Thirty-nine NASCAR drivers will take to the starting grid Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, but really, this season has come down to a match race between two men: Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
Harvick and Busch have dominated the season, combining to win seven of the first 11 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races — Harvick four, Busch three — heading into Saturday night's KC Masterpiece 400.
And they’re also racing toward their places in history as two of the sport’s all-time winningest drivers and surefire Hall of Famers.
Busch has tied Hall of Famer Buck Baker for 15th place on the all-time Cup win list with 46. Harvick ranks 18th all-time after winning his 41st career Cup race last Sunday at Dover.
“I don’t think there is any question how great they are,” said Hall of Famer and Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip, who sits tied for fourth all-time with 84 wins during 1977-99. “We all have our eras. I had one, Dale (Earnhardt) had one, (Jeff) Gordon had one, (Jimmie) Johnson had one … You go through these 10-year cycles, and right now Kevin and Kyle are in that cycle where you are at your peak.
“You’re seeing a driver probably at his absolute best when you’re watching Kevin Harvick. He knows when to push it, and he knows when to hold back a little bit. And Kyle Busch …. there’s nobody out there who can drive a car any better or any harder than he can.”
All told, Busch, 33, owns 187 career wins across all three NASCAR series, second all-time. He ranks first with 91 career wins in the Xfinity Series, and second with 50 in the Camping World Trucks Series, and he’s made no secret he’s shooting for Richard “The King” Petty’s all-time record 200 wins, all in Cup racing.
Harvick, 42, joined Petty, Busch and David Pearson (106) as the only drivers with 100 total victories when he won the Cup race Las Vegas on March 14. Besides his 41 Cup victories, Harvick has won 47 Xfinity and 14 trucks races, giving him a total of 102.
“This day and age is different than the old day and age,” said Busch, in his 11th season driving the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota. “People will have that argument forever. I don’t think there is a comparison to that. I think for what (Kevin) and myself have been able to do with the amount of wins that we have in all three series is cool.
“If you reach 100 …. I mean that’s a big number to reach … in how difficult it is to win races these days, whether it’s Cup, Xfinity or Truck. Over the course of the last few years, we’ve been really good at racking them up, but he’s obviously reaching that 100 mark, and I think that that should be something to be proud of. I know I’m focused on being able to continue my climb and getting to the next wins that I can.”
Topping off their Hall of Fame resumes, both Harvick and Busch are multiple-time NASCAR series champions.
Busch won the 2015 Cup championship and the 2009 Xfinity championship. Harvick won the 2014 Cup title and Xfinity championships in 2006 and 2001, when he was doing double duty for Richard Childress Racing after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt in the Cup series following his fatal wreck in the Daytona 500.
“I’m honored to say that I’ve gone to victory lane ever,” said Harvick, in his fifth year driving the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford. “To be able to live out and get paid to do what you used to do for a hobby and now call it your job is pretty incredible. You look back and you look at all the different wins … to have an appreciation of how much you actually love sitting in this race car.
“I am so lucky to be able to do what I do, drive around in circles, travel to all these places … there really isn’t ever a day that my job isn’t fun. …. All the different vehicles I have been fortunate to drive … I know how hard it is to get to victory lane and to know we have been there 100 times is something I almost can’t fathom.”
History of run-ins
Both Busch and Harvick have been polarizing figures because of their aggressive driving and combustible personalities that have ruffled feelings and rubbed fenders.
Busch, known as “Rowdy”, has had run-ins with fellow competitors and media through the years and even had a physical altercation with opposing team owner Richard Childress in the garage at Kansas Speedway following a 2011 trucks race.
A week earlier, Busch and Harvick, known as “Happy” for his grumpy demeanor, engaged in a post-race scuffle at Darlington that led to fines and four-week probation for both.
Crew chief Rodney Childers was wary when Harvick joined Stewart-Haas in 2014.
“I’ll be honest, I heard a lot of things both good, and maybe not so good, about how he was to work with and how fierce of a competitor he is,” Childers said. “They got the fiery competitor part pretty spot on.
“Sometimes when things don’t go our way, he has a right to be mad, because he demands the best — both from himself and from his team. When he’s not in the best mood, you know for sure he is going to drive harder than you’ve ever seen and do something special. That is something that you really can’t measure, but it’s an incredible skill to have.”
Marriage and fatherhood have provided Busch with some equanimity, but crew chief Adam Stevens said: “I think that the cup inside of Kyle is always full. He's set on kill all the time. Sometimes he channels that focus. Sometimes it comes out the wrong way, but it's always inside of him. “
Stage set in Kansas
This weekend’s races at Kansas Speedway offer Busch and Harvick prime chances to add to their win totals.
Busch has won a record seven times at Kansas Speedway (one Cup race, four Xfinity and two trucks) and will race in both events. He’ll try to tie Ron Hornaday Jr. for a record 51st career trucks win in Friday night’s 37 Kind Days 250 in addition to running in Sunday’s KC Masterpiece 400.
Harvick has won two Cup events at Kansas Speedway, most recently the fall race of 2016. He also has three second-place finishes and seven top-threes, including last May’s race. Harvick also owns the track’s qualifying record speed of 197.773 mph set in October 2014, breaking the mark he set the previous May.
“As you look at Kansas, it’s been one of my best racetracks through the years,” Harvick said, “and since I’ve come to SHR, it’s probably been one of our top-two racetracks. I feel like we should’ve won more races there than we have, but you can say that at a lot of places ... Anything less than a win there is usually a disappointment.”
Tale of the tape
NASCAR’s Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have combined for seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup wins this season and are two of four drivers in history with 100 wins across all three of NASCAR’s national series. Here’s how they compare.
Category ..... Kyle Busch ….. Kevin Harvick
Cup wins … 46 …. 41
Xfinity wins … 91 … 47
Trucks wins …. 50 … 14
Total wins …. 187 …. 102
Kansas Cup wins … 1 (2016) …. 2 (2013, 2016)
Cup championships … 1 (2015) ….1 (2014)
Xfinity championships …1 (2009)…. 2 (2001, 2006)
Cup Rookie of the Year … 2005 …. 2001
NASCAR ALL-TIME RACE WINNERS
Driver … Cup … Xfinity …. Trucks …. Total
Richard Petty … 200 …. 0 ….. 0 … 200
Kyle Busch …. 46 … 91 … 50 … 187
David Pearson … 105 … 1 … 0 …106
Kevin Harvick … 41 … 47 … 14 …. 102
Jeff Gordon … 93 … 5 … 0 … 98