Realist Burton Heads To Phoenix Rested But Restless
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Jeff Burton’s grasp of the NASCAR Universe is exceeded only by the gut feelings associated with his own racing world.
A ninth-place finish in the Sprint Cup Series most recent event, the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, left Burton 12th in the driver standings. And while that’s technically good enough to be considered a contender for the season-ending Chase, Burton has returned from the Easter weekend break somewhere between realistic and restless.
“We are where we are, which has been everything from having a chance to win races to being the slowest car on the racetrack,” Burton said during NASCAR’s weekly teleconference. ”We ground our way back up into 12th in points, but we haven’t shown on a consistent basis the ability to go out and lead a lot of laps, do the things I talked about this winter that we needed to do. So that’s where we are.
“You are what your record says you are. We’re a 10th or 15th-place team right now. Can we be better than that? I don’t think there’s any question we can be better than that.”
Heading to Phoenix International Raceway for Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 500, Burton is second-best among the expanded four-car Richard Childress Racing stable. While Burton trails championship leader Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports by a sizeable 319 points, he is only 132 behind RCR teammate Clint Bowyer in fourth. Bidding to qualify for his fourth consecutive Chase, Burton admitted he and crew chief Scott Miller have been experimenting, and some of those experiments have tanked. Case in point; the team’s lost weekend at Auto Club Speedway in California, where Burton and the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet started 41st and finished 32nd.
Basically, Burton said, his Impala SS was the “worst car there.” In contrast, Burton rallied to lead 61 laps – the only laps he’s paced in 2009 – en route to a season’s best third-place result at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Early on in the year we made the decision that we were willing to run bad at a few races to understand exactly what we had,” said Burton, who is in his 16th full Cup season. “Not that we went there (California) thinking we were going to run bad. We were willing to gamble, to try different stuff, to learn as quickly as we can to apply that. We could have gone to California and done the exact same thing we did last year, maybe run 15th or 12th. We went there trying a whole different thing, completely different, ran terrible. We learned something from that. It’s really important in a year where you don’t have testing to learn and then to be able to apply it.
“So that’s what we’re doing. We’re learning. We’re having to learn on race weekends. I wish we didn’t have to, but that’s what we have to do. So we’re a little bit behind. There’s no denying it. But I believe we ultimately can get where we need to be.”
Burton scored Cup victories in 2000 and 2001 on the odd-shaped, 1-mile PIR oval in Avondale while driving Fords for Jack Roush. More recently, RCR teammate Kevin Harvick swept both Cup events at PIR in 2006.
“Well, you know, it (PIR) has been a good track for us,” said Burton, who has gone 12 races since his most recent series victory at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Oct. 11. “I’ll be honest though, in the last few years we’ve not done as well as we need to do. Things like Harvick and Bowyer are ‘outlearning’ us out there. We look this week to kind of turn the tables a little bit.
“I think we can contend for a win there. We had it. I’ll be perfectly honest. We haven’t been able to contend for a win. I believe that we can. I believe in my ability to drive that racetrack. I believe in my team’s ability to set up race cars that we need. Have we done that? No, we haven’t. We just got to do a better job. I got to do a better job of explaining to the team what’s going on. I got to do a better job of demanding more of the car. The team’s got to do a better job of unloading a car that’s closer. It takes all of us.
“I can’t just sit back and say, ‘I’ve won here before, you just got to give me a good car.”
Burton’s sixth-place standing in last year’s Chase was his highest since 2000, when he finished third for Roush and went into the ’01 season as a bonafide title contender. In fact, a budding rivalry between Burton and three-time series champion Jeff Gordon surfaced as one of the hot offseason storylines.
Gordon, of course, went on to post 2001 series-highs in wins and poles with six en route to his fourth and most recent Cup title. Burton dropped to 10th in points due mainly to a horrible start that saw him finish 30th or worse in four of the first six races. Burton did post two victories, including at PIR. But the ’01 season actually proved the onset of a slide that saw him struggle through full winless campaigns in 2002 and 2003, and 22 races with Roush in 2004. Burton abruptly joined RCR for the final 14 races of ’04, determined to prove that he could not only reinvigorate that dormant organization but also reinvent himself as a front-runner.
“Well, I knew it was going to take a while to do that,” said Burton, a notoriously poor qualifier whose last pole was scored at Michigan International Speedway in August 2006 – 92 races ago. “This is a hard sport. We had gotten to the point where we weren’t being very competitive at all. The last three years we finished in the top 10 in points, won (in) the Chase, feel really good about that. But what we’re looking for is championships, multiple-win seasons. We haven’t achieved that. We have multiple-wins in a season, but we haven’t achieved winning five championships, that kind of thing.
“I believe I can do it. I believe this team can do it. We have to build a little stronger foundation. We do a really nice job, but we don’t do a great job. For us to do the things we want to do, we got to find greatness. How we do that is very complicated. There’s a lot of work, a lot of effort. People are working hard every day. We just got to work a little smarter. I got to be smarter on the racetrack. I believe the foundation is there, but we just got to find a way to do it a little better.”
RCR placed all three of its drivers – Burton, Harvick and Bowyer- in the Chase in 2007 and 2008. Burton said he no one need doubt his commitment to RCR, the organization forever linked to seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
“We went from a company where we were putting no teams in the Chase to being a company that’s been putting all our teams in the Chase,” said Burton, who led the series standings for four consecutive weeks in the spring of 2008. “We did that by improving every single area of our company. There was no one thing we were doing wrong. We isolated, defined, made accountable people in every department. When we did that, guess what happened? So we’re having to redo that again. It’s constant. We’ve always been doing it. But we’ve just got to be a little better in all areas.
“This isn’t a thing where one group is messed up, one person messed up. This is a thing where our company is a little bit behind. We aren’t miles behind. We are a little behind. We have to catch up in all areas.”
Burton, who scored the first of his career 21 Cup victories at TMS in Fort Worth in April 1997, will turn 42 at the end of June. But anyone looking to label Burton as an “aging rock star” had better reconsider.
“Listen, we’re humans,” Burton said. “I don’t care, I’d love to tell you that every day of my life I wake up thinking, ‘I’m going to go kick everybody’s butt this weekend,’ (and) do that. The reality of it is it doesn’t always work like that, the same way that not everybody comes to work motivated, not everybody goes into the gym on a Tuesday morning as motivated as they were the last Tuesday morning. There’s different times in your life or in your day even where you’re not as motivated as others. I think it’s important to stay focused. I think it’s important to understand it’s okay to have a life outside of racing.
“One thing that I found, I’ve always been concerned as I get older, what does that mean to my competitive drive, because I’ve had people tell me all my life when you get older, you’re not as competitive, you can’t have the success. I find the exact opposite. When I look at my career, it’s very clear to me that I have way less ahead of me than I had behind me. I don’t know how many times I’m going to go to Phoenix. I may only go to Phoenix for three or four more years. I don’t know. I want to go for 10 more years, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to.
“At this point in my career I hold it in much higher regard than I did when I was younger because I understand after not having success that I was used to having how important it is to you, how it makes you feel when you’re successful. It’s hard to explain. I’m more motivated today than I was when I was 18 because I understand how special it is. I’ve lost it, and now I have it back. I want to make sure that I don’t lose it again.”