Rough Sports Leave Jeff Burton in Fifth

Rough spots relegate Burton to fifth By Brett Borden NEW YORK (Nov. 30, 1998) Even the most promising careers in racing experience growing pains. Witness the young NASCAR Winston Cup career of Jeff Burton. Burton broke through in 1997...

Rough spots relegate Burton to fifth By Brett Borden

NEW YORK (Nov. 30, 1998) Even the most promising careers in racing experience growing pains. Witness the young NASCAR Winston Cup career of Jeff Burton.

Burton broke through in 1997 with his first three NASCAR Winston Cup victories, 13 top-five finishes, and 18 top-10s in 32 races. In 1998, he posted two victories, 18 top-fives and 23 top-10s in 33 starts. They were in many ways better numbers, yet he actually slid in the season-ending point standings one position to fifth.

The reason? Inconsistency. Burton's first victory of the year, in the Jiffy Lube 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, followed a 39th-place finish in the Save Mart/Kragen 350 at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. His second win, at Richmond International Raceway in the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400, was followed by a 38th in the MBNA Gold 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway.

His second-worst finish of the season came in the season's biggest (and first) race, the Daytona 500. Burton started 14th but finished a disappointing 40th. After an 18th in the GM Goodwrench Service 400, he posted four straight top-10s, including a runner-up finish in the inaugural Las Vegas 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Then came the stretch that, for all intents and purposes, took Burton out of the championship chase. The next three races, at Texas Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, and Talladega Superspeedway, produced an average finish of 34.66, including a 43rd in the DieHard 500 at Talladega.

"Early in the year, I got us in some wrecks that I shouldn't have got us in," said Burton. "We had more engine trouble at the beginning of this year than we had all of last year. Our pit stops weren't where they needed to be and we just weren't getting it done. When we were getting it done, like at Texas and at Vegas and some places like that early in the year, things happened that kept us from winning.

"After California I came home, we finished 10th, and I was really frustrated and upset. Everybody on this team was. That was a real ugly 10th and probably the worst race as a team that we had run in the years that we've been together. We came in Tuesday and had a great meeting, got our minds back in order, and focused in on what we had to do. Ever since that date, we've been one of the best race teams on the circuit. I think it was a matter of just sitting down, catching our breath a little bit, not getting away from our game plan, and focusing in on the things we were doing wrong and trying to fix them."

Whatever it was, it worked. Excluding the aforementioned poor finishes at Sears Point and Dover, and a 36th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Brickyard 400, Burton's average finish from then on was 5.5, including two victories and three runner-up finishes.

The first victory, at New Hampshire, was a dominating one. Burton said he learned a valuable lesson that weekend when he decided after practice that a good car was not necessarily good enough. "Me and (crew chief) Frank Stoddard had a little conversation and we decided we better get to work," Burton said, adding the team then made a couple of setup changes. "It's a good lesson for a young driver and a young crew chief, to never accept being good. You better go out and get all you can. That move right there is what put us into a position to win.

"As the race worked its way out, we had a dominant race car. It was easy to drive. It was one of those days where you mash the gas and it hooks up, and you turn the wheel and it turns. And that's what a driver dreams to have."

If New Hampshire was a dream, the last laps of his second victory, at Richmond, brought back nightmares.

Burton was going nose-to-nose with Jeff Gordon for the win, a formula which resulted in Gordon winning a million dollars the year before at Darlington Raceway, in the Mountain Dew Southern 500. Seeing the front of Gordon's familiar No. 24 Chevrolet in his review mirror had to be like seeing a shark fin bearing down on him in the open seas.

But this time it was Burton who showed a row full of razor sharp teeth. He had an answer for everything Gordon threw at him, and the second round of their budding rivalry went to Burton.

"This was a helluva race," said Burton, who became the first Virginia native to win at Richmond International Raceway since Ricky Rudd in 1984 and the first Virginian to be victorious since the 0.75-mile speedway was reconfigured in 1988. "I've got to thank Jeff Gordon. He raced me real clean. Traffic was real hard and we took our time with each other all night. We knew they were real fast on long runs and, just like last week, we were real fast on short runs."

And that could easily describe the two drivers' seasons, as well. Burton was great in short stretches of the season, but Gordon had longer runs of success.

Burton will enter the 1999 season once again shooting for the moon, his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship. For Burton, 1998 was one small step backward in the point standings. He hopes 1999 will be one giant leap forward.

Source: NASCAR Online

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon