remarkable 61% of the races he entered. He scored 14 top fives and top 10s for a 78% clip, but Pearson didn’t run all of the races for that season, so his numbers are more for speculation of what might have been versus what actually was.
While he has not been mathematically eliminated from equaling Gordon’s top-five numbers, Busch would have to finish in the top five for all of the remaining 14 races on the schedule and that would still leave him short of the top-10 percentage. However, Busch is on pace at this point in the season to surpass Gordon’s victory numbers. In 1998 Gordon won his eighth race of the season the week after Watkins Glen at Michigan, which happened to be his fourth win in a sequence of four consecutive victories in the middle of the season. It was the 21st race of that season versus the 22nd race of the season that Busch just won this past weekend at the Glen. Busch would need to win six of the remaining 14 races on the schedule to surpass Gordon’s single season record. To save you from pulling out your calculator, that is 42.8% of the races left to be run. So far this year, Busch has won 36.4% of the races, which roughly means if he can slightly increase the pace that he has established already this year, he will indeed beat Gordon’s record by a single victory.
Throughout NASCAR history there have been historic runs and record breaking seasons. This season it is Kyle Busch that is on the run that everyone else is envious of and, if he can add just a bit more to his pace, he’ll write his name in the record book alone next to the title for most victories in a single season.