NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Kyle Busch Beyond 600 Starts

Suffice it to say Kyle Busch’s playoffs got off to a rough start.  A crash at Darlington Raceway erased his cushion over the first round cutline.  Busch responded with a top 10 the following week at Richmond Raceway, but a late speeding penalty cost the No. 18 team a shot at victory.

The Round of 16 then capped off with a trip to Bristol Motor Speedway.  Normally, Thunder Valley is a great track for Busch, but he had to fight hard most of the race just to stay inside the top 10.  Worse yet, a flat tire late in the race dropped Busch all the way down to a final finishing position of 21st.  Considering Busch only advanced to the Round of 12 by seven points, the 22 playoff points he brought into the postseason were what salvaged his title hopes.

A trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch’s home track, allowed the No. 18 team the opportunity to regroup and prepare for the second round of the playoffs.  In addition, Busch reached a significant career milestone.  Sunday’s race (Sept. 26) marked Busch’s 600th start in the Cup Series.  He became the 31st driver to join the 600 races club, a list that includes many of the winningest drivers in the history of NASCAR.

However, the longevity of these racers masks a sobering reality.  By the time that most drivers got to start number 600, their best days were behind them.  Of the other 30 drivers who ran at least 600 Cup Series races, only 12 of them won again after hitting their 600th start.  Richard Petty tops the list with 50 wins after start number 600.  But behind The King, there is a big dropoff to Kevin Harvick in second, who currently has 22 wins after his 600th race.  Only Petty, Harvick, and Jeff Gordon (11 wins) hold double-digit victory totals.

Mark Martin (six wins) and Dale Earnhardt (five wins) are the only other drivers on the list with more than four victories.  Kurt Busch, currently at four, still has the opportunity to earn additional victories and climb up the rankings.  But overall, it is shocking to see how many legends of the sport quickly declined after their 600th races.  Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Buck Baker and Dale Jarrett are among the names who never won again.

In Kyle Busch’s case, the No. 18 has not been to victory lane quite as often as it was just a few years ago.  Busch had a great season in 2019, winning five races on the way to his second championship.  Yet Busch did most of his winning at the beginning of that season.  Four of his victories came in the first 14 races, including three in the first eight.  When Busch closed out the year by capturing the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the championship almost felt like a surprise.

Following the title, 2020 was an off year by Busch’s standards.  Several lackluster races in the playoffs led to his elimination in the second round.  It was the first time that Busch had missed the championship round of the playoffs since 2014.  At the time of his elimination, Busch did not even have a Cup Series win in 2020.  A victory at Texas Motor Speedway a few weeks later kept Busch’s streak of at least one win per season intact.  Even so, there is little doubt that the 2020 season fell short of what Busch and the No. 18 team expected for themselves.

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This season, Busch has been to victory lane twice so far.  He is on pace to match or slightly surpass the number of top fives and top 10s he earned last season (14 and 20).  But think back to Busch’s stretch from 2015-2019, where he averaged 5.4 wins per season and earned as many as 28 top 10s in a single year.  The level of dominance that the No. 18 team enjoyed in the second half of the 2010s is clearly fading.

So, as Busch hits Cup Series start number 600, is there a realistic expectation for what else he can accomplish before hanging up his helmet?  Perhaps the biggest advantage for Busch is that he’s only 36 years old.  Even though he has put a lot of wear and tear on his body, Busch is still around the age when many drivers tend to be at their competitive peak.

He also has a great team in Joe Gibbs Racing and will likely get to drive the No. 18 car for as long as he wants.  A veteran driver with a competitive, stable team is tough to beat, even if that driver is older than Busch is now.  Harvick has won 40 races to date after his 36th birthday, an amazing achievement considering he only had 18 wins before that.  Matt Kenseth earned 23 of his 39 wins after turning 36.

But the best comparison for Busch, at this stage in his career, may be Gordon.  After a spectacular 2007 campaign that included six wins and 30 top 10s, Gordon surprisingly went winless in 2008.  It was Gordon’s first winless season since 1993 and a big disappointment for a team that had championship aspirations.

Yet Gordon was not done winning or competing for championships.  He broke his winless drought early in 2009 and ultimately finished third in points on the strength of 25 top 10s.  Gordon went to victory lane three times in 2011, bouncing back again after a winless 2010.  Then, in 2014, Gordon put together his best season since 2007, winning four times and looking like the driver to beat for the championship.  Even during a much weaker 2015 season, Gordon still found a way to reach the championship race, climbing into the No. 24 one last time with a shot at the title.

Consider these parallels: Gordon and Busch both had championship or championship-caliber years in their 15th seasons (2007 and 2019).  Both drivers then relatively struggled in their 16th seasons (2008 and 2020).  In 2009, Gordon did not have a big win season, but he and his team righted the ship and proved that they could still be title contenders on occasion.  Gordon, by the way, was age 37 at the beginning of the 2009 season, the same age Busch turns in May next year.

The final years of Gordon’s career may thus provide a roadmap for Busch.  Chances are that the days of Busch winning five or more races per season are over.  But that does not mean he will not be a regular winner or playoff contender beyond start number 600.  If Busch follows Gordon’s path exactly and earns 11 more race wins, that would give him a final total of 70 Cup Series victories.  Yet even if Busch retires sooner than expected or falls short of that mark, there is little doubt he will be remembered as one of the greatest drivers of his era.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: LAS VEGAS

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TiminPayson

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