Kyle Busch one of all-time best drivers

In another month or so, Kyle Busch will win his 50th NASCAR Nationwide Series race, breaking Mark Martin’s record for the most career wins in that series.

He then will set about raising the mark so high that it may never be broken again.

But it is not Martin that Busch is chasing. It’s Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Richard Petty, three of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Busch’s assault on the Nationwide Series record book is relatively minor considering the other numbers he is approaching. With 91 career victories in NASCAR’s three national series — a staggering number considering he is still just 25 years old and has been racing in NASCAR’s top series for only about eight seasons — Busch is closing in on the most elite company.

While Petty, who has the most overall wins, remains in the distance with 200 (all Cup), this season Busch could catch No. 5 Martin at 96 (40 Cup, 49 Nationwide, 7 Truck), the No. 3 total of 97 wins shared by Darrell Waltrip (84, 13, 0) and Earnhardt (76, 21, 0) and No. 2 Pearson at 106 (105, 1, 0).

If Busch continues his typical dominance in the Nationwide and Truck series and scores a few more Cup wins, he will catch Pearson this year. The question is, should Busch’s career victories across all three series be compared to those of Pearson, who won 105 races in what was then classified as NASCAR’s Cup series?

Since such a question will spark a firestorm of controversy and debate, a better question is: Why shouldn’t they?

And if Busch does the unthinkable and collects 200 career victories — which at this stage of his career is quite possible — will that mark be comparable to Petty’s 200? (Petty actually has 201 if you count his lone convertible series victory.)

Most fans, NASCAR historians, media members and pundits groan at such a thought. But it will not only be comparable, it will be even more remarkable.

Critics will argue that Busch’s numbers don’t compare because almost all of the victories recorded by Petty, Pearson and the others came in NASCAR’s Cup series, or at its highest level.

True. But back then, NASCAR’s Cup series wasn’t what it is today. In fact, in some respects, it wasn’t even as competitive as the Nationwide and Truck series are now. Consider this:

Of Petty’s 200 career victories, 140 came from 1960 to ’71, when Petty and other top drivers ran 40, 50 or more races per season, many of them at small, short tracks in podunk towns that didn’t attract large fields and top stars.

In those years, top-flight drivers like Petty and Pearson often dominated because they had superior equipment and usually faced inferior competitors, many of whom could barely afford to make it to the track. In most races, there were only a handful of drivers who could stay on the lead lap and who could even come close to challenging the top drivers and teams.

Petty won numerous races in which there were fewer than 20 cars. His first career victory in 1960 came in a 21-car field at the Charlotte fairgrounds, his third against 17 cars in Hillsborough, N.C. His fourth career victory, in 1961, was in a 12-car field at Richmond. He even got credit for winning a World 600 qualifying race against 18 other cars.

He won races in 16-car fields in places like Huntsville, Ala., Birmingham, Ala., Savannah, Ga., Macon, Ga., Spartanburg, S.C. and South Boston, Va.

When he won a record 27 races in 1967, more than half of them were on small, short tracks that weren’t on the Cup circuit five years later. Many of them had 25 cars or fewer. His record 10 wins in a row came on tracks in Winston-Salem, N.C., Columbia, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Hickory, N.C. and Beltsville, Md.

When he racked up 16 wins in 1968, 18 in 1970 and 21 in ’71, he ran 40 or more races those seasons and won most of them on similar tracks.

Pearson did the same thing when he won the majority of his races. Of his 105 Cup victories, 60 came from 1960 to ’71, and most came in seasons in which he ran 40 to 60 races on short tracks all across the country, with small fields and only a handful of competitive cars.

Sounds kind of like what Busch is doing in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, doesn’t it?

Petty and Pearson are among the greatest drivers of all time because of their big victories in the modern era (post-1972), particularly at tracks like Daytona and Darlington, but their career victory totals include all the races they won before then.

This is not to diminish the accomplishments of Petty, Pearson and the other stars of their day. They raced the competition that was there and did what they had to do to win.

The point is, so does Busch.

Today’s Sprint Cup Series is 10 times more competitive than the Cup fields that Petty, Pearson and the others raced against in the 1960s and early ’70s. It’s a different era with better drivers, better teams, more competition and, in most cases, bigger, faster and tougher tracks.

Ironically, while Busch’s victory total should compare favorably to Pearson’s, it doesn’t stack up to the totals of Earnhardt, Martin and Jeff Gordon (89 total wins).

Why?

Different era. Earnhardt’s 76 Cup wins are more significant than the totals of Petty and Pearson because they came against much tougher competition in a much more competitive era. Gordon’s 83 are even more significant.

Even Martin’s totals of 40 Cup wins and 49 Nationwide victories are more significant — right now. But as Busch wins more and more Cup races, the more significant his total will become.

He has just 20 Cup victories so far, a figure likely to rise dramatically in the next three to five years. But his 46 Nationwide and 25 Truck wins are an amazing number given the number of races he has run and the fact that he has won them while racing in all three series at the same time.

His 46 Nationwide wins have come in just 207 starts, or every 4.5 races. His 25 Truck wins have come in just 87 starts, or every 3.4 races. He has 20 Cup wins in 227 starts.

Combined, he has won 91 races in NASCAR’s top three series in 521 starts, a winning percentage of 17.4 percent.

By comparison, Petty won 200 Cup races in 1,184 starts, a winning percentage of 16.8. Pearson won 105 Cup races in 574 starts, or 18.2 percent.

The question is, can you compare those feats based on the level of competition? I think you can.

Busch’s 20 Cup wins are like winning 40 or 50 Cup races back then. And it’s not like he has had no competition in Nationwide or Trucks.

In the Nationwide Series he routinely races other Cup stars like Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and others. And all are driving for top-flight teams.

In the Truck series he faces veterans and champions like Ron Hornaday, Mike Skinner, Todd Bodine and others who have been racing trucks for years and are seasoned veterans with quality teams.

On any given week there are at least four or five Nationwide or Truck teams capable of beating him — similar to the level of competition that Petty, Pearson and the rest faced early in their careers.

Is it time to declare young Kyle Busch the greatest NASCAR driver ever? Not quite. He’s got a ways to go yet.

Is he the greatest today? No. That would be five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

But Busch’s win total over NASCAR’s top three series is a phenomenal mark that should be recognized as one of the greatest feats in NASCAR history.

And when the time comes, his combined win total in all three series should compare favorably to the marks of the all-time greats.