Jeff Burton hasn't had much to celebrate his last few seasons in NASCAR Nextel Cup racing. He hasn't made a visit to Victory Lane since 2001 and, after a very public divorce with Roush Racing, his first year at the helm of the No. 31 Richard ...
Jeff Burton hasn't had much to celebrate his last few seasons in NASCAR Nextel Cup racing. He hasn't made a visit to Victory Lane since 2001 and, after a very public divorce with Roush Racing, his first year at the helm of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet didn't produce many results to puff his chest out about.
Burton's success while at Roush Racing was substantial. He began driving for Jack Roush in 1996 earning six top-fives and 12 top-10s and finishing 13th in points that season. From 1997-2001, Burton enjoyed five consecutive years where he finished in the top ten in series points. During that time, he scored 15 career wins.
After the split with Roush mid-season in 2004 it took Burton awhile to find his stride and his ride. While Carl Edwards replaced him in the No. 99 Roush Ford, Burton found a home racing the No. 30 Chevy for RCR. In 2005, he filled the seat of the No. 31 Chevrolet vacated by Robby Gordon and it was there that things began to crystallize.
It took a season to settle into his role as driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet, but RCR was also trying to recover their competitive footing in the sport after a string of disastrous results. But once both Childress and Burton got on the same page things began to soar not only for Burton; but for teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer as well.
"There is an old saying about the big guys falling real hard," said Burton. "I think that when you have a level of success and then you don't have it, I think that probably it is harder, than if you've never really had success. Although, I am sure someone who has never really had success would disagree with me. When you are used to being a guy that people say this team can win a championship or this guy can win on any given weekend, then all of a sudden, you don't have a snowball's chance in hell -- that is a difficult thing to do. It has made me very aware that it can happen to anybody and that you have to stay on your toes in this game."
This season no team is hotter than Childress and for Burton it feels good to have some career accomplishments to be proud of again. Those results have given him the solace to be able to walk through the garage knowing that he has as good of a chance as anyone to vie for the Nextel Cup.
"I never felt like I wasn't part of the "crowd" or that I didn't belong here," Burton commented. "It means a great deal of what my peers think of me, how they look at me as a race car driver and as a human being. There is no question, when you aren't running as well you feel a little bit detached. I guess that is the only way to say it. I can't give you a specific example of anyone ever treating me differently. It is more internal. No one ever treated me differently, but when you aren't running well, you are probably looked at as a less formidable opponent.
"That is what I want people to look at me as, as a driver for a team that when they unload in the garage the others know they are going to have to deal with us this week. In no way, was I trying to say that people treated me differently or I felt disrespected in any form or fashion. It is more of am internal thing."
This is the first time Burton will be competing in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Burton has 23 career starts at NHIS which have produced four victories, the most of all Chase competitors. He was ninth in this event in 2005 and scored a seventh place in July.
"I don't think there is any strategy," Burton said of the Chase. "I think you just go run the best you can and you do the very best you can every single week. I think that's the strategy. I think it's way too early to talk about strategy. If you try to do something different than what you know, I think that's a mistake. For us, we are who we are. We know where we need to be better. We know where we need to improve and we're going to focus on that."
While Burton has the edge of being the driver with the most wins at NHIS, the first Chase race tends to be an emotional pressure cooker - the last three years on track incidents have caught up Chase racers putting a damper on their title runs.
"It is late in the year, people are tired," Burton said of the first Chase event this weekend. "Emotions get built up during the year. The racing here is very competitive, it is very easy to cause a wreck, it is very easy to get wrecked. When that happens to you, it gets you pretty mad. This is a track where everybody tries to protect their position. When you try to pass them, even if you are better, it is going to take 30 more laps to get by them. There is a lot of defending here and there is a lot of offense because you have to be aggressive to pass someone.
"When you get a guy playing offense and another guy playing defense, there is a big chance for a wreck. This just isn't a track where you can just get out of the way. You can't just hide for a little while here. There is no place to hide; it is just so frustrating because it is hard to pass. I know I am in a huge minority but I actually think the old race track was better because at least, if you got beside someone, the spot was yours. Not true now. On the old track, it was harder to get there, but once you got there, it was yours. It is an emotional race track because it is so difficult to pass. You have a competitive race track and get a big group of competitive teams and it is frustrating."
In the end, sometimes having a good offense is the best defense and a veteran driver like Burton whose seen it all and lived through the tricky political landmines that are NASCAR; he may have an edge over some of his younger, more overzealous competitors.