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Does Kyle Busch stack up against recent NASCAR greats?

Posted by chadmusselman on June 4, 2008

Kyle BuschI know I wrote up a full entry on Kyle just a few weeks ago saying that no matter if you love or hate him, he’s good. I still stand by that because he is good, and he’s the best driver in NASCAR right now. I promise you that this will be the last blog entry that I dedicate to Kyle Busch. I’ll mention him for race previews if I think he can win, but outside of that, I’ll be done talking about him this season unless he’s in first place with one race to go in the season, and poised to win the championship.

So what prompted me to post this? Well, during one of the most boring races I’ve ever watched last Sunday at Dover, Darrell Waltrip made the comment that he’s never seen anyone on a run like Kyle Busch is right now. Following that, the announcers gushed over him some more and couldn’t stop talking about how great he is, like no one else has ever done this well so early in their career. It made me ask the question, “Did they forget about this guy named Jeff Gordon?”, who twice has won ten races in a season (1996 & 1997), and thirteen races in one season (1998; 4 in a row at one point).

I know all of this hype isn’t Kyle’s doing. He’s been pretty modest throughout all of the success he’s had this season, so don’t think I’m bashing Kyle himself, I’m just pointing out the fact that the media is conveniently forgetting about some other drivers that have done better than him this early in their career.

Jeff has gone on to be one of the greatest drivers in the history of NASCAR with four championships, in which the first one was in his 3rd full season in the sport. Kyle sure didn’t do that. Jeff would have six championships if NASCAR didn’t change to the “Chase” format, but since this is real life, we can’t play the what-if game, so Jeff only has four championships.

Another driver the announcers seem to forget about having hot streaks when he was new to NASCAR is Jimmie Johnson. He finished 5th in points his rookie year, without the chase! How impressive is that? He won three races his rookie year in 2002 as well. The next two years he finished 2nd in points, and then 5th in points in his fourth year of racing. Kyle is positioning himself to win a championship this season, but he finished 20th in points his rookie year, and last season, his third full season, he finished 5th in the standings, his best showing so far.

You can look at the table I have below comparing Kyle’s first four full-time seasons against Jeff and Jimmie. Yes, I know, 2008 is his fourth season, and not complete yet, but to compare to Jeff, they have about the same number of races under their belt. As you can see, Kyle is worse than Jeff and Jimmie in the following categories:
Average starting position, Average finish position, Wins, Top 5’s, Top 10’s, Average points position at the end of the season, and Kyle averaged more finishes of 30th or worse.

One thing Kyle has on his side is age. He started his career two years younger than Jeff, and seven years younger than Jimmie. With that fact he has the opportunity to race more seasons than Jeff and Jimmie and potentially win more races and championships. Will he actually be able to do it? It won’t be easy, but I’ll say this, if he doesn’t win the championship this season, then I don’t know when he would. He has everything rolling and going his way. He has four wins already, and only one finish of 30th or worse, which means he’s avoiding (and not creating) wrecks this season.

Something unique about Kyle’s run is that he’s dominating on all three of NASCAR’s major National circuits: Craftsman Truck, Nationwide Series, and Sprint Cup. Neither Jimmie nor Jeff did that, but I’d argue that they were busy focusing on winning the championship that people care about, and their records show it. No doubt Kyle’s run is impressive, I’m not trying to take that away from him, but let’s focus on one championship in the circuit that matters, and not beat up on sub-par competition in the trucks and Nationwide series.

Like I said to close my previous blog; when Kyle starts winning championships we’ll be able to say he’s one of the greats in NASCAR. Until then his impressive runs of top 5’s and races won are good, but it really just means that he had some good races, and didn’t win the big prize.


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