When Matt Kenseth won the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway last week, it was a milestone victory.
It was his 20th career Sprint Cup victory.
That doesn’t seem like a lot. And in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t. Not compared to, say, Jeff Gordon’s 83 career wins or Jimmie Johnson’s 54.
But 20 wins in NASCAR’s top division now seem like a significant achievement. The days of 80, 50 and even 40 career wins seem like they could be a thing of the past.
Gordon, of course, is in rare company. He is one of just six drivers in NASCAR history with 80 or more career victories.
Johnson, the five-time defending champion, is one of just 11 drivers with 50 wins. He hit that mark last season, becoming the first driver since Rusty Wallace in 2000 to reach 50.
Only 16 drivers have 40. Mark Martin is on the list, soon to be joined by Tony Stewart, who has 39. At age 40, Stewart has a shot at 50 wins.
Among active Sprint Cup drivers, no one else has more than 22 career victories.
Because drivers like Gordon, Johnson and Stewart don’t come around every year.
But also because NASCAR is so competitive now that it is very difficult for drivers to hit the type of hot streaks that it takes to accumulate huge victory totals.
Gordon racked up huge numbers by dominating the mid-1990s. His three-year run of 33 wins from 1996-98 is one of the best streaks in the modern era and jump-started a career that has now topped 80 victories.
Only one driver since Gordon in 1998 has won 10 races in a season – Johnson.
Johnson won eight races in 2004 and seven in 2008 and ’09, but the norm for an outstanding season today is five or six wins – not 10 or 12.
In the past four decades, it was not unusual for drivers to string together seasons of 10 or more wins. Richard Petty (200 wins), David Pearson (104), Bobby Allison (84) and Cale Yarborough (83) all did it in the 1960s and ’70s, each taking turns dominating different stretches. (Pearson and Allison will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Monday, joining Petty and Dale Earnhardt.)
Darrell Waltrip (84) and Earnhardt (76) did it in the ’80s and ’90s, as did Gordon in the mid-’90s.
Johnson did it in the last decade, winning 53 races from 2002-10.
But 10-win seasons and 50-win decades are becoming increasingly rare as NASCAR speeds through the most competitive era in its history.
Johnson and Denny Hamlin led the Sprint Cup Series last year with six and eight wins, respectively. Eleven other drivers won races, with eight winning two or three.
With that kind of parity, it is very difficult for drivers today to rack up big career victory totals.
NASCAR is also at the end of an era when a large group of stars all burst onto the scene at the same time 10 or 11 years ago. Those drivers are now either in their prime or inching toward the downside of their careers.
Kenseth is in that group, along with Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Johnson. They were followed by another wave that includes Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Hamlin.
With so many top-flight drivers at the peak of their careers at the same time, the odds of one of them dominating a season with eight to 10 victories are indeed long.
Edwards, Hamlin and Kyle Busch each have had eight- or nine-win seasons in recent years, but none have been able to sustain it over time like Gordon or Johnson.
Aside from Gordon, Johnson, Martin and Stewart – four sure-fire hall of famers – today’s top drivers all have 11 to 22 career wins.
They include: Kurt Busch (22 wins), Jeff Burton (21), Kyle Busch (21), Kenseth (20), Edwards (19), Earnhardt Jr. (18), Biffle (16) Hamlin (16), Harvick (16), Newman (14) and Kahne (11).
Are those hall of fame-worthy numbers? If not, what is the standard now and what will it be when those drivers are nominated for the hall?
Those numbers match the career totals of such former stars as Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker, Geoff Bodine, Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett and Curtis Turner.
That may not be elite company, but it’s not too shabby either. But is it good enough to get into the hall of fame? Time will tell.
Some of today’s stars likely will reach 30 career victories, with Kyle Busch, Edwards and Hamlin having the best chance because of their age (26-31).
Will any reach 40?
Busch, Edwards and Hamlin have a shot. But unless the others suddenly put together a surprisingly huge season (10 wins or more), most probably will not.
Are the days of a driver dominating a three- or four-year stretch, or a whole decade, like Gordon and Johnson did, a thing of the past?
Can Busch, Edwards, Hamlin or someone else (perhaps Kahne once he arrives at Hendrick Motorsports) hit a hot streak and push his victory totals toward the 40 or 50 mark?
Or is 20 (wins) the new 50?
If it is, then Kenseth’s win last week at Dover may be more significant than we think.