Two months ago at Richmond International Raceway, Jeff Burton's ...
Two months ago at Richmond International Raceway, Jeff Burton's #99 Ford was one of the fastest cars on the track.
The veteran Roush Racing driver had a good car off the truck and was at the top of the speed chart in the first practice session on Friday. The team narrowly missed the set-up for the qualifying run and settled for 17th. They were back at the top of the chart during happy hour and were optimistically talking about breaking a dreadful winless streak that had reached 86 races.
The frustrating night was a good illustration of what the former rookie of the year has endured during the past three years.
"The No. 99 team has had an unfortunate string of bad luck," Burton admitted earlier this season. "I'm not making excuses but it's a fact. We have not had poor cars, we have not had bad pit stops, we have not had problems due to mistakes by the driver or the crew chief. We have just encountered unfortunate circumstances."
Burton is hoping that a return to New Hampshire International Speedway for the Siemens 300 on Sunday (2:00 p.m. ET on TNT) will be a elixir to a strong second half of the season.
"(We have) been working tremendously hard to bring faster cars to the track each week," Burton said. "We have been running much better in the last two months but again we continue to have bad luck and can't seem to get the finishes we deserve. I like New Hampshire and we have had good runs there so hopefully that experience will help us have a good qualifying effort, a good run and with a little luck hopefully we'll finish up front where I know we can."
Burton and New Hampshire have enjoyed a productive past. He won the Busch Series race at the 1.058-mile oval in 1992 and then made his Cup Series debut in 1993 in New Hampshire's first Cup Series race. Burton posted a fourth-place finish there in 1996 -- his first season with Roush Racing -- and then won the summer race at NHIS three straight years.
Burton became the first driver in more than 20 years to lead every lap when he cruised to the checkered flag in the fall event in 2000. It was his fourth win and seventh top-5 in nine races in New Hampshire.
Burton hasn't had much to celebrate recently. After putting together four straight years in the top-5 of the standings, Burton was expected to contend for the championship again in 2001. He won two races, but recorded just eight top-5 finishes and plummeted to 10th in the standings. He finished 12th in each of the next two seasons and is currently 24th - his worst showing after the 18th race of the season since joining Roush in 1996.
"Any time you are evaluating a situation you need to look at the entire program," Burton said after a puncture in the radiator ended an encouraging day at Rockingham in February. "If we only look at results and not the method then we are not doing a good job. When you look at the overall No. 99 program we have seen tremendous improvement this season we just don't have the results to show for it."
Burton has just one top-5 finish this season -- a fourth-place effort at Dover in June -- but has finished on the lead lap in four of the past six races and feels like the team is on the verge of breaking out of a slump that has extended his winless streak to 94 races.
"We believe in ourselves, we know we can do it," Burton said. "I think that we've found something that works for us, and now we're able to start building on that, and I think we'll only make that better. I feel pretty good about things. We're starting to get our performance back. We're starting to get the feel back in the cars that I need so we can be competitive. I'm real optimistic right now."
Burton attributes the resurgence to the addition of crew chief Bob Osborne in March. Osborne, who was the lead engineer for Roush Racing, replaced Paul Andrews before the race at Darlington. He has taken control of the garage and has the team working with a new-found enthusiasm to turn their fortunes around.
"He's an engineer by trade but he's a racer at heart," Burton said. "He shows a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and excitement about the opportunity presented to him. He's been with Roush Racing for several years and has exhibited all the skills necessary to be a leader and I believe he can help the No. 99 team get back to the top."
"We are starting to see the fruits of our labor and I think we are all hungry for more," Osborne said. "This team has been working extremely hard to bring better cars to the track and its showing. We need to continue running up front and from there I think it's just a matter of time before we see victory lane."
The #99 team has been under a cloud of uncertainty throughout the season. After three years together, Citgo pulled their sponsorship of the team at the end of the 2003 season. They have has cycled through several race-to-race sponsorships, but have also run the car without a primary sponsor seven times this season. Burton doesn't use the absence of a primary sponsor as a crutch for not running well.
"It's important for us to run well, period, decal on the car or no decal on the car," Burton said. "We just got ourselves behind and now we're fighting a lot of stuff. Hopefully, if we get a sponsor a lot of that stuff will go away."
Despite the lack of a full-time sponsor, Burton and team owner Jack Roush made a commitment to each other before the season started to run the full 36-race schedule. But both sides realize that a strong second half will make signing a primary sponsor for 2005 much easier.
"We are a performance-based industry, and people look at how many wins you have and where you are in the points and those kinds of things, and if you look at just that, then we haven't had a successful year," Burton admitted. "We're building. We're running a lot better and we're much more competitive. There's no question about that. The competitors see that. A lot of people haven't seen the improvements that we've made, but we've made huge improvements, and we're much more competitive today than we were yesterday."
Despite the challenges to make the team competitive again, the 37-year-old Burton isn't about to give up on a career that had such a promising start.
"No one said it was going to be easy but they also didn't say it would be this hard," Burton said. "We are coming to the track with better race cars and it shows. We just need to keep digging and keep working hard and it will pay off."