Burton takes aim at a title By Matthew Leach CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Jan. 20, 1999) Talk about a lousy year: two wins, 18 top-5s, 23 top-10s, more than $2 million in prize money, and a fifth-place finish in the final NASCAR Winston Cup Series ...
Burton takes aim at a title By Matthew Leach
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Jan. 20, 1999) Talk about a lousy year: two wins, 18 top-5s, 23 top-10s, more than $2 million in prize money, and a fifth-place finish in the final NASCAR Winston Cup Series standings. That's what Jeff Burton had to endure in 1998. So naturally he's looking to bounce back in '99. You may laugh, but the past season was indeed a disappointment for Burton and the Exide Batteries team. After finishing fourth overall and winning three times in '97, expectations were very high on the No. 99 team, and those expectations were not met. No one was satisfied with the campaign -- least of all Burton. "We had some weak areas last year that were real obvious to everybody," Burton said. "I got us in some dumb wrecks, we qualified poorly, we didn't do a very good job on pit road with pit stops, we led a bunch of races that we didn't win and took ourselves out of position to win because at the end of the day we made the wrong change on the car to put it in the winner's circle. "All of those items, we have addressed. If we addressed them properly, then we will have strengthened our team. And I have a lot of confidence that we did address them properly. So we're real excited about the year, but at the same time we're cautiously optimistic. We have high expectations coming into '99, although we're also smart enough to know that just because you think you're gonna do well doesn't mean you are gonna do well." All signs, however, seem to indicate that the No. 99 will do quite well in '99. It starts with the driver, who is one of the most talented in the business. Look past his five wins in the last two years to some other stats. He's notched three straight top-5 finishes at Bristol and four in a row at Darlington -- two of the toughest tracks on the circuit. Seven times in '98, he charged from a start of 25th or worse to finish in the top-5. That's not only good equipment, that's driver skill. Of course, the equipment's not bad either, with Jack Roush writing the checks, talented young crew chief Frank Stoddard calling the shots and wise old sage Buddy Parrott keeping an eye on things from his general manager position. Put it all together and you get a team whose aim is the big prize -- the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship. Burton has watched his teammate, Mark Martin, make serious runs at the title the last two years, only to fall short to Jeff Gordon each time. He believes both he and Martin can be serious threats this teim around. "I think we are (a serious contender)," Burton said. "I have a lot of confidence in Frank Stoddard. I have a lot of confidence in Buddy Parrott. I have a lot of confidence in Jack Roush. I have a lot of confidence in myself. And when we aren't smart enough to do it, I have a lot of confidence in Mark Martin and in Jimmy Fennig helping us do it. Because of those things, I think we are a contender. We spent the last two years in the top-5 in points. We have shown the ability to be fast enough to be a contender. We haven't shown the ability to finish like we need to finish to be a contender, and I think we've addressed those problems, and hopefully we've overcome them. And if we have overcome them, then we are without a doubt a contender for the championship." The question, then, is whether they have in fact overcome those problems, which were significant in 1998. In particular, Bud Pole Qualfying woes plagued the Exide team. Over the season's final 23 races, Burton failed to make the field on the first day a staggering eight times. It's tough to win races when you're starting in the 30th or 35th spot. The other area where the Exide team -- as well as nearly all the Roush teams -- had big problems was on restrictor-plate tracks. Burton's day came to a premature end due to engine trouble in both the Daytona 500 and the first race at Talladega. And though he made a surprising second-place start in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Burton was never really a factor in that race, finishing 13th. The No. 99 was actually one of the best Roush teams on the big tracks, but that says a lot more about their teammates than anything. Burton says that both those problems should be lessened, if not eliminated, in 1999. "The qualifying problem is a problem with me," Burton said. "I say that because the only thing that can tell the team what the car needs to qualify better is the driver. There's no computers on the car to say here's what's wrong with it. There's nobody who can say 'Here's what you're doing wrong.' It falls in the driver's lap, and I'm not getting it done. So I can't lose any more sleep about it, because I'll pass out during the day if I sleep any less. "We are, I am, spending a lot of time talking to Mark about it. I think what happened was that I started thinking too much about it. I can drive a race car. But it seems like when I've been off somewhere for two hours, then I sit in the car and go bust off one lap, I don't get it done. And I think it's from thinking about it too much. This year I'm gonna go in the trailer and lay down and go to sleep. And try to come out in the car and go run, and if it's good it's good and if it's bad it's bad. And I'm gonna go to my motorhome and eat dinner and not be grouchy about it." While Bud Pole Qualifying is an individual issue, Burton said the restrictor-plate program has become a team effort, and for that reason the Roush teams should improve dramatically. "Jack has spent a lot of money on improving his restrictor-plate engines, and spent a lot of money on trying to build better bodies. The car that we qualified second at Daytona, we weren't happy with the way it raced. We built a brand new car. We gave (the old one) to another Roush team that thought they could do better with it in the race. So we're all working together. They're trying to show us that that car can qualify fast and race fast. And we're trying to build something better than that. Really, the superspeedway program has more unity to it, and has all five teams working on it really well, because the superspeedway thing is so non-driver-oriented. At Daytona and Talladega, what's good for me is good for them and what's good for them is good for me. So we're all working together because we all understand that." For those reasons, and many others, Burton feels his team will make a run at its first championship this year. And if they don't, you can bet that this time next year, they'll once again be trying to figure out what went wrong -- even if it's another "disappointing year" like this past one.
Source: NASCAR Online