Kyle Busch: Great NASCAR Driver or Greatest Driver Ever?

M Brian LadnerCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2017

By capturing the checkered flag on his 24th birthday Saturday, Kyle Busch put his 15th career Cup win in the books, tying him for 45th on the all-time Cup win list (rank:30). 

Moreover, that win was his 50th overall in NASCAR's top-three series, tying him with Greg Biffle for third amongst driver wins since the beginning of the Truck Series in 1995. The two drivers ahead of them—Jeff Gordon with 82 and Mark Martin with 60.

Much has been made about these numbers since the win. Primary among them, of course, is being the youngest driver ever to have accumulated 15 Cup wins, 50 overall wins, etc. And that doesn't count all the other records he has set along the way.

Since then, Busch has said his goal is to win 200 races across NASCAR's top three series, a goal he repeated during an interview on Tuesday's "NASCAR Now." 

He made it clear that it's just a goal and not necessarily an expectation, and that he knew it would take quite a few more years (18 by his quick calculations) to get there given his average so far.

Busch and others have been careful to make it clear that if he were to do so it would not necessarily be comparable to Richard Petty's record of 200 Cup wins—a point of much contention between "old-school" and "new-school" fans.  

Some, including Darryl Waltrip in his latest column, believe that Busch is not only more talented, but that what he has accomplished—and what he hopes to accomplish—is more impressive than any of those who have come before him.

And DW is not the only one. Articles and opinion pieces abound around the net asking the question about whether or not counting wins outside of the Cup series should mean anything at all and if they do, what they should mean in comparison to wins accumulated by past drivers.

Most of the contention there comes up when discussing the "relative value" of a Nationwide or Truck series win today compared to at least some of the Cup wins racked up by others thirty or forty years ago.

Some argue that only Cup wins count and given that, no one will ever top "The King"—especially as the season contains so many fewer races today than it did back when Petty was winning races at a rate of up to 27 per year.

Others argue that the level of competition of many of those races pales in comparison to the level of competition today—especially given the parity amongst teams and manufacturers today across all three series.

Couple that increased level of competition with the versatility necessary to be able to run and win in three very different types of cars against drivers of all skill levels—often in the same weekend—and you have a strong argument that the difficulty of getting such wins today is at least on par with many of the "less competitive" wins of forty years ago.

Obviously, until he wins a Cup championship or three any such comparisons are always going to be made moot by those claiming that it's championships that count, not just wins, no matter what the series is. 

And there I agree to a large extent. Without at least a few championships, Busch will stand little to no chance of ever being considered one of the greatest of all time. 

But for the sake of argument (and as a long-time hardcore fan of both Busch brothers), I'm going to set aside that portion of the discussion as I believe that he will win at least a couple championships during his Cup career. 

He may end up winning only one, he may win ten; only time will tell. But few seem to doubt that he will win at least one at some point.

Again, leaving that aside, how does one compare Busch's accomplishments to those of the greats of the past and the present, including Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt, Waltrip, Yarborough, Pearson, Petty and many others?

Or to steal a bit from Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report and adapt it for my own nefarious purposes, "Kyle Busch, great driver or greatest driver ever?"

In my opinion, this question will never fully be answered satisfactorily for everyone as it is, by its very nature, unanswerable.

In essence this issue is very similar to the problem never resolved from last year—trying to compare Jimmie Johnson's third championship in a row with Cale Yarborough's.

Different eras, different circumstances, and different levels of competition make comparisons difficult at best, impossible at worst.

Not only that, but it is still a little early to even try answer these questions. Busch is only 24 and has already established himself as easily one of the greats of his time (and/or one of the greatest under 25), but who knows what the future may bring?

Although I didn't see every one of Richard Petty's victories (or nearly any other driver's for that matter), I have watched Busch since the "re-beginning" of his NASCAR career after he turned 18.

And although it took a few years working with some really good people at Hendrick Motorsports along with a strong "reality check" when he was let go at the end of 2007, Busch showed incredible potential then and since then has done little but flesh out that potential at Joe Gibbs Racing and Billy Balew Motorsports.

All in all, however, I personally have to agree with those who say that comparisons can be made, but how accurate they may be depends upon your point of view.

And in that respect, I have to agree with those who know and have known the greats; those that have raced or worked with the best of the best; and those who have researched and reported on it all.

Although it is very easy to find someone in the garage or the media center who doesn't like something about Busch, it is very difficult if not downright impossible to find one of them who questions his talent, his drive, his accomplishments, and his potential. 

I have heard and read drivers, crew chiefs, former drivers, former crew chiefs, owners and commentators alike speak in glowing terms about how good Busch really is and how much they love to watch him in whatever race he might be in. 

True, most agree that he has his issues, but being able to drive a car is not one of them.

I tend to agree with people like three-time Cup champion Darryl Waltrip. In what most consider to be his "love affair with Kyle Busch," he outright states his belief that Kyle is the best there's even been, at least so far.

"I appreciate talent: I saw Dale Earnhardt when he was at his best; I saw Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon all when they were at their best. I raced against them when they were at their best, so trust me when I say I know talent."

"I have to tell you, though: None of them were as good as Kyle."

Who am I to disagree?
That's my $0.18. What's yours?