Over the past couple of years in NASCAR, one of the biggest topics of conversation has been the buzz about the win column. It comes up once in a while such as when Jeff Gordon tied Dale Earnhardt at Phoenix in 2007 or when Jimmie Johnson won his elusive seventh title.
Some of the unanswered questions have revolved around whether Johnson could catch and pass his mentor on the all-time win list or if Kevin Harvick can break into the top 10 list of victories.
However, one driver, in particular, is setting records and reaching for more. Kyle Busch’s 55th career win this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway tied him for ninth on the all-time list with Rusty Wallace.
“It’s pretty special,” Busch said of his milestone win mark. “We just keep doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s pretty cool to get with and eclipse many of these great names that helped build our sport to what it is today and have been icons, for that matter.”
Fans and media have now set eyes on the next target for Busch’s career, The Intimidator. Dale Earnhardt holds 76 career wins in the Cup Series. Some argue that he was on pace to continue to be competitive enough to increase that number before his tragic death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. No matter your opinion, what all these drivers have accomplished is truly a remarkable feat in the world of motorsports.
Looking deeper into the numbers, Busch’s win was exactly one month after his 34th birthday. When compared to other 55 win milestones, Wallace captured his final Cup victory at Martinsville Speedway at 47 years, 8 months and 4 days. Johnson and Darrell Waltrip each won their 55th race at age 36, with Waltrip winning his sixth of what would become seven consecutive victories at Bristol Motor Speedway. Jeff Gordon dominated the June race at Michigan International Speedway to take victory number 55 of his career at the young age of just 29 years. And Dale Earnhardt’s 55th career win took place in his famous drive in the 1993 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 42-years-old at the time.
One thing we won’t know until later is if or when Kyle Busch may go on a winless streak or stop winning altogether.
This past Tuesday marked two years since Jimmie Johnson’s last victory in a points-paying race. But, two years ago, no one even considered the possibility that the win would signal the beginning of an ongoing two-year race win drought. Between 2012 and 2017, Johnson was averaging four victories a season, and since his rookie year in 2002, he had won at least two races each year. Since his win at Dover in 2017, Johnson has earned four top-five finishes, 22 top 10s and only one pole. The past two years have seen his worst average starting position and the No. 48 team have only led roughly a hundred laps.
“It’s had its ups and downs,” Johnson shared last month regarding his winless streak. “I didn’t have a lot of success in my career before driving this 48 car and I learned a lot of lessons on my journey climbing the ropes. I’ve had to fall back on that experience.
“There’s also been some truth and reality in that our cars just haven’t been where they [were] and we have to get them better. I’ve made mistakes, the team has made mistakes so it’s been a journey, to say the least, but it hasn’t broken me. I love what I do. I have an intense desire to compete, to win and succeed at a high level and I know in time we’ll get back to our winning ways. I’m trying to be patient and I’ve been patient through those races and I’m hoping we can turn it around.”
Even teammate Chase Elliott shared a similar outlook on the current situation at Hendrick Motorsports after a top-five finish at Pocono, saying, “We’re good, not great.”
Busch, however, shows no signs of slowing down and his team continues to be competitive week after week. He was one of the ‘Big 3’ contenders last year and is on track this year to become the best of the ‘Big 3’ in 2019.
But, a Hall of Fame career is about more than wins. It encompasses a driver’s entire career, including the highs and lows.
Tony Stewart, a 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, won his last championship in 2011 as a driver-owner, the first to do so since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. He was poised to win many more races and potentially another championship. The following year, his No. 14 car went to victory lane three more times. However, the final four years of his career resulted in just two more victories, including one that many will remember because of the final lap battle with Denny Hamlin at Sonoma.
FOX announcer and racing legend Jeff Gordon didn’t have a Hall of Fame career every year he was behind the wheel. In the three years between 2008 and 2010, the Rainbow Warriors were victorious in just one race. Previously, he dominated the Cup schedule winning at least three races in all but three years of his first 15 years in NASCAR. He was able to find his groove again to win at least one race per year in his last five years of full-time racing and finished with 93 career wins in his Cup career.
It is truly remarkable what Kyle Busch has been able to accomplish so far this year. ‘Rowdy’ won his 200th career victory across all three top series of NASCAR earlier this year in the Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway and went on to capture his 55th Cup win at Pocono. It will definitely be a few years before he can possibly match Earnhardt’s 76 wins, as there are still 39 other hungry drivers to beat each race.
“It’s amazing to watch him and all of us that are in the sport at the same time as he is, I think we will be thankful later that we got to watch him because he is fantastic and unquestionably one of the best that’s ever strapped into a stock car,” NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after Busch’s 55th win at Pocono.
But will he get there? He is certainly on track to do so. Regardless of what the future holds, Busch will undoubtedly one day take a seat in the Hall of Fame. We cannot and should not take his success for granted.