Posted: 10:25 pm Tuesday, June 5th, 2018
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
The biggest story in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season has been the absolute beatings that Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, with a taste of Martin Truex Jr., have laid on the field. Really, in almost any metric, no other team is close to the trio in 2018. Whether Harvick and Busch are atop the scoring pylons in practice, qualifying, and the race is a toss up. And Truex Jr., who grabbed the series by the tail and whopped it against the side of a trash can last season, is the only other driver to win multiple races and is widely seen as the only other driver within any kind of shouting distance of the two rivals.
Busch has been remarkably consistent, with an impeccable average finish of 7.6 and start of 7.9 in 14 races. He leads the points by 87 (about 1.5 races with with maximum stage points) over Harvick. Busch has one less win than Harvick (two less, if the All-Star Race counts and it doesn’t), the same number of top 10s, and only one DNF. He also has led only 21 less laps than his foe in the No. 4 car.
Harvick, meanwhile, has crashed out of two races (Daytona and Charlotte) and had enough damage in the other (Californa – remember that weird Kyle Larson skirmish?), to finish all three sub-30th. But Harvick has absolutely raked in the others, finishing no less than 7th in the other 11 races. He and Busch both have 11 top 10s and Harvick has led a season-high 909 laps. Harvick and Busch also each have 25 playoff points, Harvick having lost some after his Vegas penalty. Each has a three-race winning streak this season, a rare feat in today’s NASCAR. They have 12 playoff points more than Truex Jr. does right now, putting the No. 4 and No. 18 drivers in 2017 Truex Jr.-like territory for the 2018 playoffs…except there are two dominators.
Right now, the main reaction to either a Busch or Harvick victory, lap led, stage won, pole, or even practice paced is, “Uggggh, again? Really?” And in an era of decline in the sport and apathy from even some of its most diehard fans, these are not the exclamations any stock car stakeholder wants to see. But maybe fans should reconsider their angst.
NASCAR has lacked a great rivalry for a long time. Drivers are closer friends now and pressure from many sides makes commiseration much more tantalizing. Rivalries mean having to answer questions and feel heat constantly about the same old subject. “Have you guys talked yet?” In view of the larger prize, drivers seemingly try to soothe ill will with others, in hopes of dividends paid on the track. This mixture familiarity and concern whitewashes emotions and takes the character away that once exploded the sport’s growth.
As much as wrecks cause conflict…and Harvick and Busch have been in their share (remember 2011?)…going tit for tat in the win column takes the cake. Over a whole season, one or the other may dominate most races. But let those exchanged punches build up to that last bit of the playoffs. Let the two heavyweights, flanked by a resurgent Truex Jr. and another surviving speedster, throw down on the aged, multi-groove surface at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. Think of the mind games Harvick will play and the barbs Busch will throw. Each with 10 wins will enter the Championship Four race looking for the good kind of snake eyes. Imagine a Ford 400 race with the lead swaps the Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart exchanged in 2011, but in the face of each driver having had a near-historic statistical season…at the same time.
This scenario isn’t a far off dream or a juicy script; it’s happening before our eyes. No driver in the MENCS, sans Jimmie Johnson and his seven, has more than one championship. Harvick (2014), Busch (2015), Truex Jr. (2017), and throw in Brad Keselowski (2012) for good measure are all looking to advance to the next measure in legacy. Imagine a Homestead race with those four drivers, or the first three and Jimmie Johnson as a fourth going for his 8th title? There would be no underdog story, no “changing of the guard” youth movement plot. Four drivers who have done it all would be looking to up the other and do even more.
Sure, a plethora of new winners is great to write and talk about. But every once in a while seeing cream rise to the top, outduel each other, and slaughter the rest is every bit as fun to watch. Remember Petty vs. Pearson, Earnhardt vs. Richmond, Gordon vs. Earnhardt, and even Johnson vs. Gordon. 2018 has stumbled out of the blocks for many, but we could be witnessing history and a story in Harvick vs. Busch that could go down for the ages.