First this week: A brief (and rare) personal note. Friday Nancy Buckwalter went home to the loving arms of her Savior. Nancy was the sister of my friend Creig Ballantine and mother of local 410 Sprint Car ace Timmy Buckwalter. She was the beloved Matriarch of the Buckwalter Racing team. I was privileged to have Thanksgiving dinner this year with Nancy’s husband Richard, Timmy, his fiancé Amanda Ray and Nancy’s grandson (and future short track legend) Aiden next door at my friend Andrew’s home when Nancy was hospitalized shortly before the holiday.
Well, gentle readers, what shall we discuss this week? Perhaps a few words about the unseemly debacle that was Fontana qualifying on Friday? If you were surprised that happened you weren’t paying attention during qualifying the Las Vegas race weekend. Waiting until the last second to take a run rather than agree to go out first and allow others to gain speed by drafting you? Are you saying that drivers put their own self-interest ahead of putting on a good show for the fans?
If you were really surprised by that I envy you. You’re a kinder and more innocent person than I am. You live in a world notably warmer and more sunshiny than the one I inhabit, a world where it never rains on weekends, prime rib dinners can be had for under five bucks and draft beer comes out the kitchen spigots for free. But take a second glance before trying to cross that highway intersection because that might in fact be a speeding 18 wheeler bearing down on you not an astral projection some prankster deity is providing to amuse you.
NASCAR officials seemed to be about the only folks caught off guard by the mess. And they did what they normally do when their good intentions backfire in their faces. They promised that they’ll fix the issue, though they’re a bit short on saying how. But they are said to be quite unhappy about that mess and noted they heard the fans in the grandstands booing afterwards. I’m impressed. That’s like Horton Hears a Who.
There were in fact so few people in the grandstands for that qualifying session a satellite could have crashed into the stands right at the start finish line and perhaps only nicked two or three people. Back in the day there was actually some drama to qualifying, particularly at the bigger races wondering which drivers might get sent home. In the modern era of charter teams they might as well have the competitors draw random numbers from a hat for all qualifying means most weeks. But don’t worry, NASCAR is going to fix this if for no other reason FOX or NBC aren’t happy about devoting an hour plus of their network time to such a disaster, especially when there are young men in shorts running around playing hoops. Conventional wisdom has it that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure but NASCAR has always lived by Bob Weir’s sage advice, “You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in.”
So what else has grabbed the attention of the NASCAR Nation lately? Well everyone is on pins and needles because NASCAR has told us that next year’s Cup schedule will be released in early April, far earlier than normal. The drama here is somewhat diminished in that they’ve already said that while there may in fact be major changes to the schedule in 2021 because of existing contracts with the track owners (and NASCAR in the guise of the France family is the largest track owning entity out there) next year’s schedule will by and large look like this year’s slate of races, with perhaps some monkeying about to accommodate the floating Easter Holiday or the off weekends. From my perspective, when you realize that your boat is taking on water you start bailing. You don’t cross your fingers and hope for a nearby sandbar…..or iceberg. ‘Cause all who could not sink or swim will just be left to float.
Absent many compelling storylines thus far this season (Just in: drivers and fans disagree on what makes for a good race. NASCAR writers in efforts to win Pollyanna Penmanship award pretend to be surprised and predict given just one more week, possibly two at the outside or certainly no longer than three races from now everything is going to be just dandy).
That leaves us with Kyle Busch’s reaching 200 victories in NASCAR’s top three divisions. That, some will suggest, would put him in the same league as Richard Petty. Really? And if I walk across the grocery store parking lot without stubbing my toe on a parking pylon would that be equivalent to Neil Amstrong’s one small step for man on the moon? After all, Neil didn’t have to haul back a pack of Ho-Hos and generic poor boy Cola (Po-Bo-Co in my parlance) back to the lunar module once he planted the flag.
Let’s get this out of the way straight off the bat. I am not a big fan of Kyle Busch. Over the years I might have hinted once or twice I think he’s a bit of a whiny little crybaby (and that’s about my third choice of wording) with a massive sense of self-entitlement. I’ll also acknowledge he’s a very talented racecar driver — one of the best of his generation. Likely, some of you are grinding your teeth right now waiting for me to do another hatchet job on the younger Busch brother. Throughout NASCAR history (and in fact sports’ history), there are always those willing to dismiss a driver’s despicable off-track conduct to leap aboard the bandwagon of a driver (or quarterback or center or pitcher….) who is winning. Busch has gone as far as to claim there is a “Rowdy Nation” full of his fans. If there is in fact a Rowdy Nation my guess is their entire navy could be sunk by inebriated boaters participating in Ocean City, New Jersey’s annual Nights in Venice pleasure boat parade.
Busch is, by his own admission, one of the more polarizing drivers in the sport. But I’ve been following racing a long time. There were guys like Soapy Castles who was just downright despicable. Ernie Irvan drew a lot of boos during the “Swervin’ Irvan” phase of his career. There were a good many people who felt that Dale Earnhardt, the Original, didn’t play nicely with others. It’s tough to imagine but Darrell Waltrip was once even more despised as a driver than he is as a broadcaster. Perhaps he bought some of that ire upon himself by once calling out everybody who booed him to a fistfight in a Big-K parking lot down the street from the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
I get it. In order to have a Nick Foles you have to have a Deion Sanders. Some guys wear the white hat and other guys the black one. Some even welcome Busch’s churlish behavior saying it’s unique and refreshing in the “modern era” of NASCAR racing. (I’ve never really gotten a handle on when this “modern era” began. Was it when Jeff Gordon began racing? When Jimmie Johnson started running the No, 48 car? When FOX took over broadcasting races and kicked ESPN to the curb? I’ve following stock car racing so long the “modern era” to me began when the cars stopped featuring tailfins and whitewalls and you no longer needed a church key to open a beer.)
What originally turned me against Kyle Busch was an incident that occurred on November 4, 2011 during a Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Ron Hornaday and Busch were both in the race that night. The difference is Hornaday was running for a title in that series with two races left to run on the schedule. Kyle was already an established Cup series driver and was just racing to steal the series regulars’ lunch money.
Early in the race Hornaday’s Chevy got out from under him and he went up a lane into Busch’s Toyota. While the damage to both trucks was minimal the incident did draw a caution flag. While the race was under caution Busch decided to go after Hornaday. If Busch had thrown a punch at Hornaday in the garage area after the race I would have shrugged and gone on. But Busch decided to use his Toyota as a lethal weapon on a high speed oval. Seeing what the volatile young driver was clearly intending to do his spotter, crew chief and even NASCAR got on the radio and told him not to do it. But the great and mighty Busch had been disrespected and he went again and pile drove Hornaday into the wall anyway….while the race was under caution! Hornaday’s race was over. Busch got parked for the rest of the event.
Would Hornaday have won that year’s Truck title if that on-track mugging hadn’t taken place? Of course we’ll never know that. I can say that Hornaday arrived at Texas 11 points out of the lead with just that night and the next week’s truck race at Phoenix left to run. He left Texas with a destroyed race truck (that belonged to Kevin Harvick ironically enough) having been eliminated from any chance at the 2011 truck series championship.
Rather than come across as contrite after the incident, Busch did what bullies do and tried to wrap himself in the mantle of victimhood. But his problems were just beginning. After the race NASCAR announced they were parking Busch for Saturday’s (then) Busch Series event and Sunday’s Cup race as well. His Cup sponsor, Mars, decided they were pulling his sponsorship for the rest of the season. There was a very real chance that Joe Gibbs was going to go ahead and fire the younger Busch brother as well. (Recall his elder brother Kurt Busch got fired from Roush Fenway Racing for getting lippy with a cop in Phoenix in 2005. In one of the more memorable “modern era” press releases, RFR started that as of that Saturday Kurt Busch was “no longer our headache.”) Note that Kurt was mean, abusive and disrespectful. He hadn’t driven into the side of the cop’s car at 100 MPH.
Had Kyle Busch gotten fired from JGR that week there likely wasn’t going to be a lot of demand for his services. Busch was noted for burning bridges behind him as he left Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. Perhaps he’d have found a new ride with a second or third-tier team willing to gamble on him because of his talent and despite his temperament but finding a corporate sponsor to pay the bills would have been a challenge. Would it have happened? Like Hornaday’s lost chances at a 2011 truck series title, we’ll never know.
As of this writing Kyle Busch has amassed 53 Cup wins, 94 NXS wins and 53 Truck Series wins. Admittedly, that’s pretty impressive. But I fail to see how 53 wins in the Cup Series (his day-job I presume) can be mentioned in the same breath as Richard Petty’s unassailable record of 200 Cup wins. Despite not winning a single race from 1985 until his retirement from driving at the end of the 1992 season, Petty’s career average finish remains 11.3. For comparison’s sake here (and to reiterate we’re not comparing apples to oranges here, we’re comparing nuclear weapons to a soft, furry kitty) Busch’s career average Cup finish is 13.9.
Some folks as of late have made disparaging comments about the strength of racing in the era where Petty ruled the roost. Yes, Petty was blessed to be a factory team with Mopar backing for the first half of his career. But while Chrysler was spending money like they hated the stuff in the mid 60s to the very early 70s, Ford was matching them dollar for dollar at the very least. Petty actually drove for Ford in 1969. In fact, David Pearson, driving for Ford, won the title in 1968 and 1969. Bobby Isaac won the 1970 Cup championship aboard a vivid orange Dodge Daytona. In ’71 the factories pretty much packed their bags and blew out of town on an overnight express.
Petty had a great team behind him but he was up against some pretty tough competition like the Wood Brothers, Smoky Yunick, and Junior Johnson as well during the prime of his career. If you’re entertaining a notion that those teams rolled over and played dead to let Petty win back in the day you, sir, are not only a lunatic, but a preposteroon.
Over the years Richard Petty raced some very successful and talented competitors starting perhaps with his own father, three-time Cup champion Lee Petty. Other notables Petty raced against in his prime included David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, and Darrell Waltrip. If your knowledge of the sport’s history is so limited that you think this wasn’t an incredibly talented roster of drivers well, there’s no fixing stupid.
Yes, in a remarkable coincidence Richard Petty only competed in one race against Jeff Gordon. It was Petty’s last race and Gordon’s first Cup start (Atlanta season finale of 1992). Truthfully, fans like myself had no idea we were watching the changing of the guard that day. Gordon was just some fence rail slim kid with a really cheesy mustache and a mullet we might have seen racing sprint cars on ESPN a few times.
Making Petty’s 200 wins that much more impressive is he was scoring a lot of them back in an era where racecar drivers had a nasty habit of turning up dead. Recall that in 1964 when Petty won his first Cup title (well, it was called Grand National racing back then) four prominent drivers were killed in NASCAR racing; Joe Weatherly (two time champion), Glen “Fireball” Roberts, Billy Wade (well Wade was actually killed during a Goodyear tire test on January 5, 1965) and Jimmy Pardue. In that less kind and gentle era of NASCAR racing Petty actually drove several races with a broken neck after a terrifying crash at Pocono Raceway, knowing that if he got in another hard wreck before he healed likely he’d die.
The reason NASCAR started requiring safety nets over the driver’s side window in Cup racing was because of a crash Petty miraculously survived at Darlington Raceway in 1970 after rolling his car down the pit lane wall. In other sports I’ve heard the best competitors say a gifted player had “some skin in the game.” Petty didn’t just have skin in the game, he had major organs, including half of his stomach he lost to the tensions of racing in that era, back when Petty was racing to put food on the family table not pad his investment portfolio.
Some of these same esteemed scribes who want to convince you that Busch’s accomplishments are in the same league as Petty’s also seem eager to demean the races of the sport’s earlier eras. They turn up their noses at the fact some of those races were run at state fairgrounds. Hell, son, back in that era, NASCAR was happy to have anyone who would host them. State fairs and summer carnivals drew a lot of folks (all of them potential ticket-buyers) back in a bygone era where combating boredom on a hot summer’s evening down south took some doing. Air conditioning and even color TVs weren’t yet commonplace. You could go to the fair or the big stock car race or you could sit on the front porch jawboning with your neighbors and feeding the mosquitoes. It’s because those early fans would eagerly turn over a fistful of their hard-earned dollars in exchange for a ticket to a stock car race one day rich men would build palaces of speed capable of sitting upwards of 100,000 folks (and their kin,). Some of today’s drivers wouldn’t bend over to pick up the amount of money some of those races paid to win, but that’s more an indictment of those drivers than the races of the era.
Some of those low paying races were actually held on dirt tracks these same scribes sniff. Can you imagine? I’d counter that running on both dirt and paved tracks, short tracks and big ones, made for a more versatile driver and more deserving winners. Look at all the great names in racing, (Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Stewart, Gordon et al) and they all had some dirt racing in their backgrounds. They knew (and know) how to drive a car that was bit tail happy from those dirt races. And if they didn’t like the way the car felt they just shut up and did the best they could because they didn’t have a radio in the car to bitch out their crew chief anyway.
I listen to some of the whiny little monsters crying about their racecars these days and wonder how their crew chiefs don’t grab them by the neck and choke them to death after the race. This is stock car racing. It ain’t supposed to be easy. If it was they’d have someone a lot cheaper in your seat, prima donna.
Oh, and for the record when discussing football or baseball greats, how often do people bring up whether those players played the majority of their games on natural grass or AstroTurf?
Wow. So few cars finished on the lead lap back in those days others scoff. Yes, back in the day mechanical attrition was more prevalent than it is today. You might look at a race recap on Racing Reference and see Petty won a race and there was only one other driver on the lead lap. That doesn’t mean that Petty hadn’t been going fender to fender with other great drivers before those other drivers suffered mechanical issues or wrecked. Only six drivers were on the lead lap at the 1992 Atlanta season finale when Kulwicki edged Elliott for that year’s title and only seven caution flags flew in a 500-mile race. I don’t recall being bored that afternoon and I doubt many of you who were blessed to be fans in that era were either.
You also need to keep in mind that the racing was more pure in that era when fewer cars finished on the lead laps. There were no Lucky Dogs, no wave-arounds, no phantom “debris” cautions and no stage breaks to bunch the field back up and hopefully add a little contrived excitement to the event that left to its own would have petered out altogether.
But look at how little those races paid back then. Frightening, ain’t it? Keep in mind in 1965, (ironically enough while Ford was preparing to boycott the sport the next year) your local Ford dealer would have been happy to set you behind the wheel of a very nice and quick Mustang for around $3,500. If you needed more speed than that across town at the Chevy franchise they’d have handed you the keys to a 396 Corvette for about five grand. Looking at a drivers’ winnings as a measure of comparison is of no interest to me. I’d say more so than nitrous oxide, radial tires and stage racing nothing has had a more corrosive effect on stock car racing than money and the stupid amounts of it they pay out these days.
Richard Petty became the first stock car racer ever to win more than a million dollars in prize money. Asked about the accomplishment the King noted, “It’s hard to get too excited about winning a million dollars when you spent three million dollars to do it.”
So I think it’s beyond argument that racing in that bygone era was better. Or if not if I write many more words trying to convince you it was you’ll stop reading. So let’s move on and look at Busch’s accomplishments. As he matches that 200 win mark, almost half of those wins are in the Xfinity Series. It’s funny that when you look at great baseball players nobody ever mentions how many games they won in AAA ball, college or in Little League. The greatest NBA players are not ranked by how well they did in the March Madness.
As originally conceived the Truck Series was to be a feeder series for up-and-coming drivers who’d shown promise in the late model and other short track series to continue their march towards a potential future Cup ride. It gave them some experience on the superspeedways as they progressed towards the big leagues. I don’t think it was ever envisioned as a series where Cup drivers could slum it on Saturday to stroke their egos.
Likewise the Busch Series (or NXS or whatever other names it has gone by…basically NASCAR’s AAA series of racing) become a warmup event for Sunday’s race that would allow Cup drivers to shoot fish in a barrel on Saturday. But the rules are what the rules are and NASCAR has in fact placed limits on how many events the Cup regulars can compete in in the NXS series annually. Busch is abiding by those rules and has even said he’d stop running the Saturday races once he gets his 100th NXS win. And good for him. It’s sort of like a prize-fighter saying he’ll stop beating up kids in the local high school cafeteria once he wins a title belt.
But back to the topic at hand here. If Kyle Busch is Petty’s equal, surely he’s won 27 races in a season like Petty did in 1967, right? What’s that? No? In his best season, last year, Busch won 23 races in the top three touring seasons combined. But that’s not a fair comparison. Petty won 27 races back in 1967 when the Cup schedule was 49 races long. And no driver could run all 49 because both Daytona 100 (lap) qualifying races were part of the schedule as points paying races.
There were a total of 92 points paying races in NASCAR’s top three touring divisions in 2018. But Busch only competed in 48 of those events. 48 is one less than 49, correct? So let’s go by winning percentage. I’ve got Busch at .480. Petty’s 1967 batting percentage at .550. Now I don’t know much about baseball but I think a higher batting average is better, isn’t it? Who knows what might have happened if Busch decided to run more Truck or NXS races last year. Because back in 2015 when Busch won his sole Cup title to date he only competed in 25 of 36 Cup races. He injured an ankle and leg at Daytona in the Saturday NXS race that year and was forced to sit out his day job while he healed, which is why a lot of Cup drivers were hesitant to run in the lesser series. You can get hurt in one of those support races and mess up your day job in the Cup Series.
Speaking of wins, seven of Petty’s victories were Daytona 500 wins. To date, and hopefully he’s got quite a few years left to pull one off, so far Busch hasn’t won a Daytona 500. Do you consider the Daytona International Speedway a rinky-dink country fair venue?
Busch was able to claim that 2015 title because of NASCAR rules that stated he’d be championship eligible if he won a race prior to the Chase and stayed in the top 20 in points. Such a rule would have been unheard of in the NASCAR rulebook of Petty’s era.
But even if you accept Busch’s sole title to date as legitimate that’s still one title. Richard Petty won a total of seven championships, four of them in a five-year period. My guess is Busch will win more titles, but I don’t see him winning four of them in five years. But either way, you’ve had a lot of incredibly talented drivers in the Cup Series over the last seven decades. Some of them became champions and some of those titlists won multiple championships. But you’ll always and forever only have one King. To compare Kyle Busch to Richard Petty is an exercise in total futility and utter foolishness.