Burton: Slow start hurt By Brett Borden HAMPTON, Ga. (Nov. 3, 1998) In 1997, Jeff Burton was one hot commodity, surprising many by pulling into Victory Lane three times on his way to a fourth-place finish in the final point standings. He...
Burton: Slow start hurt By Brett Borden
HAMPTON, Ga. (Nov. 3, 1998) In 1997, Jeff Burton was one hot commodity, surprising many by pulling into Victory Lane three times on his way to a fourth-place finish in the final point standings. He soon was heralded as the rival who would step up and challenge Jeff Gordon for the title of best young driver in NASCAR. A stirring finish at the 1997 Southern 500 in Darlington, in which Gordon held off a hard-charging Burton on his way to his first Winston Million Dollar bonus, was expected to foreshadow the many battles the duo would stage in their promising careers.
But while Gordon took several steps forward this season, setting records left and right, Burton seemed to be stepping left and right. He didn't lose much ground in the standings - he is fifth going into Sunday's season finale NAPA 500 at Atlanta -- but he lost his stranglehold on the title of 'the man who would stop Jeff Gordon.'
Finishing 40th in the Daytona 500 in February serves as the perfect example of what went wrong for Burton this year. Finishing first in the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400 at Richmond International Raceway in September (beating Gordon in a thrilling finish) serves as what went right, and what may lie ahead in 1999.
It seemed as if something was weighing down the No. 99 Exide Batteries Taurus early in the year. Perhaps it was the ball and chain known as expectations.
"We got out of the gate slow and things just weren't going the way we hoped they would go," said Burton. "We weren't having great pit stops, I was getting us in some wrecks, we weren't running as well as we thought we should run.
We had some bad luck, we blew some tires and just some things didn't go our way. Some of it was controlled by us and some of it wasn't. We try to take responsibility for all of it because we're the only ones that can fix it, so we kept working. By any means we didn't drop our heads. We had a meeting after California, a real heart-to-heart meeting, and since that point it's been really good. Still, we had a wreck at Sears Point, we had a wreck at Dover ... those things have hurt us."
But Burton proved what he was made of by bouncing back late in the season. Since the aforementioned turnaround at California in the 10th race of the season, his average finish has been 10th. Last year in the same stretch it was 11.5.
"I think we've been the third-best team on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit since California," said Burton. "I'm sure other people would argue with that, but at least we've been as good as (Rusty Wallace) and as good as (Dale Jarrett). (Mark Martin) and (Jeff Gordon) have been better than all of us and don't let anybody fool you on that. That's the way it's been.
"We've had a good year. We haven't had a good full year and we as a team have yet to have a good full year. It's hard to put a whole string of a year together the way the 24 has done, that's really difficult and we haven't done it. We haven't come close to doing it, so that's our goal next year is to try and make that string and not to have as many ups and downs. We want to level it off some."
The year has been a good learning experience for Burton. When performance wasn't able to shoulder the tremendous burden of high expectations, the cracks in the armor showed, as well as the strong points.
"I think we've learned a lot," Burton said. "I think going into this year we all knew the success of last year didn't guarantee anything toward this year. We knew that. But this year was a good soul-searching year. We learned a lot about our people. We learned who is gonna stick it out and who isn't. I've learned a lot about myself.
"It's been a hard year, but at the same time it's been a good year. There have been more positives than negatives, it's just my outlook on things is that I look more at the negatives. If they're positive we don't need to fix them and if they're negative we need to. It's been a hard year because I see where we can be better and Frankie (Stoddard) sees where we can be better and everybody sees where we can be better, so we're working really hard to try and execute on those things."
There were enough positive signs in 1998, including top-five finishes in nine of the last 12 races going into Atlanta, to keep the Exide team recharged for next year. Burton says the team is ready to work on proving that last season's slow start was a fluke.
"We're excited about it," he said. "Like I said about this year, the success of this year doesn't guarantee any success for the future. The only thing it means is that we have a foundation to build on. Every team in this garage is working to get better. Every driver in this garage is working to get better and we have to do the same. We have to be better than we were next year if we're still gonna be one of the top teams. Everybody wants to talk about all these young drivers, but I'm gonna tell you the guys that have been here for awhile, they're not giving up. They fight hard everyday and they're tough. We have to work really hard to beat them and they have to work hard to stay in front of us and that's what's going on."
It won't be easy. Gordon and Martin have raised the bar with their performance this year. Burton must fight off several other hungry drivers just for the chance to reestablish himself as Gordon's chief rival. Like kids on the playground during recess, Burton wants to be the man who gets that shot at the bully.
"I like old school, so to speak," he said. "I like old school racing. I like Darlington and Rockingham and those kinds of places because to me that's what Winston Cup racing was built on. When I look back and you talk about Bobby Allison and Richard Petty and you talk about the Allisons and Yarborough and Earnhardt and Rusty ... when you talk about those rivalries, if I could be in one of those rivalries that would mean a lot because that would mean we're one of the teams that everybody is looking at and that's what it's all about."
Source: NASCAR Online