One of the most storied races of the season takes place this weekend at Darlington Raceway -- the Pepsi Southern 500. Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 99 Exide Batteries Taurus, has battled to the wire each of the last two seasons with...
One of the most storied races of the season takes place this weekend at Darlington Raceway -- the Pepsi Southern 500. Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 99 Exide Batteries Taurus, has battled to the wire each of the last two seasons with Jeff Gordon only to finish second on both occasions. After a dramatic rain-shortened victory earlier this year in the TranSouth 400 -- in which his car was totaled after hitting the wall on what proved to be the final green-flag lap -- Burton goes for a Darlington sweep on Sunday afternoon.
99 - JEFF BURTON - Exide Taurus -- YOU WON AT DARLINGTON THIS PAST SPRING. WOULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW THAT HAPPENED? "The spring race (this year) was pretty exciting. We ran first, second and third pretty much the whole race. We had a pretty good racecar. The rain was in and out of the area. We were looking at the radar and (crew chief) Frank (Stoddard) had realized that there was rain coming so we decided to pit early. At Darlington when you pit early the advantage is you are on newer tires earlier so you make up time. The disadvantage is if the caution comes out you go a lap down. So we took a chance and pitted early and got way out in front of everybody and sure enough the rain started coming. The rain came pretty quick, and it caused a wreck on the front straightaway. I got in that wreck. I was behind it, but got in it and wrecked pretty hard. But I got past the start-finish line and then it started raining really hard, and they red flagged. We were wrecked real badly, but we won the race. It was pretty exciting. We had led a lot of laps at Darlington and run up front, but had never won one. We had always had silly things go wrong. Well, we finally had a silly thing go right. It was a pretty neat way to win a race."
TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR SECOND PLACE FINISHES IN THE PAST TWO SOUTHERN 500s. "Both of the races we led a lot of laps. The first Southern 500 we are talking about, Gordon and I battled on the last couple of laps and banged and hit. He came out winning. On the next one, the handle got away from us a little bit toward the end, and they drove away from us. We seemed to lose a little bit in that race toward the end of the race. We weren't as good as we had been early in the race. I really want to win the Southern 500 in a bad way. To me it's one of the biggest races of the year. It's a race that's put Winston Cup racing where it is. It's one of the most important races. It was one of the first 500-mile races that meant a lot. You could run fast. You had endurance. The track is very demanding. It's a tough racetrack. To run fast there is difficult. For me to win at Darlington, to get a trophy at Darlington means as much as winning anywhere because I think if you can win at Darlington you can win anywhere. It's one of the hardest race tracks that we go to."
BUT DARLINGTON SEEMS TO SUIT YOU DRIVING STYLE. WHY? "I don't know. If you go back and look at our history, we seem to have success at places that handling is a premium. The tracks get real slick, and it requires hitting a groove. You have to hit the groove every time. That seems to be where we excel - Rockinghams, Darlingtons, Richmonds, those kind of places. We just seem to run well. I don't really know why. I like those kind of racetracks, but I like Michigans and Californias and those kind of racetracks too. I think it's just a fit. I think it's a fit for the team and for me. It kind of plays into our hands because of the way we race. The things we pay attention to pay bigger dividends at a place like Darlington than they do at some other places."
DESCRIBE A LAP AROUND DARLINGTON. "When you are on the front straightaway at Darlington, the walls, the inside wall is a long way away from you, but as a driver you know there are only two grooves on the straightaway, much less in the corner. As you start down into one, you kind of drive like you drive into a tunnel. You actually put the left side tires on the apron going into one. It gives you a little more room in case you mess up. To go in totally on the groove into one then your rights on right on the edge of being out of the groove. And you don't ever want to get out of the groove. When you get through one immediately your car goes to the wall. The closer you can run to the wall, the better. The minute you get near the wall you can run wide open again. In the qualifying mode you try to run wide open from there all the way to turn three. It's hard to do, but that's what you try to do. Turn two is really difficult. Turn one is a sharp turn, and turn two is a sharp turn. What's in between turn one and turn two is a turn, but it's not a sharp turn. And so you end up at the last minute almost going straight, but at the last minute you have to crank it hard left to ever get off of turn two. The wall in turn two really jumps out at you. The scariest part of the racetrack is turn two. The back straightaway is just like the front straightaway. It's real narrow. It looks wide, but the groove is narrow. Turn three is totally different than turn one. It's a little more of a sweeping corner. You can't carry as much speed into turn three as you can into turn one. You try not to use as much racetrack. You try to keep the car lower in three than you do in turn one. And turn four is really difficult. It's kind of like turn two because you kind of go straight for a little while and then you've got to turn the car. But it's a slower corner because it's a slicker corner. That corner seems to get really slick and it's hard to get off of that corner. You're either loose or you're tight or you're both. And that's kind of a lap. It's not pretty. It's four different corners. It's the most abrasive racetrack we run on. It just eats tires up. The way you drive the first lap is totally different than the way you drive the 50th lap. The 50th lap you are running about three seconds slower than you ran on your first lap on tires so you're just hanging on at that point."
Since joining the SBIII Motorsports team at New Hampshire in July, Hut Stricklin has injected his own brand of hard work and enthusiasm that is paying immediate dividends. He posted the teams best finish of the season two weeks ago at Michigan (9th) and will return this weekend to Darlington, where he nearly gained his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory three years ago in the Southern 500 before eventually finishing second to Gordon.
58 - HUT STRICKLIN - Turbine Solutions Taurus: HOW DID YOU HAPPEN TO BECOME A PART OF THIS TEAM? "Scott (Barbour - owner) and myself sat down and talked right after the first Pocono. I told him how much I'd like to drive his car. I felt like Mike Hillman, the crew chief, and I could work really well together. It's really just been a great opportunity for me. It's a good group of guys and an excellent opportunity. It's really a better opportunity than what I had imagined it being before I come here. Good cars. Good people. Good engines. We've just been trying to put it all together. It seems like over the past four or five weeks we've been together we've had some great runs. The finishes don't really show that as of yet. I guess we've had a 15th and then a ninth last week. We've run exceptionally well every time. So I'm pretty excited. It's a deal now I look forward to going to the racetrack and being competitive, not just an also ran, but feeling like you are a contender. Any time you are in that position it is also a confidence boost for me as a driver as well as for those on the team, everybody that works on the car."
YOU GO TO DARLINGTON NEXT WEEK, AND THAT HAS BEEN A GOOD TRACK FOR YOU IN THE PAST. "It has. I have run good there in the past quite a few times. I'm really looking forward to running there again, and with this team. It takes great communications to get a car to run good at Darlington. It's such a fine line of being able to run really good or mediocre. I feel like the lines of communications between myself and the team is really good now, and we are all on the same page. I'm pretty excited about going to Darlington. We've got a new car that we're taking there. I'm pretty excited with that. I really haven't seen a bad car over here yet."
WHAT DO YOU FEEL YOU CONTRIBUTE TO THIS TEAM? "I'm really able to tell them what the car is doing. I can't always tell them what to do to fix it, but I can tell them what it's doing. And they have guys on the team that is able to take what I'm telling them and fix it. That makes my job easier when we have that. I don't really have to worry about shocks, and springs or sway bars or anything that is on the car. I can just tell them that I like something or I don't like it and they go at it and fix it. We've got a pretty unique situation here. We've got about six or seven guys that are capable of being a crew chief, which is very unusual to have that type of knowledge on your team, but yet be still able to work together. We don't have any egos involved here. Let's just put under it whatever it takes to make the car run faster, regardless of whose idea it was. They're a hard working group of guys. We are all striving for the same common goal, and that to me is what has made this thing really work."