No wins, but a great year for Burton By Marty Smith When reflecting on Ward Burton's 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, several words and phrases come to mind: breakthrough, on the verge, runner-up and challenger among them. And, while...
No wins, but a great year for Burton By Marty Smith
When reflecting on Ward Burton's 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, several words and phrases come to mind: breakthrough, on the verge, runner-up and challenger among them. And, while those descriptions are accurate, the one that best pinpoints the No. 22 Caterpillar Pontiac driver in 1999 is bit more drastic.
Burton, who for the past four years has been direly inconsistent, finally found the consistency necessary to compete at racing's highest level.
"The team did a fabulous job of working together all year," Burton said. "We kept digging and pulling together and we never gave up. We've got a lot to be proud of."
That they do. Burton and crew chief Tommy Baldwin hooked up at midseason in 1998, and have since formed one of the most competitive teams in the entire NASCAR Winston Cup Series. This year, Burton rolled up six top-5s and 16 top-10s -- both career highs -- earning him his first finish in the top-10 in the points championship race. The No. 22 team was the only single-car operation to achieve the feat this year.
"We're a single-car team and we finished in the top-10 in point standings, so we're real excited about next year," he said.
Although Burton has enjoyed a career year, he failed to win a race, stretching his drought to more than four seasons. Even so, the No. 22 team refuses to rate its season by that measure.
"We've established ourselves as racing to our potential week in and week out," said team owner Bill Davis last month. "Mark Martin taught me this a long time ago -- you've got to be in the top-5 week after week and when it's your day, it's your day. We're just ready for it to be our day."
The defining statistic of Burton's season is not top-5s or top-10s, but runner-up finishes. Three times in 1999 he finished second, all to his brother Jeff -- first at Las Vegas, then at Darlington, then at Rockingham. Needless to say, playing second fiddle his younger brother doesn't exactly excite the Virginia native.
"I'm basically mad as hell really," said Burton following his second-place run in the Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway last month. "I don't know where the anger is directed at, it's just circumstances. A lot of people have been trying to get me to say or feel that we will not have had a winning season had we not won a race and I can't say that."
Nope. He really can't say that. Burton has by all counts posted his finest season to date. In 1995, he won at Rockingham -- his only career victory -- but posted three top-5s and six top-10s. In '96, his performance fell off drastically, as he failed to post a top-5 and had just four top-10s. In '97, he failed again to reach the top-5, but did finish in the top-10 seven times.
Last season, he finished second in the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte for his lone top-5, but had five top-10s as well. This year, just eight drivers had more top-5s than did Burton. Also, prior to this season, he'd never finished higher than 16th in the series point standings, and had never won more than $1.5 million. This season, he fattened his pockets considerably, bringing home a career-high total of $2,115, 824.
"We're really excited about next year," Burton said. "We've got some areas to work on, there's no question about that. We've just got to keep on digging."