FONTANA, Calif. — In every sport, fierce debates circulate on who the greatest of all time might be in their respective disciplines.
In basketball, Michael Jordan has the championship triumphs (six) that earned him a rightful place as the “G.O.A.T.” Well, at least until LeBron James came along.
What’s unique about that debate is it doesn’t solely rest on Jordan needing six fingers to put on his championship rings, compared to James’ three so far in his career. James has broken a number of other records — big and small — and has the breathtaking athleticism to be worthy of a place in the conversation.
But in NASCAR, the greatest driver of all time discussion always seems to include three legends — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson — because each has seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series titles. No other records are even considered.
Where, then, does Kyle Busch’s legacy lie after tying Richard Petty’s record with his 200th NASCAR national series victory in Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway?
For Denny Hamlin — whose fire suit dons the Jordan “Jumpman” logo each weekend — it isn’t fair that in NASCAR the G.O.A.T. is only subject to the number of championship trophies accumulated.
“No, because the championship format has changed,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com. “It’s come down to a one-race thing where it used to be an entire season. … But right now, I think the competition is better right now than it ever has been. It’s harder to win than it ever has been. The cars are closer together than it’s ever been. When you look back in the older era, I think, with all due respect to some other competitors — the Pearsons and Pettys and those guys — they were the best drivers and they had cars that were extremely fast compared to the field.”
With Busch’s milestone now official, that solidifies Hamlin’s belief that Busch is the greatest right now.
“There’s no one better,” Hamlin said. “I’ve kind of got to watch and race against what I argue is the best. At the time, I would have said Jimmie ‘X’ amount of years ago. I battled him through some championships and stuff and I was like, ‘This guy is on another level.’ I was very unfortunate to race in the Jimmie Johnson era. But now it seems like it’s kind of a Kyle Busch era in the sense that he has taken over as undoubtedly the best driver in the Cup Series.”
Maybe it’s the Kyle Busch Era now, but Alex Bowman, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, said the accomplishments achieved in the Jimmie Johnson Era shouldn’t be minimized. He deserves to be in the greatest of all time conversation, too.
“It’s frustrating from my point of view to watch everyone kind of almost blow Jimmie off and think that other guys are better,” Bowman told NASCAR.com. “I think Jimmie is the greatest our generation is going to see. If there is a comparison that is going to be made, it should be Jimmie Johnson. I’m not trying to take away anything from Kyle Busch. I think he’s a great race car driver and probably the most raw-talented guy in the sport. Jimmie … the knowledge that he has and the way he handles himself, the way he leads that race team, it’s pretty incredible.”
And there lies the greatest question in NASCAR: Can you still be the greatest of all time without seven championships? What’s more, should the G.O.A.T. conversations be era-specific only? Is there even such a thing as a G.O.A.T. at all, or can it just be as simple as having multiple greats?
Let’s ask the new Mr. 200, himself.
“In different eras, there’s so many different things,” Busch said after his milestone victory. “Jimmie Johnson should be the G.O.A.T, right? He should be the greatest of all time because he won the most championships in the most different ways of having to win a championship in the most different cars he had to drive in to be able to win races.
“Before 2004, it was always the whole season was the champion,” he added. “Then, we had the 10-race playoffs and now we have the three, three, three and then one (championship finale). Unfortunately for me, I’ve made it to the final four of the last four years and I’ve only won it once. I feel like LeBron James because I can make it to the Finals, but once I get there, I can’t quite close it out and get it all done.”
According to Busch, “the greatest” is all relative.
“There’s so many different comparisons that not every single person is going to have every single one of them,” Busch said. “I think that makes it where you can’t always say there’s a greatest, that there’s greats.”
Whether you like it or not, Rowdy cemented his place in NASCAR history as one of the sport’s great Sunday in Southern California. Time will tell if he can become a G.O.A.T. — because there can be more than one.