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NASCAR Mailbox: Is Kyle Busch the Best Driver in NASCAR History?

Kyle Busch is doing the unthinkable in NASCAR, and there is no one who can stop him.

Year after year, Busch is one of NASCAR’s most frequent Victory Lane visitors. His Toyotas are always amongst the quickest in the garage, whether it’s in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series or Camping World Truck Series.

His speed, ever since his days at Hendrick Motorsports as a developmental driver, is arguably second to none. His consistency as one of NASCAR’s greats has improved each season as he continues to mature not only on the track but off of it.

Just two weeks ago, team owner Joe Gibbs, who signed Busch in 2008 after a handful of years with Hendrick Motorsports, said that he’s incredibly impressed with Busch’s growth as the team’s leader.

Yeah, Busch — the leader.

It’s not something you would think you’d hear a few years ago, but he’s rapidly become “the guy” at Joe Gibbs Racing, making giant strides in his off-track personality and on-track aggression that has put him in the impressive position he’s in today.

With Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 triumph, Busch sits at 188 career victories in NASCAR’s top-three divisions, just 12 away from Richard Petty’s all-time mark of 200. While some might say that number is irrelevant because all of Petty’s were at NASCAR’s premier level, the fact that Busch is likely to tie that mark and surpass it by next year is quite astonishing, simply because no one has come close before.

On the opposite end of the field, Ross Chastain is doing the unthinkable. That’s right. He’s making Premium Motorsports somewhat competitive.

It’s not too surprising because anyone who knows Chastain knows he is a wheelman, but how is he doing it? What is making him so different than anyone else who has ever driven for Premium?

Chastain is coming off a respectable 24th-place finish, only one lap down at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the sport’s longest race. With consistent runs like this occurring, this isn’t just about attrition.

Editor’s note: Joseph Wolkin will be off from this column for the next two months. One of our other reporters will be taking over NASCAR Mailbox until Joseph’s return from an overseas reporting trip.

Q: Is Kyle Busch the best driver in NASCAR history now that he’s only 12 wins away from Richard Petty’s 200? – Donovan R., Miami

A: This is really a tough question. It is extremely difficult to compare athletes in any arena with similar statistics in the same era, let alone being decades apart.

At this point in time, you might have to compare Busch to Petty like NBA fans will do with LeBron James and Michael Jordan. It’s a debate that can endure a serious discussion, throwing numbers and statistics at each other while possibly ruining a friendship.

Hopefully, my answer will ruin some friendships.

Look, I’ve been following NASCAR since 2004. I’ve never seen anyone race the way Busch does. The first race I attended was in June 2005 at Pocono Raceway, and I vividly remember thinking the bright yellow and blue No. 5 car would win that day, simply because he roared through the field, going from 38th to fourth as a Cup Series rookie.

Yeah, he was coming from the back and competing for wins even at the start of his career.

Petty is different, though. His 200 wins largely came at a time when NASCAR had well over 30 races a year. In 1967, he won 27 of 48 contests, a ridiculous number.

Even when NASCAR decreased the schedule to have 30 or fewer races per year in 1973, he still dominated. It was certainly at a higher level of dominance than Busch could ever achieve, but that’s because the competition is tougher now.

The Petty family was the best at the time. Plain and simple. If you could beat Petty, you did the unthinkable, and that’s kind of how drivers feel when they beat Busch, especially when he competes in the XFINITY and Truck series.

When Petty won 13 of 30 races in 1975 en route to his sixth of seven championships, he was one of just six drivers to compete in each contest. The lack of parity in NASCAR was clear as day, and maybe if NASCAR greats David Pearson, Buddy Baker and Bobby Allison raced full-time, Petty would have fewer trophies.

But that’s not what happened.

Petty’s consistency of competing every week helped him on the track more than anyone could believe. He needed the money, and that went straight into making the No. 43 team the best in the garage. Petty’s dominance was out of this world, and truthfully, no one can ever do what he did in a racecar.

Busch might lap a field or two in the future. Who knows? But Petty did it by beating dozens of Hall of Famers. While his final years behind the wheel might have ruined some of his statistics, he will go down as the best of all-time.

But Busch is right there, and by the time his career ends, might be a close second depending on how many Cup titles he can win.

People can say Busch’s wins are different because only 47 of the 188 thus far are in the Cup Series. But let’s not forget that the Cup Series is arguably harder than ever and the field is much more competitive than it’s ever been.

Busch’s tenacity is second to none right now, and it’s been that way for well over a decade. It still comes as a surprise that he only has one title under his belt, but that is sure to change now that he is much tamer behind the wheel and he is as focused as ever.

Busch, as many realize, has a different personality and it’s good in many ways. As if Petty never had controversial remarks? It’s what the sport needs in order to keep its passion going. And that’s what Busch has: passion.

His 47 Cup wins have put him 15th on the all-time list after 475 races. He’s finished in the top 10 almost 53 percent of the time, and he’s led 11.4 percent of the laps he’s completed. Those are quite solid numbers.

Busch started his full-time Cup career at 20 years old, a year younger than former HMS teammate and NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2019 elect Jeff Gordon. In Gordon’s first 14 seasons, he won 75 races, and that was with fewer races on the schedule up until NASCAR ascended to 36 contests a year in 2001.

If Busch can continue to win at the pace he does, he’ll not only come close to Gordon’s 93 Cup wins one day, but he will continue the discussion of who is the best driver of all-time.

While I personally feel Busch is currently a top-10 of all-time driver, that could certainly change. Where he’s lacking right now is with championships, not victories. He’s always had a knack for winning, but let’s see those trophies lead up to a championship at season’s end if he wants to be considered the best ever.

At his rate, with the amount of winning and dominating he does in the XFINITY and Truck series, it is certainly not out of the question.

Q: How is Ross Chastain doing so well with Premium Motorsports? – Courtney A., Charlotte

A: When Chastain made his Cup debut at Dover International Speedway last May, it was clear there was an unbelievable amount of untapped potential being showcased. That potential wasn’t only being shown by him, but by the team behind him, too.

Seldom had Premium Motorsports run in the top 20 at a non-restrictor plate track. A top-30 run was considered to be decent enough.

But when Chastain came on board, something clearly changed.

He’s bringing a new energy to the Jay Robinson-owned organization, something they’ve only seen once in 2016 with Cole Whitt, and even that wasn’t too spectacular. Whitt had a 30.5 average finish that year, which is the best the team’s had for its drivers who have run at least 12 Cup races in a season.

Through 12 starts, Chastain’s average finish is 27.7. Even though he hasn’t finished on the lead lap yet in his Cup career, it’s certainly a huge step in the right direction. He out-ran teammate Jeffrey Earnhardt by nine laps and six positions during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. He was even able to out-run Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Suarez at one point, and it wasn’t because the No. 15 team was on a different pit strategy.

Chastain has been solid throughout the year. Originally, he hadn’t signed up to run the majority of the Cup schedule. It kind of just happened after one impressive run after the next. He only has one finish worse than 30th, and that came in April’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway when he was involved in a nine-car wreck that ended his day on lap three.

Other than that, he’s finished 30th or better in each race, with a best of 18th at Texas Motor Speedway.

The combination of Chastain and veteran crew chief Pat Tryson has led to more respectable runs by one driver underneath this team’s banner than ever before. Thanks to the steady improvements, the No. 15 car has gone unsponsored only once this year, at Richmond Raceway, the week after Bristol.

If Chastain can keep up the consistency, which he’s clearly capable of (as seen in the XFINITY Series with the underfunded JD Motorsports), we might see him in a better ride come 2019.

Watermelons for everyone, maybe?

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4 thoughts on “NASCAR Mailbox: Is Kyle Busch the Best Driver in NASCAR History?”

  1. Your statement that Kyle Busch was “developmental” driver while at Hendrick Motorsports is interesting. When Earnhardt Junior became available Rick Hendrick fired Busch. It was the best thing that ever happened to Kyle. He never would have become top dog at HMS with Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson already deeply entrenched. Kyle is driven by the fire in the gut passion to win. Sure Kyle has ego and attitude issues but coach Joe Gibbs knows from his NFL days of dealing with a 50 plus player roster loaded with lots of attitude/ego. Many of the young men coming into NFL training camp have a abundance of attitudes and ego. So dealing with a single driver like Kyle wasn’t that big of a deal for Gibbs. Obviously, as a multiple Super Bowl winning coach, Gibbs could seperate talent from attitude and produce winners both in football and with Kyle Busch.

    • Yes, Kyle is a perfect fit with Gibbs, which he never would have been with HMS. Not only does Gibbs have experience dealing with the egos of pro football players, he also worked successfully with Tony Stewart, who brought his own edginess to the sport. Overall, I like the teams at JGR and SHR over the Stepford Wives of HMS and even Penske to a degree. And over the past few years, the guys with attitude have been bringing it all the way to Victory Lane.

      And another area of leadership Kyle has gotten with JGR is his experience as owner/mentor/ talent scout for KBM. Kyle is keeping the pipeline flowing with young talent for Gibbs, another opportunity he would not have had with HMS.

      As for the G.O.A.T. question, it’s impossible to compare across generations. Statistics don’t tell the whole story. Neither do championships awarded under markedly different formats. Always a fun discussion, but ultimately meaningless.

  2. I think the whole Motorsports Journalistic world is what too fast in christening drivers today as the “Best there Ever was”! What would happen to any of the drivers today in a world where Downforce want the key component of the cars? We can’t even come close to comparing the drivers of the 60’s 70s and 80s to today because SO MANY of the core attributes of the sport have changed so much. Is he very good . . no doubt. the best ever, I would tend to hold off on that one. We’ll never know. But to suggest that the heroes of the past who defined and established the sport aren’t as good . . . I think is not a responsible comment.

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