Busch made his first career Cup start Sept. 24, 2000 at Dover, finishing 18th.
He has 31 career victories, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Busch won the 2004 Cup title. He has 307 career top-10 finishes.
The 41-year-old marvels at making his 700th career Cup start today.
“It’s amazing,” Busch said. “To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past.
“So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”
Busch is 10th in points entering today’s race. He has yet to win his year but has three top-five finishes and nine top-10 results in 15 starts for Chip Ganassi Racing.
There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.
These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.
Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.
“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.
“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.
“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.
“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”
While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.
“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.
“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”
Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.
“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”
Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.
“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.
“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.
“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”
Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.
“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.
“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.
“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.
“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”
Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.
Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.
He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.
He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.
But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.
“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”
He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.
“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.
“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”
Today marks the longest race of the year for NASCAR as the Cup Series holds the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The 400-lap race was first held in 1960 and has seen its fair share of defining moments.
Here are the five top moments from the first 60 years of the Coca-Cola 600.
1) New Kid on the Block (1994)
The first 46 years of NASCAR were defined by names like Petty, Earnhardt and Waltrip.
Arguably the first big moment for NASCAR’s next generation of racers came on May 29, 1994 courtesy of Jeff Gordon.
That was the day the 22-year-old kid from California scored his first Cup Series win.
After making his first start in the 1992 season finale, Gordon’s team, led by crew chief Ray Evernham, had to wait until their 42nd start together to visit Victory Lane.
The victory was aided by Evernham’s decision on a late pit stop to take two tires instead of four.
Gordon led the final nine laps and beat Rusty Wallace. In Victory Lane, an emotional Gordon called it the greatest day of his life.
2) One Turn Away (2011)
May 29, 2011 was not a good day to drive a race car sponsored by the National Guard.
The bad luck began on the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. Rookie J.R Hildebrand was leading Dan Wheldon when Hildebrand passed a slow car on the outside in the final turn and hit the wall, allowing Wheldon to steal the win.
An overtime finish saw Earnhardt leading at the white flag. He still led in Turn 3, but then his No. 88 Chevrolet pulled up lame in Turn 4 as it ran out of gas.
That allowed Kevin Harvick to overtake him and streak to the checkered flag as Earnhardt limped to a seventh-place finish.
It was the first of two Coke 600 wins for Harvick.
3) The No. 3 Returns to Victory Lane (2017)
After Feb. 18, 2001 and the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, the No. 3 did not compete in the Cup Series for 13 years.
Richard Childress Racing brought the number back in 2014 with Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, behind the wheel.
Dillon and his team would have to wait until May 28, 2017 to bring the famous number back to Victory Lane.
The race ended with a 67-lap green flag run, which set up a fuel-mileage battle between Jimmie Johnson and Dillon.
Johnson ran out of gas with two laps to go, which allowed Dillon to take the lead on the backstretch. Dillon took the checkered flag, giving the No. 3 a win in the Coke 600 for the first time since 1993.
4) The Silver Fox Arrives (1961)
1960 saw the inaugural Coke 600 – then called the World 600 – and the arrival of David Pearson on the NASCAR stage.
The following year Pearson began building his Hall of Fame resume in the 400-lap race.
Pearson, driving a car owned by Ray Fox, dominated the race by leading 225 laps.
But Pearson’s car didn’t finish the race in one piece.
With two laps to go, one of the tires on Pearson’s Pontiac blew. But Pearson managed to pilot the car to the checkered flag, crossing the finish line in sparks to beat Fireball Roberts by two laps.
It was the first of 105 career Cup wins for Pearson and his first of three Coke 600 wins.
5) Janet Guthrie Arrives in NASCAR (1976)
While David Pearson and Richard Petty finished first and second, the future Hall of Famers weren’t the highlight of the World 600 on May 30, 1976.
That was the driver who finished 15th in her first NASCAR race: Janet Guthrie.
Guthrie, a former aerospace engineer and a sports car driver, had been brought to the World 600 by Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler after her bid to make the Indianapolis 500 failed.
Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR race on a superspeedway. She started 27th and survived the 400-lap marathon as 16 cars dropped out. While she finished 21 laps behind Pearson and Petty, she placed ahead of future Hall of Famers Richard Childress, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Isaac.
It was the first of 33 career Cup starts Guthrie would make over the next four years and it was her only start in the 600.
More than half of Harvick’s wins – 27 of them – have come since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. He’s now tied with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett.
“I’m always very cautious in trying to analyze things that I do personally, just because I feel awkward doing that,” Harvick said Monday on NBCSN’s “Lunch Talk Live” with Mike Tirico. “But I think in this particular instance, when you talk about Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson and those types of names, you have to kind of sit back. For me I almost have to pinch myself, because those are people that have had a major impact on our sport. So you hear those names, sometimes I sit back and try to ask myself, ‘Have you done what you needed to do in order to live up to the expectation of what those guys have done besides just winning 50 races?’
“There is a responsibility that comes with all that when you put yourself up next to names like that and for me that’s a good reminder of making sure that you take seriously the responsibility of trying to make the sport better and move it forward, because that’s what those names have done and they’re icons in our sport and I’m personally holding myself responsible to try to come close to living up to those expectations.”
The last time the Cup Series boasted three active drivers with 50+ wins was the 2001 Daytona 500, the weekend before Harvick’s debut.
In the field that day were Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt had 76 wins and Gordon and Wallace had joined the 50-win club within three weeks of each other the previous season.
Earnhardt’s death in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 resulted in Harvick being promoted by Richard Childress Racing to take his place the following weekend at Rockingham. He’d earn his first Cup win in his third start, beating Gordon in a photo finish at Atlanta.
With Johnson set to retire from full-time Cup racing after this season, the active 50-win club will be back to two drivers relatively quickly.
Harvick might be the last driver to enter the 50-win tier in the Cup Series for at least a few years.
The next active driver on the all-time wins list is Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, 39, sits at 38 victories following his win in the Daytona 500 in February. He’s won seven times over the last two seasons after going winless in 2018.
Behind Hamlin is Kurt Busch (31 wins) and Brad Keselowski (30 wins). Busch, 41, is in his 20th full-time Cup season and hasn’t had a season with more than one victory since 2015.
Keselowski, 36, has been winning at a consistent rate the last four seasons, winning at least three times each year since 2016. If he kept that pace up, he’d need another six to seven seasons to reach 50.
As we look at the Darlington moments, it was hard to pick the top one, so we’ll go with 1 and 1A.
Let’s get started.
1. .002 seconds (2003)
Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven combined to lead only 24 laps in the March 16, 2003 race at Darlington but those were the final 24 laps.
And it was the last lap that would give the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 a prominent place in NASCAR history and a display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Busch, driving his No. 97 Ford, had about a half-second lead over Craven’s No. 32 Pontiac with five laps to go. But Busch’s power steering had failed earlier in the race, adding to the challenge of fending Craven off.
Craven caught Busch with three laps to go as they neared Turn 1 and attempted a pass, but Busch kept him at bay.
Craven tried again out of Turn 4 and they were nearly even at the start-finish line. They made contact in Turn 1, causing Busch to slap the wall and allowing Craven to take the lead. Busch bumped the back of Craven’s car and executed a crossover maneuver to retake the lead exiting Turn 2.
Craven charged back out of Turn 4 and was on Busch’s bumper as they took the white flag. A lap later, Craven pulled to Busch’s inside out of Turn 4. They locked doors as they drag raced to the finish line. Craven won by 002 seconds.
It was Craven’s second and final Cup win and the moment that has come to define Darlington Raceway in the 21st Century.
1a) Million Dollar Bill (1985)
While the 1979 Daytona 500 helped put NASCAR on the map, the 1985 Southern 500 and the season leading up to the race helped it surge further.
That year was the start of the Winston Million promotion. If a Cup Series driver could win three of four races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the Coca-Cola World 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 – they would claim a $1 million prize from Winston.
Bill Elliott rose to the occasion. He won at Daytona and Talladega and arrived in Darlington with his chance at $1 million still intact. Elliott, who had won at Darlington in the spring, started from the pole and led 100 of 367 laps in a race that saw 21 of 40 cars fail to finish.
He assumed the lead for the final time with 44 laps to go and endured four restarts before winning over Cale Yarborough by .6 seconds to claim the $1 million prize. The achievement landed Elliott on the cover of Sports Illustrated, something not often seen for NASCAR.
It would take 12 years for anyone else to claim the Winston Million.
3) Darrell Waltrip tops Richard Petty (1979)
The 1979 Rebel 400 at Darlington was, quite simply, a barnburner. The contestants for the win in the final laps were Darrell Waltrip and six-time champion Richard Petty, who would earn title No. 7 at the end of the season.
Waltrip (242 laps) and Petty (89) led 331 of the race’s 367 laps. But it came down to a five-lap shootout that saw each driver lead twice on the final lap.
Petty led at the white flag before Waltrip passed him on the inside in Turn 1.
Petty pulled up to Waltrip’s left-side door for the length of the backstretch before briefly pulling ahead entering Turn 3. That’s when Waltrip pulled a crossover maneuver, darting to the inside to take the lead and sail to the win.
4) Million Dollar Jeff (1997)
While Bill Elliott was one of the dominating drivers at Darlington in the 80s, Jeff Gordon took over that role in the 1990s as he and his No. 24 “Rainbow Warriors” thrashed the competition on the track “Too Tough To Tame.”
From 1995-98, Gordon won five of eight races at Darlington, including four straight Southern 500s. The biggest of those wins came on Aug. 31, 1997. That season was the final one for the Winston Million promotion.
Gordon had won the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 to set up his chance at the prize.
One of the drivers standing in his way was, of all drivers, Bill Elliott. Elliott, who hadn’t won a Cup race since the 1994 Southern 500, led 181 laps before losing it for good on Lap 258 to Dale Jarrett, the driver who came close to claiming the Winston Million the year before.
But Gordon took the lead from Jarrett with 72 laps to go. The race came down to a battle between Gordon and Jeff Burton. As they came to the white flag Burton attempted to pass Gordon on the inside, resulting in contact. Gordon held on and pulled away for the win.
5) Jeff Burton: Rain Main (1999)
NASCAR is no stranger to races being won by damaged cars. Terry Labonte in 1995 at Bristol and Erik Jones in this year’s Busch Clash are two examples.
But they’ve got nothing on Jeff Burton.
In the spring 1999 race at Darlington, Burton led on Lap 162 when rain fell on the “Lady in Back.”
A wreck unfolded on the frontstretch in front of Burton. He was collected, resulting in significant damage to his right front fender.
But Burton still held the lead. After a few laps around the track under yellow, the race was stopped. The race was officially called, making Burton the winner. Later that year, Burton won the Southern 500 after it was also shortened by rain.