The Curious Case of Kyle Busch

199 Wins.

That’s how many NASCAR races Kyle Busch has won, going into Auto Club Speedway this week. That is also a number that has stirred up as much debate as any topic in the recent memory of NASCAR.

Kyle Busch was born in 1985, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Racing was a way of life for Busch from a young age, with him getting his unofficial start at 6 years old, driving go-karts with his father and older brother, Kurt.

Kurt is also a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup driver. Kyle worked his way through the NASCAR “everyman” circuit, the Legends Series. Following his late model debut, Busch was able to earn a ride in a Roush Racing Truck, in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. Wanting to separate himself from his older brother, Kyle eventually bolted from the Roush organization and found a home at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing longtime favorite Terry Labonte. Busch was a teenager when he signed with Hendrick.

Busch rose though the Cup Series, eventually becoming, at the time, the youngest winner in NASCAR history at 20 years of age. Kyle eventually left Hendrick Motorsports and joined the Joe Gibbs Racing Team in the Cup Series, still running in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series under his own team, Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Kyle has earned a reputation, on and off the track and continues to be a polarizing driver. He was given the nickname “Rowdy” a point to his aggressive driving style as well as a reference to “Days of Thunder” villain turned friend “Rowdy Burns”. He is just as entertaining as he is talented, and he has divided NASCAR fans for years.

It is no secret that Dale Earnhardt is NASCAR royalty, and to some deity. Kyle Busch draws numerous comparisons to the late Earnhardt. His intimidating, devil-may-care recklessness brings images of the blue and yellow Chevy that Earnhardt used to rise to NASCAR prominence. Like Earnhardt, Busch is an upfront driver that will never shy away from saying what is on his mind. Just look at all the run ins with NASCAR officials to drive the point home.

Unlike Earnhardt, Busch has yet to ascend to the ranks of NASCAR popularity. Busch is the most hated and pulled against driver in NASCAR. For years, while he was winning more races, Busch was never in the same realm with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart or even once hated but now beloved Jeff Gordon. In 2017, after winning the weekends 3 races back to back to back, a tidal wave of “boos” echoed throughout the stands at Bristol Motorspeedway. Even in 2019, drivers like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Brad Keselowski have much larger fan bases.

Kyle Busch has stated many times that being the villain doesn’t bother him. He does have a small, but dedicated following, but nowhere near a driver of his caliber should be. The fact of the matter remains, Busch can’t connect with the everyday average NASCAR fan. Where drivers Like Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, David Pearson, and Mark Martin represented the everyman, Busch carries himself in way that is off-putting to the fan base. Whether it is arrogance or lack of charisma to blame, Kyle Busch will be the bad guy for the foreseeable future.

Despite being almost universally unpopular, Kyle Busch hold many records in NASCAR, Most Truck wins, most Xfinity Wins. Most Xfinity wins in a season. The list of “most” or “first” continues on. Kyle is immensely talented, and that has led him to March of 2019. He has 199 NASCAR Series wins. One shy of Richard Petty. The King, Richard Petty.

The 199 vs. 200 debate rages on, more fiercely than ever, given that Busch is almost guaranteed to win in the month of march. Petty won 200 races, at the top level of NASCAR, however, many of those wins can’t compare to the modern version of the sport. 30 were on dirt, and 84 were in fields less than 30 drivers deep. It still took, Petty 944 starts to win 200 races. It was a less competitive era, but Petty’s accomplishment can’t be understated, as he demolished the sport from 1967-1971, winning 92 races in that span.

The Kyle Busch haters will also point out that Kyle has taken essentially a Cup caliber team down to the NASCAR version of AAA ball, and college ball and dominated those series, with 147 wins coming at lower levels. The debate rages on in chat rooms and twitter threads, and it will intensify when win 200 comes.

While Busch and Petty have both downplayed comparisons, the two drivers at 200 will always be linked. NASCAR is about winning, and the competitive spirt of drivers and race fans will continue to drive debate until the end of the sport. It may be impossible to compare the drivers in their primes, much like the LeBron vs. Jordan debate, this will never die. Kyle Busch is despised but is also one of the best drivers in any era of the sport. He will win 200, and probably more, but he will never have the love of the Pettys and the Earnhardts.