Back Seat Driver: Are All Wins Created Equal?

Credit: Alan Marler - Pool/Getty Images for NASCAR
Congratulations to Kyle Busch on his 100th NASCAR-sanctioned major series win.

The fact that he’s just achieved his 49th NNS win and 100 combined wins across all the major NASCAR-sanctioned series is impressive for any driver. That he’s done it in fewer than 7 total seasons and at only 26 years old makes the achievement even more remarkable. There’s no arguing that on any given weekend, Kyle Busch is a threat to win more than one race. But is his record comparable to that of Richard Petty and other legends of the sport? I don't think so, and I'll tell you why.

Personally, I’m bothered that some members of the media, not to mention Kyle’s fans, seem to have put winning a race in the traditionally “lower” series of NASCAR Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck series on the same level as winning a race in Sprint Cup. Sure, much has been made of Mark Martin’s record, and comparisons between Dale Jr. and Dale Sr. always run rampant, but for the most part, this phenomenon has centered strictly around Kyle Busch and his record of 22 Sprint Cup, 49 NNS, and 29 NCWTS wins.

NASCAR Sprint Cup is the pinnacle of stock car racing. Aspiring drivers want to win Cup championships, to match their skills against the best of the best. How many times have fans heard a driver say how hard it is to “win one of these things”? Just the fact that in less than 7 seasons Kyle Busch is tied with two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte for Cup wins is noteworthy. That he’s equaled Mark Martin’s Nationwide (formerly Busch) record in that period of time is also an achievement. Mark got his record in 235 races over 22 years, Kyle in 217 races over nine years. It’s remarkable that Kyle sits second in all-time truck wins with 29 in 93 races, behind Ron Hornaday Jr., whose 49 wins are spread across 286 races.

Yet when reporters, whether print or broadcast, laud any win as “incredible,” then go on to compare Busch to the top winners in the sport, they are indirectly — and sometimes directly — reducing the importance and difficulty of winning in the Cup Series.

If a Cup win equals a Nationwide win equals a truck win, then why have there been so many drivers who could not succeed in Cup racing move to Nationwide or truck racing and win races and even championships? How can you compare Cup races, which except for the road courses, are 400-500 miles long to Nationwide’s 312-mile-and-under races and truck races that are generally no more than 250 miles?

Let’s look a bit closer at the considerations when comparing competition in a Cup race against a NNS race or a NCTWS race.

The truck series has had 10 different championship winners in 16 seasons. Those winners have a collective 21 Cup wins (16 of those from Greg Biffle after he stopped racing trucks) and 48 NNS wins (15 of those from Todd Bodine, 20 from Greg Biffle.) Only two drivers were champions in another series. (Biffle and Johnny Benson Jr. have a NNS championship each.) So exactly how much of a victory is it for a full-time, regular Cup driver to win in that series? NCWTS racing is entertaining and exciting, but it’s not the Sprint Cup. Essentially Kyle won 29 out of 92 races against developing talent and drivers who couldn’t make it in Cup racing. That may sound harsh, but it’s true.

In the Nationwide Series you have to go back to 2005 when Martin Truex Jr. won his second consecutive title (it was still the Busch Series then) to find a champion that wasn’t also a full-time Cup driver. Does that mean the Cup Series and the Nationwide Series have the same level of competition? If that were true, then fewer Cup drivers would win Nationwide races, and NASCAR wouldn’t have been prompted to restrict the accrual of points to just one series.

While Kyle competed against a number of his Sprint Cup rivals in NNS, many of the top Cup drivers either rarely run NNS or haven’t in several years, so it’s not fair to compare the two series. That doesn’t mean the racing isn’t as entertaining, just that the skill level of the entire field of a Nationwide race isn’t as advanced as that of a Sprint Cup race. When the big league drivers race, they should win.

Nor is it fair to compare today’s racing to that of the Richard Petty era. When you put Richard’s first few seasons against Kyle’s first few seasons, you immediately see how different things were back then. Not only were the races more varied in length, there were more races in a season. Drivers didn’t fly to them, they often drove to the race, raced, then drove home, too. The cars were different, the tracks were different — you just can’t fairly compare the two eras.

In addition, you can’t conclude that just because someone is successful in Nationwide racing that he’ll be guaranteed to be a champion in Cup. I know that's not really what's being debated here, but in the end, championships are the ultimate goal in the sport.

While it’s difficult to compare the statistics between Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, looking back through the last 16 Cup seasons, 1995-2010, (Winston, Nextel & Sprint,), out of the eight different driver champions, only one has a lower-series championship. Bobby Labonte won the Busch Series championship in 1993. Those eight drivers have a total of 76 wins in 1173 Nationwide/Busch races. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has only won a single NNS/Busch start, though he never raced a full season in the lower series.

So what can we compare? How is the success of a driver measured? How does Kyle Busch really stack up against previous champions? Let’s look at the numbers from the first six full Cup seasons of the careers of Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Sr. I chose six seasons because that’s how many FULL seasons that Kyle has raced, so I compared them to the first six full seasons for the others.

Avg Pts finish
Dale Sr

Does this put Kyle Busch on par with Dale Earnhardt Sr., who went on to win six more championships, 65 more cup wins along with his 21 Busch wins and 11 IROC wins? I don’t think so. Dale Sr. didn’t step out of Busch racing into a championship-caliber team with the best equipment and testing money could buy. In his six full seasons in Cup racing, Busch has driven for three of the top owners in the sport, the only three who have won championships since 1999, yet for all his skill, talent and 100 wins, he has not yet won a championship. Does that matter? Quick … tell me who finished second in points in 2009? Who finished 3rd in points in 1995? Championships may not be the only things that count, but they certainly do count when measuring the status of a driver. Just ask Mark Martin. He knows all about coming in second and third. While Mark is a Hall of Fame-caliber driver, if he’s inducted, it will be with that asterisk of never having won a Cup championship.

Kyle’s young, though, and has plenty of time in which to win championships. But we’re looking at his achievements now. To whom can we compare him? Jeff Gordon was the closest in age to Kyle when he began his NASCAR career, and like Kyle, stepped right into a first-class ride. Jeff faced the same kind of resistance to his dominance that Kyle is facing now, only his statistics were all in the Cup Series. All against the top tier of NASCAR drivers. And he didn’t just win races, he won championships.

The media didn’t have to combine Jeff’s wins to create an achievement. As you can see, in his first six full seasons he raced 188 times. He won 42 times with an astounding 100 top-five finishes out of 188 starts, 123 top 10s, led nearly 9,000 laps, and won three championships. He sat between Fonty Flock and Buck Baker on the all-time wins list. Kyle was tied with Davey Allison, Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock for all-time wins.

Jeff was tied for second place in all-time championships with David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and Lee Petty. Kyle … well, you know.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t start his first full-time Cup season until he was 26, but he won 33 races and 2 championships in his first six seasons. With 86 top fives and 134 top 10s out of 216 races, his average points finish was 2.7. That’s a level of consistency that Kyle has yet to master. Kyle’s average points finish is 11.0 for his first six full Sprint Cup seasons.

Cup seasons. Isn’t that the whole point here? Winning the Sprint Cup? When people speak of NASCAR champions, of NASCAR’s elite, how often do they mean Nationwide or truck champions? Sure, winning any championship is an achievement, but when you look more closely at the competition in each level of NASCAR, you quickly see that Sprint Cup is indeed, top of the line. Therefore, wins in the top series should be weighed more heavily than those in the others and by that standard, Kyle Busch has not yet reached the point where his career can be compared to the entirety of a career such as Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Jeff Gordon, or Jimmie Johnson. He's made a great start, though, and it's hard to imagine he won't win a championship or two during his career.

But the fact remains, he hasn't done so yet. His 100 wins are definitely noteworthy, something of which he and his fans can be button-bursting proud ... but they don't put him in the same league with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Not yet.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and may not reflect those of Skirts and Scuffs administrators or other contributors. 
Back Seat Driver: Are All Wins Created Equal? Back Seat Driver: Are All Wins Created Equal? Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Monday, July 18, 2011 Rating: 5