Last weekend marked a noteworthy event in NASCAR. On Saturday in Iowa, Kyle Busch, the ultra-talented 25-year-old from Las Vegas, took home his 75th victory in NASCAR’s three national touring divisions. (The win is actually Busch’s 76th NASCAR win; he has one win in the K&N Pro Series, a regional development series). Busch has 18 Sprint Cup wins, 18 Camping World Truck Series wins and 39 Nationwide Series victories, a mark good for second-place on the all-time wins list for that series. That’s a lot of hardware.
Color me less than impressed.
It’s not that I’m not impressed with Busch’s talent, that’s pretty hard to ignore. There aren’t many drivers in Sprint Cup, let alone the other two series, who can touch him on raw talent, and the ones that do have a patch on their uniform identifying them as Cup champions. Heck, there are a couple wearing that patch who don’t have his kind of natural ability.
I read a column by former Cup crew chief and current commentator Larry McReynolds this week, and Larry Mac wondered if Busch could reach 200 wins, alluding to the mark set by Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty. Mathematically, it’s an outside possibility. Busch’s first NASCAR wins came in 2004, putting the 75 within just seven seasons to date. That’s just under 11 wins per year. At this same pace, Busch would reach 200 wins at the age of 38, certainly not ancient by NASCAR standards, where it’s not unheard of for a driver to win at 50. So, yes, it’s an outside possibility, if Busch can keep up the same grueling schedule for another 13 years. That’s a hugely tall order.
Judging by the fan comments to Larry Mac’s piece, many fans aren’t nearly as impressed by the numbers as Larry Mac was, and neither am I. First of all, all of Petty’s 200 wins came at NASCAR’s top division (now Sprint Cup). Sure, the series was different in those years, but the competition was stiff and the schedule was longer. In 1964, Petty raced 61 of 62 events; that’s the length of the entire Sprint Cup and Truck series combined these days, all at the Cup level. Petty won nine times that year, far from his best years, but won the championship. Petty only raced 15 times in another national touring series, the now defunct convertible series. Add in his 1959 win, and his NASCAR total is 201.
On the other hand, the majority of Busch’s wins have come in the Nationwide and Truck series, which are series in which most regulars are either up-and-comers who have not yet made their mark on the Sprint Cup scene, or veterans who call those series home. In the Nationwide Series especially, many of the veterans are running for small-budget teams. It’s relatively easy for a Cup Series driver, especially one with wins at that level, to come in and win. Case in point: through 21 Nationwide races this year, 20 have been won by Cup drivers in superior equipment to most of the series regulars’ stuff. The Camping World Truck Series has seen six Cup regulars in victory lane in 13 races this season.
All of which makes it hard to be impressed by Busch’s numbers. Sure, it takes a combination of equipment and driver to win. That’s been true since the beginning of racing. But the mark of a great driver vs. just a good one is this: A good driver can take a fifth-place car and finish fifth in it, but a great one can take a fifth-place car and find a way to win in it. And for the vast majority of his Nationwide wins, Busch simply hasn’t had to do that. He’s had a winning car almost every week, and he should be winning in them.
That’s the heart of the issue for most of the Cup guys in Nationwide of late. Sure, they’re winning-in cars that should be winning with a driver of their caliber. In essence, they’re doing what they should. They aren’t exceeding expectations or overcoming any kind of adversity. It’s simply a matter of good drivers in the best equipment, not of some extraordinary gift.
Which is why, in the Cup Series, where there are more cars that should be winning races, winning is that much more impressive, and why it’s that much harder. There is a reason that out of all of the drivers in the history of the series, only a dozen have reached the 50-win mark. In Sprint Cup today, of the 45 or so who show up each week, there are only two with 50 wins under their belts. It’s not coincidental that both have multiple series championships. In fact, of the dozen drivers with 50 or more wins, only one (Junior Johnson, who never ran a complete season) doesn’t have a title. The remaining 11 account for 38 championship titles, more than half of all the championships won in series history. Nine of the 12 have two or more. Those are the greatest drivers in the sport. To date, Busch is 32 wins short.
Busch is capable of 50 Cup wins. But his excessive racing in other series has often called question to his focus and dedication to his Cup effort. It’s interesting to note that though a few of them may dabble in a few Nationwide races a year, not one past or current active Cup champion runs close to the entire Nationwide Schedule.
Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson hasn’t run in the series since 2008. The most Nationwide races Johnson has run in a year since going to Cup full time is just eight, and he’s raced in that series 19 times as a Cup regular. Busch, in comparison, ran the entire 35-race NNS schedule last year, and since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 2005, Busch has raced 149 times in Nationwide and another 69 times in trucks. Altogether, that’s more than his career Cup race total.
That can’t be good for Busch’s Cup numbers. The wear and tear of the travel aside, the schedule sometimes means racing on two completely different tracks in a single week-and no matter how good you are, that has to take away focus from at least one, if not both, of those tracks. And when that’s happening multiple times, the Cup numbers suffer. Busch’s Cup numbers are certainly respectable – 18 wins in five and a half seasons – but Busch falls short of those who he would join as the sport’s greats.
In his first 207 starts, Petty had 25 wins to Busch’s 18. David Pearson, whose 105 Cup wins are second all time, had 28 through the same number of races. If Busch would like to be compared to the winningest active Cup drivers at the beginnings of their careers, he still falls far short of both Jeff Gordon (33 wins through 207 starts) and Johnson (27 wins in that time frame).
Busch could be one of the greats in the sport, no question. But his lack of focus on the Cup Series is, so far, keeping that from happening. And his prowess in the Nationwide and Truck series is, to an extent, bought with better racecars.
New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez also had a career milestone this week, his 600th home run. That number in the past has all but guaranteed players entrance to the Hall of Fame. It puts Rodriguez seventh all-time. The number he reached this week is somewhat tainted by allegations of steroid use. Busch’s milestone isn’t marred by performance enhancing drugs, but it is similarly tainted. A baseball player’s home run tally only counts his performance in the majors. Minor league stats simply don’t count once a player reaches the big time. That’s true in other major sports as well; Wayne Gretzky’s goal tally would be higher if you add on his junior league numbers. Emmitt Smith’s rushing yards at Florida aren’t counted in his NFL totals. Hank Aaron and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar don’t have anything to pad their home run and scoring totals. And Petty’s 200-win mark doesn’t include development series.
Strip it all down to the numbers that really count in an athlete’s career, and Busch’s are respectable. They aren’t spectacular (though I suspect they could be much better had Busch concentrated on the Cup Series), and they’re a far cry from the greatest ever. Some might call 75 wins across three series a great accomplishment, but I just don’t see it.
If Busch chose to make a career of the Nationwide Series, his 39 wins would mean a heck of a lot more. But that’s not the case. If the 75 wins were at the Cup level, and that’s a stretch for Busch at this point, he’d be a certain Hall of Famer. Instead, he’s an ultra-talented Cup driver who, for whatever reason, feels like he needs to prove himself in a lower series when he isn’t getting it done at the Cup level. By doing that, he’s insulting the intelligence of fans and he’s selling himself short. The win total rings hollow.
Kyle Busch could have put himself on pace to win 75 Cup races in his career. He also could have chosen to be one of the best Nationwide or Truck Series drivers ever, had he played it straight. Not only has he jeopardized his career Cup numbers, but he’s damaged his reputation and integrity in the process. Many race fans aren’t impressed with his method of padding his statistics. He may have 75 wins, but by virtue of taking so many of them from less experienced drivers and those with far inferior equipment, he doesn’t come across like much of a winner at all.