If Kyle Busch retired from NASCAR competition today — just up and quit, climbed out of the car for good — he’d be a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Now, anyone who has ever met Busch, heard him speak, or has known anything about him will tell you how ludicrous that notion is. Busch is one of the most fiery competitors I have ever met in any sport, and it’s silly to suggest he’s anywhere close to retiring.
But the fact that today, only 33 years young, he could retire and be a no-doubt Hall of Famer? That’s far from silly.
It’s true, and it is incredible.
Last weekend at Fontana, Calif., Busch won his second Cup Series race of the season, moving him into first in the points standings. More impressive was that it was his 200th win across NASCAR’s three national series, tying him with “The King” Richard Petty for most victories in modern racing history. Much has already been made comparing Petty’s wins to Busch’s, with many people saying the latter doesn’t deserve nearly the same credit for a variety of reasons.
It’s arguable whether that’s fair, but something that isn’t is Busch’s standing in NASCAR history. Even if he retired today, it would be as the all-time wins leader for both the Truck and Xfinity series, and in the top 11 for the Cup Series. That shiny number doesn’t really change much, other than to give us in the media a reason to re-hash this debate:
When Kyle Busch’s career is over, where will he rank in NASCAR history?
The answer depends on who you ask, and there are a few things worth considering.
First, as is the case in any discussion of sports greatness, is the number of championships. Busch still has just one, even though he’s finished in the Top 4 every year since his title season in 2015. Of the drivers ahead of Busch on the all-time Cup wins list, only Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace have just one title. A second (or third, or fourth) would greatly help Busch’s argument as one of the all-timers, obviously.
Then there’s the wins. In his 11 completed seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch has racked up 47 wins — an average of over four per year. Considering he has two this season through five weeks, I like his chances to either hit or surpass that average again this year. And if you extrapolate that out for the next seven years, until the season he’s 40, suddenly he’s knocking on the Top 5.
Last, there’s influence. Busch may not have the widespread appeal of a Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr., but as NASCAR enters its first generation without those stars, Busch stands to — if he isn’t already — become the face of the sport. He’s played the villain well. Most fans either love him or hate him. More wins, more championships, more outbursts will change his public image even more.
Calling Kyle Busch an all-time great just because he hit the 200-win mark isn’t fair to his entire body of work. The question now is not, “How great is he?” but rather, “How great could he be? How great will he be?’
If he keeps up his current trajectory, there might not be an answer lofty enough.
This week’s NASCAR race at Martinsville: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series STP 500.
Distance: 500 laps, or 263 miles.
Where: Martinsville Speedway, a .526-mile asphalt and concrete oval in Ridgeway, Virginia.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Clint Bowyer.
Worth mentioning: Last year’s race was postponed a day due to snow. Luckily, this weekend’s forecast doesn’t call for more of the same.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Kyle Busch: His 200th win also made him the first driver with multiple victories this year. What else is there to say?
Joey Logano: Each impressive race he runs is proof his lackluster 2017 season, when he missed the playoffs, was more exception than rule.
Clint Bowyer: He didn’t finish Sunday’s race at Fontana, but still just 15th in the points standings, he’ll look to rebound at Martinsville, where he won his first race last season.
Alex Bowman: Another underwhelming race for him, another drop in the standings, and his early season trajectory is going the wrong way.