HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In the hours after winning his second Cup Series title Sunday night, Kyle Busch was well aware of the fact that he could be even more successful than he is.
Busch’s win in Sunday’s race made him just the second active driver alongside Jimmie Johnson with multiple Cup Series titles and just the 16th driver in NASCAR history to have more than one Cup Series title. He’s in rarified company. Yet Busch, when asked about being the first multi-time champion in NASCAR since Johnson won his second title in 2007, said he wanted to be talking about more than just a second title.
“I would love to be sitting here right now talking about eight,” Busch said. “I've been in the sport for 14, 15 years, whatever this season is for me, and so we're only talking about two. It's nice to have the success that we have, take it when you get it, but there's certainly a few missed opportunities for sure.”
Eight titles would be, of course, a Cup Series record. Johnson, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty all have seven. Yes, Busch indirectly brought up the specter of NASCAR immortality on Sunday night. That’s how motivated he is as a race car driver.
Sunday’s win was Busch’s 56th career Cup Series win and his 40th from 2010-19. He closes out the 2010s as the winningest driver of the decade. He’s also won 208 races across NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. That’s the most combined NASCAR national series wins of any driver.
That motivation is why he races — and wins — as often as he does. Busch would certainly have more than 208 wins if NASCAR hadn’t added strict participation limits for Cup drivers in the Xfinity and Truck Series.
And while Busch, 34, is the winningest driver of the decade, he’s also indisputably the best driver of the past five seasons. He has two championships in that span and is the only driver to make the Cup Series final four in each of those five years.
“Fortunately for us and our group, we get these opportunities every year, five in a row. But you know, what's ‑‑ I think it's what [crew chief Adam Stevens] said best earlier, is that we prepare as hard as we can prepare and do everything that we know how to do and be ready for this moment. And sometimes you just kind of miss it somewhere, someway, somehow, and other times you're like we were in 2015 or this year, Carl [Edwards] was in 2016, we were in 2017, it just didn't come to us.”
Busch’s increased success over the last five years can be tied to the arrival of Stevens as his crew chief. The two have won 27 races in that span and Busch’s average finish in each of those seasons is better than 12. It was never better than 12th in any of the first 10 full-time seasons of Busch’s career.
The ability to consistently churn out good finishes in addition to winning races has turned Busch from an enigmatic talent capable of a bad finish at any time to a driver you’re surprised to see finish outside of the top 10 at any given race.
Stevens is also unafraid to learn from his mistakes. Busch missed out on the title in 2018 despite eight wins thanks to a car that fell far from the lead in the final stage.
“This is the Game 7 for us,” Stevens said. “First off, you have to get to the Game 7. And second off, you want to be at your best. Last year we weren't at our best.
“I felt like not necessarily the car we brought but some of the approach that we had coming into it wasn't right for my team, wasn't right for Kyle, and I wanted to remedy that situation in the best way possible, and that's to get here, number one; and number two, perform at a high level.”
NASCAR’s winner-take-all format doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. And, one could argue, its small sample randomness makes it harder to win titles than in the full-season points format that existed when Petty and Earnhardt dominated and the cumulative 10-race playoff where Johnson won six of his championships.
It’s a stretch — at the moment — to think that Busch could get to eight titles. It’s a conversation better had after his fifth or sixth championship. But at 34, Busch still has plenty of time to rack up more championships. Johnson had five titles at 34. Petty had four. Earnhardt had one.
With half of his 30s to go, Busch enters the next decade as the driver to beat. At least one more championship seems likely as long as he and Stevens are working together.
“When Adam was slated to come on over and be my crew chief, I was not apprehensive about it, but you know, him and I had worked together on the Xfinity side and grown a relationship for a couple of years and we had success over there,” Busch said. “Sometimes that success works and sometimes it doesn't. You just never know.
“But obviously I'm very fortunate and thankful for [Joe Gibbs] and making that decision and putting us together and having us to have the success we've had has been really, really good. Could it have been better? Sure. Could it have been worse? Probably. But it's good right now.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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