Today’s NASCAR stars piling up milestones that will lead to legendary status

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 19: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, talks with Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Caramel Toyota, during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 19, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

What a fortunate time to be a NASCAR fan.

In just the past five years, the sport has crowned its third seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and on Sunday celebrated only its second 200-race winner, Kyle Busch.

As achievements so often are, NASCAR’s Modern Era triumphs are judged in history by their precedent and the esteem doled out accordingly. And of course, there are new specific twists and competitive hurdles each of those drivers overcame to meet their certain future Hall of Fame-worthy mark.

Johnson, who won a record five consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series titles from 2006-2010, tied NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt’s championship win total with his seventh championship in 2016.

Busch won his 200th NASCAR national series race on Sunday at California’s Auto Club Speedway – a win total equaled only by Petty, who won all of his 200 races at the Cup level (first all-time). Busch’s triumphs include 53 Cup wins (11th all-time), a record 94 Xfinity Series wins and a record 53 Gander Outdoors Truck Series wins.

Matching a sacred number and putting a new twist on the historical data is something that should be celebrated. The impact and nuances of statistical accomplishments in the sporting world are popular topics of debate. The work to achieve these milestones, however, is absolutely non-debatable.

Johnson, for example, won his titles under – or perhaps despite of –  an ever-changing championship formula that varied from earning the most points through a Playoff system to advancing through Playoff knockout rounds and ultimately prevailing in a one-race all-or-nothing season finale.

Busch collected his 200 trophies in a combination of NASCAR’s top-tier series and competing against highly motivated drivers – a description of his competition that did not vary whether it was a Gander Outdoors Truck, Xfinity or a Monster Energy Series race.

“I’m always leery when people ask,” Busch’s team owner NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs said.

“People will say, ‘who is the best?’ all that kind of stuff. I’m always leery of that because there’s been so many great drivers in NASCAR through history that have built this sport. I noticed Kyle said the same thing.

“I do know he’s unusual. He’s got a real gift. As a part of that, there’s a determination and a competitive attitude he has that you just don’t find very often. Because of that, I think he’s accumulating all the wins that he has.”

As with Johnson, Busch has been humble and reverent in the inevitable discussions and debates leading into last weekend’s historic opportunity. Part of what distinguishes his personality is his candor, spirit and confidence. And who could begrudge that as he now creates a new statistical marker of greatness.

Petty was 46 years old when he earned his 200th victory (in the 1984 Daytona summer 400-miler) and retired eight seasons later at the age of 54. Busch is 33 years old – he turns 34 in May – and intent to add to number 200 as soon as this weekend’s Truck and Cup series races at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

Listening to Busch speak about specific, impactful wins he’s earned, it’s apparent that he is simultaneously proud and humbled by the path of his career.  As much as he is pausing to reflect on what he’s done, Busch is equally as eager to think about what lies ahead.

“Somebody asked me about whether or not I was the greatest of all time,” Busch said Sunday after celebrating in Victory Lane. “I’m never going to self-proclaim that.  That’s for others to debate. LeBron James is really good in basketball, so is Michael Jordan. Arguably, which one or the other, could be the greatest of all time.

“In this day and age now anymore with how many eras we’ve been through in racing, basketball, football, whatever, if there is truly a greatest of all time? I think there’s obviously greats. I would just like to be attributed or in that mix of the top five, top eight guys. I think by the time I’m all said and done, I could be in the top two or three of those guys of greatest of all time.

“I think it’s going to be really, really hard to exactly pinpoint how you can define ‘greatest’ when that time comes.”

Busch has always acknowledged his 200 is different from Petty’s 200. Johnson’s seven titles were won under different regulations than Petty’s or Earnhardt’s.

But it’s ALL good.

Actually, it’s ALL great.

“In different eras, there’s so many different things,” Busch said. “Jimmie Johnson, he should be the GOAT, the greatest of all time. He won the most championships in the most different ways of having to win a championship, in the most different cars he had to be able to drive to win races.

“Before 2004, it was always the whole season was the champion, right? Now we had the 10 race Playoff, now we have three, three, three, and then one. Unfortunately for me I’ve made it to the final four the last four years and only won it once.

“So many comparables, not every single one person is going to have every single one of them, right? This guy has this, this guy has this, that guy has that. I think that makes it to where you can’t always say there’s the greatest, but there’s greats.”

As for the future, Johnson has absolutely no imminent retirement plans only an eighth Cup championship plan. And Busch acknowledged this weekend, he’s hoping to see that 200 number spin up quickly and often. Ultimately the sport will be the true beneficiary of all their hard work.

“Being close to 100 [wins] in Xfinity, that’s what I said I’d quit at,” Busch said. “The Truck stuff, [my win total] being in the 50s, I’d love to be able to continue on with that, race my trucks. I like that, working with my guys, my team, my company.

“On the Cup side, as well, too. Somebody asked me, is 100 a number? Sure, we’ll set the next number on the Cup side at 100 [wins].

“It’s going to be hard to get there, no question about that. You might as well set your goals high, go out there and strive to achieve.”

Comments