Haters take a break: Kyle Busch bordering greatness

On Sunday night I was bellied up to a bar in downtown Indianapolis, enjoying a hearty post-Indianapolis 500 dinner, drink and debate.

“I hate this S.O.B,” the bartender barked as he swabbed mugs with a dish towel.

He jerked a thumb in the direction of the giant TV overhead, which displayed the high definition image of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota, in the process of completing one of the 377 laps led in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That’s 565 miles spent at the front, almost precisely the distance between the barstool where I sat and the racetrack that Kyle Busch had turned into his personal 1.5-mile playground (it was 575 miles, I looked it up).

“Anybody who tells you he’s as good as Jeff Gordon or Richard Petty is an idiot.”

“You know what? I hate that S.O.B!” an overserved fellow patron responded, directing our attention to a SportsCenter discussion about LeBron James, who’d delivered his team into the NBA Finals for the eighth consecutive time, via a Kyle Busch-like 46-point performance in a do-or-die Game 7. “He couldn’t carry Michael Jordan’s uniform to the cleaners.”

The bartender turned to me. “Well, what you do think, sportswriter guy?”

“I think he [I pointed to LeBron] is one of the greatest of all time. And I also think he [I pointed to Kyle Busch] is one of the greatest of all time. I don’t hate either one of them.”

“That’s bull,” the drunk guy said. “I saw what you wrote about Kyle Busch.

OK, that’s fair. But it also has been a while since I wrote that. Nearly seven years ago to be exact. It has also been a while since LeBron got on the wrong side of pretty much everyone outside of Miami when he proclaimed he was taking his talents to South Beach. Nearly eight years ago to be exact.

During those years both men have racked up otherwordly numbers and rewritten their Hall of Fame résumés. They’ve also restructured their reputations. LeBron returned home to the Cleveland Cavaliers and fulfilled his promise to make them champions. Busch has become a husband and a father, and though he can certainly still turn prickly on occasion, those moments have become the exception. The new Rowdy Busch norm is to Tweet sweet pics of his kid and spend his spare time making new fans by way of smiling sneak attack.

So, to quote Day-Day from “Friday After Next,” don’t hate … appreciate.

Yeah, Busch stunk up the show Sunday night in Charlotte, but the history of the 600 has been written by such nights. And sometimes, there is beauty to be found within the beatdown.

Consider the following research, sent to me late Sunday night by ESPN Stats & Info:

  • Busch’s first win at Charlotte means that he has now won on all 23 racetracks that have hosted a Cup race during his career.

  • This is the fourth straight season that he has won four or more races.

  • His 377 laps are the third-most he’s ever led in a single race; the others in his personal top four are all short tracks.

  • He has already led 875 laps this year, 150 more than he led during his entire 25-race 2015 championship season.

  • His 47th career Cup Series victory moves him into sole possession of 15th place on the all-time wins list. He’s now one spot and one win ahead of Buck Baker. One more win moves him into a tie with Herb Thomas for 14th; two more wins and he joins Tony Stewart in 13th; three more wins and he sits alongside Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson at 50. If he were to somehow match his best single-season win total of eight (set in 2008) he would sit just outside the all-time top 10, behind Lee Petty’s 54 victories.

All those other names listed are already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the exception of Stewart, who will skate through in his first appearance on the ballot one year from now. Busch is ranked second among active drivers in wins, trailing only Jimmie Johnson. At Charlotte he also won his 30th career Cup pole, good for 24th all-time and third among active drivers behind Ryan Newman and Johnson.

Busch is also the all-time Xfinity Series wins leader with 91, nearly double that of second place Mark Martin (49), also a Hall of Famer. His 50 Truck series wins are only one behind all-time wins leader Ron Hornaday, Jr., who is, yes, also enshrined in the Hall.

In the past two years alone, he also has won the NASCAR All-Star Race, a Daytona Duel 150 qualifier and the Snowball Derby. And for those who say he’s won “only” one Cup championship, consider this: he’s made the final four at Homestead the past three years, kicking off that streak with his 2015 title. That format has existed only four years.

Earlier this season he won three consecutive Cup races. That has happened 25 times during NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present) and four times since 2007. Busch has done it two of those four times.

You want me to keep going? Because I could. Busch can keep going, too. And he will.

After all, he’s only 33 years old, having hit that mark a scant one month ago. Richard Petty won five of his seven titles after turning 33. Dale Earnhardt had one Cup title at 33 and won his remaining six after turning 35. Johnson, the unquestionable gold standard for this generation, has won four of his seven championships after turning 33.

Johnson is nine years older than Busch and still racing. Petty was two decades older than Busch when he hung up his helmet. Even if Busch followed the relatively early retirement plans of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., that would mean that he still has nearly a decade of racing remaining.

How much could he accomplish during that time? How many more Hall of Famers will he leave in his dust before he’s done?

Only time will tell. Only the rearview mirror will ultimately lend us the most accurate perspective. But why in the world would we waste time waiting on that? Wasting ticks of the clock on comparison and speculation and “I hate that S.O.B.”

Let’s simply be glad that we are here to witness greatness. One day, a gray-headed Kyle Busch is going to announce that he’s taking his talents to retirement. We’re going to wish we’d taken a moment to do less hating and more appreciating.

Leave a Reply