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By Logan Morris
When the checkered flag falls on the 2023 NASCAR season it will also fall on Kevin Harvick’s Cup career. Harvick has always done it his way and this season promises to be no different. He’s almost more known for his blunt assessments of the sport than he is for his on-track performance; perhaps at times it even overshadowed his accomplishments to a degree. When you take a look at his numbers, I think it’s fair to wonder why he isn’t more appreciated by a lot of the NASCAR fan base in terms of just how great he’s been.
When fans talk about current drivers that could be in discussion for the greatest of all time, that answer is almost universally Kyle Busch. Make no mistake, Kyle Busch’s resume is incredible. His run has been nothing short of amazing. But it feels like people forget that the successes of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have been very similar, particularly at the Cup level. As we enter the 2023 season this Sunday with the 65th annual Daytona 500, the numbers might be closer than you realize.
They’re both tied at 60 Cup wins. Harvick currently has the edge in Top Tens at 430 to Busch’s 355. Before going further it is worth noting that Kyle Busch began his full-time Cup Series career in 2005. Harvick’s began in 2001. Busch has the championship advantage at two to Harvick’s one.
Both men are subjected to the question “What if they didn’t race in the same era as Jimmie Johnson?” It’s impossible to say but it’s a question worth mentioning. Frankly, I think it makes both drivers look all the more impressive.
If you’re looking beyond the Cup Series, most would argue this is where Kyle Busch widens the gap. Busch is the Xfinity series all-time winningest driver with 102 wins, so far. It was recently announced Busch would be returning to the Xfinity Series this season with Kaulig Racing after not competing in the series in 2022. Harvick retired from the Xfinity series with 47 wins.
Busch is also the all-time winningest driver in the Truck Series with an astounding 62 wins. But, as is often the case with stats in NASCAR, those numbers could use a little context. In no way am I trying to diminish Busch’s accomplishments, but it is at least worth noting that these wins in the lower series, especially in the Truck Series, were typically in a field of much younger and inexperienced drivers and oftentimes Busch had far more funding than much of the field.
None of this is to take away from the wins or the much-needed attention it brings to the lower series and experience it gives to the next generation of drivers. However, the talent and funding difference must be noted. Harvick meanwhile has 14 career wins in the Truck Series.
Perhaps when you read these numbers you think the debate of Kevin Harvick vs Kyle Busch isn’t all that close, and more power to you. But when you focus on both drivers' similar Cup Series careers the debate comes into clear view. Let's delve into a few more numbers that will show you it’s closer than you think.
Entering 2023 both Harvick and Busch are tied with five Championship Four appearances. In an era that doesn’t bode well for multiple championships, Final Four appearances must be taken into account. The consistency it takes to go into the season finale with a shot at the championship that many times is remarkable.
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The one big accomplishment that Harvick has over Busch is a Daytona 500 win, which he accomplished in 2007. As great as Kyle Busch is, he's still looking for that elusive first Daytona 500 victory. Quite simply, no resume is complete without it. You can bet your bottom dollar that Kyle Busch knows that all too well as he prepares for the Daytona 500 this Sunday.
The one topic I haven’t touched on that must be acknowledged is that Kyle Busch appears to have several more seasons ahead of him while Harvick is entering his final full-time season. There are those that will say that Busch will end any debate as the years go on and perhaps he will. However, it must be said that those are assumptions. Busch turns 38 in May so I can understand that it’s easy to dismiss any comparisons between the two. But there are no guarantees in regards to the kind of success Busch will have going forward.
We’ve seen greats suddenly lose their touch before. Jeff Gordon was never quite the same after winning his fourth and final championship in 2001. He had a great season, don’t get me wrong, but the kind of dominance he had become known for was a thing of the past. He ended his 2001 season with a whopping 58 of his 93 career wins. More often than not, Gordon’s championship dreams were dashed by his teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Speaking of Johnson, he’s a driver who saw a quick and steep decline. After winning his record-tying 7th championship in 2016 the decline happened suddenly. He would win three times in 2017 and then go winless for the final three years of his full-time Cup career, something that few saw coming at the time. Until Busch fully separates himself from Harvick with more Cup success, it would be unwise to assume it’s going to happen.
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To put Harvick’s astounding numbers in even greater perspective, consider this, he nearly doubles Martin Truex Jr in Cup Series wins. He has 12 more wins than Denny Hamlin, and 11 more than his boss, Tony Stewart. He has five more wins than Rusty Wallace. He’s ahead of Mark Martin and Bill Eliott. If we look strictly from the Modern Era on (1972-present) Harvick is currently tied with “The King,” Richard Petty at 60 wins.
It must be said that it’s impossible to properly compare eras of any sport. I think It’s fair to say NASCAR is even tougher to compare than most other major sports. There’s been such a vast change in NASCAR from its first sanctioned event in 1949. It’s impossible to say for sure that one driver is better than another when we’re discussing different eras. That of course, won’t stop all of us from trying for years to come. Kevin Harvick’s numbers are worthy of being in these discussions. And yet, so often he feels overlooked when we mention the all-time greats of this sport.
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The way Harvick’s Cup Series career began should also be mentioned for context. He was thrown into the proverbial fire after the tragic 2001 Daytona 500 where we lost Dale Earnhardt Sr. Imagine having to step in after that kind of horrific moment. Imagine having to try and fill the seat of arguably the greatest of all time? Talk about doing the impossible.
Harvick had great success during unbelievably difficult circumstances. He famously won in just his third career Cup Start at Atlanta in 2001, and he would go on to win 23 races for Richard Childress Racing, a remarkable accomplishment in its own right given the circumstances of the time.
When the curtain falls on Kevin Harvick’s Cup career this season he should be remembered for doing it his way. He spoke his mind, and he wasn’t afraid of the consequences. But, he should also be remembered for historic achievements that are on par with the true icons of this sport and better than most. The three seven-time champions have their own unique place in NASCAR history and rightfully so.
Beyond that, however, Kevin Harvick should be mentioned on the same breath as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and anyone else who has ascended to that truly elite level in NASCAR lore. Kevin Harvick is one of the all-time greats and compared to most people it’s probably a lot closer than most realize. Give “The Closer” his “flowers” while he’s still an active driver. He’s earned that, and so much more.