WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Jan. 15, 2000) It's a strange position Jeff Burton is in. He's an established winner in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, with 11 trips to Victory Lane in the last three seasons. He's a consistent points finisher, placing fourth,...
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (Jan. 15, 2000) It's a strange position Jeff Burton is in. He's an established winner in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, with 11 trips to Victory Lane in the last three seasons. He's a consistent points finisher, placing fourth, fifth and fifth in those three years. But he's never seriously contended for a championship.
For a while last year, it looked like Burton might change that. He led the points standings well into the spring, but a summer slide knocked him out of contention. It took a strong charge over the closing weeks just for him to get back into the top-5 in points.
As Burton prepares to embark on his seventh full season in NASCAR's top series, he hopes he can follow his friend Bobby Labonte in making the jump from winner to legitimate championship threat. He says it's not necessarily equipment or talent or even that elusive chemistry that's kept him back, but rather attitude -- mostly.
"We had a letdown because we went from a team that thought we could win the championship to a team that was gonna have to have all kinds of things go our way to win a championship," Burton said Saturday at the T. Wayne Robertson NASCAR Winston Cup Preview. "And it just got us down. After about three weeks of feeling sorry for ourselves we realized that all we were doing was messing ourselves up more.
"We've done a pretty good job of forgetting the race before, whether we've won or finished last. But when you have a series of them after such a promising start, feeling like you really have a chance, it's a letdown. We didn't perform very well during that whole period. When you do have those periods, you have to recover quicker."
Consistency is a word that's drastically overused in NASCAR racing, but what Burton was referring to is consistency in the truest sense. A championship race team has to keep up the same state of mind as much as possible over the full course of a 34-race season.
That's something that comes with experience. It's valuable to note how long it took some other competitors to reach that level.
Labonte jumped from steady top-10 points finishes and occasional but not frequent wins to a second-place points finish in his seventh season on the circuit and his fifth with Joe Gibbs Racing. Dale Jarrett climbed from 13th to third in points -- and a very close run at a title -- in his eighth full season in NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing. Jarrett then went from contender to champion in '99, his fifth season with Robert Yates Racing.
Burton is not only entering his seventh year on the circuit, he's beginning his fifth year at Roush Racing. He thinks his team is ready to take the next step.
"We're a team that people will say will have a chance to win a race," Burton said. "But that's different from saying this is a team that has a chance to win a championship. That's a whole different ballgame. We want to get into that field, and no I don't believe that we're there based on our results. I think we can be there, but talking about it's one thing and doing it's another. We've got to prove to you guys and to ourselves and to the fans that we're capable of doing it and I don't think we've done that."
Once he proves it, he won't be in such a strange position -- but he will be in some rarefied air.