Monday, March 18, 2019

We Should Compare Kyle Busch and Richard Petty

Many say you can't compare apples and oranges but I remember once hearing ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas saying that of course you should compare apples and oranges. They are different. That is the point of comparing. 

NASCAR in the 21st century is not NASCAR of the 1960s and 1970s and with Kyle Busch winning his 200th race across NASCAR's three national touring divisions it has a lot of people angry when he is mentioned alongside Richard Petty. 

Even on the broadcast Mike Joy said Kyle Busch's accomplishment should not be compared to Richard Petty and he made it very clear where he fell on the spectrum when he stated this was Busch's 53rd Cup victory as he crossed the line. 

No one is saying Kyle Busch has won more Cup races than Petty. No one is saying Busch is better than Petty. Busch's 200 victories do not discredit Petty's 200 victories and people are defensive when it comes to Petty. It adds to NASCAR's identity crisis of the last two and a half decades that extends from the ruins of North Wilkesboro. It is fear from a base that its Appalachian icon, who came from nothing but showed a fellow brother could rise from the sticks and become nationally known, is now diminished and replaced by someone from the desert, born in a city known for sin, a national spokesperson who has been making millions since he was 20 years old. 

Identity is part of the backlash against Busch's accomplishment. If he were from the Carolinas or Georgia or Virginia with a slight drawl the differences in the 200 victories would be appreciated. If Dale Earnhardt, Jr. reached 200 victories across three national series his name would adorn dozens of elementary schools across the region.

While NASCAR has a greater national following than at any other point in its history only one part of the country claims NASCAR as a part of its identity and in doing so it makes clear who it thinks are outsiders and who is one of them. This has caused a problem as the most successful drivers of the 21st century have come from California, Nevada, Indiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut. There has not been a champion from Dixie since 1999.

These two accomplishments are different and that is ok and we should compare them because not comparing only increases the tension and makes people even more dug into the ground. We have to acknowledge the differences head-to-head and the differences do not make one better than the other but the differences show how NASCAR has changed since the Cup series was first established in 1949 and I think it is important to recognize how NASCAR has evolved. 

Let's go over some of these differences one-by-one:

All of Richard Petty's victories came in the Cup Series. Kyle Busch's victories came across three nationals series.

This is the one Petty defenders are quick to point out. But no one is saying Busch has 200 Cup victories. NASCAR has evolved from one recognized national touring series to three. While viewed as the minor leagues, NASCAR does not considered the other two national series as developmental series. What are now the Xfinity Series and Truck series have evolved as well, with the Xfinity Series once using V6 engines and running mostly on short tracks. It wasn't a developmental series but a different series meant for a different set of drivers. 

Richard Petty won races on dirt.

Yes, and NASCAR dropped all dirt races in the Cup Series after 1971, 14 years before Kyle Busch was born. Busch didn't have the opportunity to race on dirt in a NASCAR national touring division until Eldora was added to the Truck schedule in 2013 and that is still the only dirt race across the three national series. You can't hold that against Busch. It is just how NASCAR changed.

Richard Petty ran multiple Cup races in a week.

For example, during his famous stretch of 10 consecutive victories during the 1967 season, six of those came in a span of 20 days starting with the Southern 500 on September 4th. Four days later, he won a 100-mile race at Hickory and two days after that he won a 150-mile race at Richmond. He won a 150-mile race at Beltsville, Maryland five days later and another 150-mile race at Orange, Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina two days after that. On September 24th, he won at Martinsville. The grand total of mileage for those six races was 1,300 miles. 

Kyle Busch ran 900 miles over three days at Las Vegas alone earlier this month.

And that is just one example. He has run all three national touring division series races in one weekend many times since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 2005. At Texas later this month, he will attempt to complete 1020.5 miles in three days.

Richard Petty won races against fields that feature less than 24 cars. Kyle Busch has never won a race with less than 30.

It was a different time and we should be happy that NASCAR has come from one series where some races have 60 cars show up and others only have 21 to a Cup series that has at least three-dozen entries that can run 36 races and most are highly competitive, a Grand National Series that has around 30 full-time teams and a Truck series that has around two-dozen full-time teams.

Kyle Busch is racing against minors.

Petty might have raced against smaller fields with fledging entries but I think we have to take in consideration that Busch, at least in the truck series, has raced against 16- and 17-year olds. A lot of things were different in the 1960s and 1970s and sanctioning bodies were a lot stricter when it came to letting drivers in. You had to prove yourself and some drivers didn't make it until they were 25 years old. 

Today, if you haven't made it by 21 years old you are likely never going to make it. Drivers get started at a younger age. Busch is racing against some drivers that are still developing. It is not a lot of drivers but it is different. Busch was once one of those minors. Of course, we live in a time where minors have a shot because in the days of tobacco sponsorship drivers were not allowed to compete until they were 18 years old. 

Times have changed. I don't think Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison or Cale Yarborough could have imagined racing against a 16-year-old and yet it is kind common practice today.

Many of Richard Petty's victories came during a time where there was no pit lane speed limit.

This one hit me during yesterday's race because Busch nearly didn't win at Fontana on Sunday because of a pit lane speeding penalty and it arguably did cost him a victory on Saturday. This is something that Petty never had to face. How many races has Busch lost because of a pit lane speeding penalty or a too many men over the wall penalty or because of a driving through too many pit box penalty? These are all things that never stood in Petty's way when it came to winning a race. 

Richard Petty ran at a time where he could fail to qualify for races and Kyle Busch hasn't been in that position.

Kyle Busch did fail to qualify for three Cup races in 2004 and he even failed to make a Busch Series race in 2005 after he spun in qualifying at Texas but outside of that Busch has been pretty much guaranteed a spot in the field of the 997 races he has started over the three national touring divisions.

Amazingly, Petty only failed to qualify for five races in his career, the 1961 Daytona 500 and four races in 1989, which led to the past champions' provisional being created. But for the better part of his 35-year career Petty was not locked into the field. 

Most of Kyle Busch's career has taken place with double-file restarts. 

NASCAR has changed how a race is operated from the glory days to Richard Petty to the glory days of Kyle Busch. The one thing NASCAR has done over the last decade is pack the field together as much as it can. Double-file restarts put the second place car right next to the leader. It is rare during this period of NASCAR for a leader to restart with lapped cars between that car and second place. Second is to the left or right of the leader and third and fourth are on the rear. And while we talk about restarts that leads us to...

The Lucky Dog!

It is easier to get a lap back than any other time in NASCAR. Besides the lucky dog, there is a wave around. Yesterday's race at Fontana had 26 cars taking the wave around before the final restart. Add to that the lucky dog and 27 cars got a lap back in the blink of an eye. Think about what happened at Atlanta earlier this year. How many cars got the way around when only the top three were on the lead lap? It seemed like 30 cars.  

That has benefitted and hurt Busch. There has to be a few races where Busch was a lap down and then came back and won thanks to a wave around or lucky dog but at the same time, how many races did Busch have lapped up to tenth and then after one caution had 28 cars on the lead lap? 

Richard Petty never had the benefit of getting a lap back because of a caution but Petty also never had to face the possibility that 15 cars could get back on the lead lap with 20 laps to go and go from at best finishing ninth to possibly winning a race. 


I guess this isn't a difference between Petty and Busch but this is one thing we have to take into consideration when it comes to Busch. 

A lot of people point to Kyle Busch's 200 victories and say he is the only one doing it. He is the only driver trying to run every Cup race and the maximum number of allowed races in the other two divisions for Cup drivers. Busch is now restricted on how many races he can run! 

Busch chooses to race this much. Other drivers don't. Other drivers could but they don't. Kevin Harvick could go for 200. It wasn't long ago when Harvick, Busch, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski were each running full-time Cup and pretty much doing two-dozen races in NASCAR's second division. Harvick has cut back. Edwards has retired. Keselowski has cut back as well. Busch keeps going and he takes it to the limit. 

We talk about loving drivers who run anything and everything and multiple disciplines. Busch is a driver who is doing that. He runs three races in three days if given the shot and that has only made people angry. 

Busch has put himself out there on the racetrack and where else do we want race car drivers to be? We have a race car driver that races every chance he gets. That is what we want. 

There are many other differences between Richard Petty, Kyle Busch and the 200 races they have won and they cannot all be listed here but we should compare them. Races are longer. Entries have greater stability. There are more 1.5-mile ovals but there are also more road courses. We even have a roval! There have been races in Mexico and Canada. There have been full-time drivers from Australia and Colombia! There is an active full-time driver from Mexico.

We should look at the differences because times change, eras change and NASCAR has changed. Comparing Petty and Busch shows us the evolution of the sanctioning body and how two of the most successful drivers to ever compete faced different challenges on their ways to reaching the same milestone. 

The differences do not mean one achievement is better than the other but they do give context of what these two men did and how they did it.