Earning three championships, the 1990s was Jeff Gordon’s decade (he also won a fourth title in 2001).
Earning five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, the 2000s was unquestionably Jimmie Johnson’s decade (he secured a sixth championship in 2013 as well).
So who will be the preeminent driver in the 2010s? We’ve seen championships won by Tony Stewart (2011), first-time champ Brad Keselowski (2012), Johnson (2013), and back-to-back first-time championships by Kevin Harvick (2014) and Kyle Busch (2015).
Will the younger Busch brother become THE driver of this decade? There can be an argument made that with the way Busch won his first Cup championship—despite missing the first 11 races of the season due to injury—how dominant can he become in 2016 and beyond if he stays healthy?
Granted, the new four-round, playoff format for the Chase that was implemented for 2014 has made repeating with multiple championships harder.
But for those who say repeating is impossible, I counter that argument with a perfect example: Harvick won the 2014 championship and finished second in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Had Busch slipped in one or two Chase races, or if Harvick may have had one or two better finishes, he had a chance of overtaking Busch to win a second consecutive title.
There are other things to consider about why the younger Busch brother could be NASCAR’s marquee driver for the rest of this decade and beyond.
First, while never at a loss for confidence, Busch finally broke what had been nothing short of a career jinx in the Chase. Virtually every time he made the playoffs before 2015, he fell short. Every time he was predicted as a potential champion, he went in the opposite direction.
With the confidence that he finally did it—and in arguably one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult paths to the title in NASCAR history—Busch leaves something of a legacy to live up to from here.
In other words, if he did it as hampered as he was when recovering from injuries sustained in his Xfinity Series season-opening crash, a fully healthy Busch will likely be at the top of his game in 2016—and that should only make him even more dangerous as a championship threat.
Second, Busch is arguably in perhaps the best place in his racing life. It’s not just that he won the championship. But add in that he became a first-time dad in 2015, and has definitely displayed a greater maturity level than he did earlier in his career, Busch has made great strides of moving from being NASCAR’s de facto villain (a role he seemingly relished) to one of the sport’s most popular and, yes, even most beloved drivers.
With Gordon having retired at the end of 2015, Tony Stewart retiring at the end of the upcoming season and other drivers such as Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and maybe even Dale Earnhardt Jr. all likely to retire in the next three to five years, Busch is in the perfect place to rise to the top of the heap.
And to stay there for a long time.
Look at all the other drivers between 25 and 35 years of age in Sprint Cup (and I’m not including potential future Cup stars like Chase Elliott or Erik Jones). Other than maybe Joey Logano, there really is no other driver who can match Busch’s potential for multiple championships.
Keselowski? He’s too inconsistent. Sure, he won the championship four seasons ago, but since then he’s been up and down in terms of consistency, wins and where he ranks at each season’s end.
Denny Hamlin? He can never seem to seal the deal when it comes to winning the championship.
It’s almost as if Busch will become the driver most likely to win more championships by default. As I said earlier, as long as he stays healthy and keeps doing what he’s doing, he has the potential to become one of the biggest stars in NASCAR history.
It just took one championship—finally—to send him on a road that will likely go on for a long time.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski