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After Homestead, The Future’s Uncertain For Burton

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 3 2013

Jeff Burton's days at Richard Childress Racing are numbered. Then what? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – The driver who won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway may be competing on the 1.5-mile quad-oval for the last time Sunday afternoon. But as daylight fades into dusk during the AAA Texas 500, Jeff Burton won’t be turning his back pages.

“I’m not good at that. I’m so into the present,” said Burton, whose 20-year fulltime Cup career likely is heading into its final three races. “I never get too far ahead of myself, or too far behind. That’s one of the things I regret, to be honest. I never really took time to stop and enjoy. I really just haven’t gotten there because I really don’t know what next year holds yet. Emotionally, I haven’t put myself there. I don’t know what I’m doing.

“I’ve had the unique experience of having a lot of success then not having much then having success again and then not having much. I think I’ve seen the sport from a different perspective than a lot of people do.”

Burton announced in early September that he would be leaving Richard Childress Racing at season’s end after a nine-plus-year run. Burton said primary sponsor Caterpillar’s financial backing alone was not enough to run a proper program in 2014. Team-owner Richard Childress since has hired Ryan Newman, currently with Stewart-Haas Racing, as Burton’s replacement in the No. 31 Chevrolet SS.

Burton, 46, has compiled 21 wins, 134 top-five and 254 top-10 finishes and over 7,770 miles-led heading into Sunday’s 334-lap/501-miler here. His most recent win was at Charlotte Motor Speedway, sister 1.5-mile layout to TMS, on Oct. 11, 2008 – a span of 182 consecutive races. The last of his six poles was earned at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 20, 2006, a span of 262 races with RCR.

Burton’s highest point-finish was third in 2000 at what is now Roush Fenway Racing, where he scored 17 of his career Cup wins to-date.

Burton has labored through a lackluster season in which he is 34th in points. Meanwhile, fellow-lame duck RCR teammate Kevin Harvick is fourth among the 13 drivers participating in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Harvick, who will join Stewart-Haas Racing beginning in 2014, is

Jeff Burton will be leaving the Texas Motor Speedway garages for the last time in the No. 31 car on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

fourth in the standings and 28 points behind co-leaders Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing and Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports.

Given that background, Burton has found a respite of sorts in what will be his 26th start at TMS. “We pulled up here (Thursday night), and we get about a quarter-mile from the track,” said Burton, a native of South Boston, Va. “I said to the people with me, ‘Thirty years ago, could you have imagined something like this?’ It’s an unbelievable facility.”

But on the day Burton scored his breakthrough Cup victory, an overcast and chilly April 6, 1997, TMS was best described as the proverbial “work in progress.” Two laps into the Interstate Batteries 500, three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip triggered a 13-car wreck heading into Turn 1 of the track’s revolutionary “dual-banking,” a design that theoretically would accommodate stock car and Indy car events. Ol’ DW failed to complete a lap through Turn 1’s 24-degree banking, finishing 43rd/last.

That was the first of 10 cautions consuming 73 of 334 laps, including a nine-car accident through the frontstretch dogleg on Lap 163 that relegated former Cup champion Rusty Wallace to a 37th-place finish.

Flying under the radar was Burton, then in the second year of what would be an eight-plus-year tenure with team-owner Jack Roush. Winless in a career that began with a single start for car-owner Filbert

Jeff Burton says he has not taken time to 'stop and enjoy'. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

Martocci at New Hampshire International Speedway in 1993 (finished 37th), Burton qualified the No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford Thunderbird prepared by veteran crew chief Buddy Parrott fifth. Burton led 60 laps among the chaos, including the final 58, to cruise to victory over Dale Jarrett and his No. 88 Quality Care/Ford Credit Ford by 4.067-seconds.

That inaugural race still holds the dubious record here for slowest Cup event with an average speed of 125.105 mph. But on a day when many of a small city of over 200,000 fans angrily waded through unfinished and muddy parking lots at O. Bruton Smith’s newest palace of speed, Burton emerged as a refreshingly upbeat face.

“Any time you win your first race somewhere, that’s special,” said Burton, who went on to win three Cup events in 1997. “That weekend was just nuts. The track was screwed-up. The parking was screwed-up. A lot of controversy. There was a big wreck early. We had to overcome a lot to win that race. It was a big deal for us. We had put ourselves in position a lot but had never found a way to do it. And then we were able to do it under very adverse conditions. That did mean a lot.”

Fittingly, Burton became TMS’ first repeat Cup winner in the Samsung 500 on April 15, 2007, in unusual manner. Driving the No. 31 Prilosec OTC Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Burton led one time for only a single lap. He shot past former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Kenseth and the No. 17 DeWalt Ford on the final lap and held him off by 0.410-seconds for the fourth-closest Cup finish in TMS history. Burton also added his name to TMS’ Miscellaneous Records list for fewest laps-led by a race-winner.

In his 25 career Cup starts at TMS, Burton has compiled only three top-five finishes – those two wins and a second-place result to Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he scored his first series win in the DirecTV 500 on April 2, 2000. Burton has nine top-10 finishes here and has led a combined 180 laps.

“This track has been kind of a tale of two cities for me. It’s been really good or really, really bad,” Burton said. “I don’t think there’s been any track change as much as this track. They really reconfigured it three times. There for a while this was the highest-groove racetrack. Now, it’s one of the lowest groove racetracks. I really think that’s why we’ve seen so many different winners here. Every time we come, the track is different. It has such a different personality every time. It’s amazing how much the track does change from race-to-race.”

Burton’s eloquent opinions on all things NASCAR – and basically, any and all things – have earned him

'The Mayor' will hang up the Caterpillar colors in two weeks. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

the nickname of “Mayor of the Garage Area.” His colleagues are beginning to consider what it will be like each weekend without Burton and wife Kim parked among the Cup motorhomes.

“Different,” said Kenseth, 41, now the senior driver at RFR and tied for the championship lead with Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports. “When I went to Roush, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton were two of the biggest influences on my career and I probably modeled a lot of my driving style and things on the track, things off the track, off of Mark and Jeff. Those were the two guys that I looked up to and the guys I asked for advice, I asked for help – all that stuff.

“As you see the calendar pages keep turning and things change and when some of those people aren’t around on a weekly basis anymore, it’s certainly different. And then you know you’re getting closer to being in that next tier, so certainly that’s different. Jeff has had…I think he has a lot of good racing ahead of him and a heck of a career.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon’s career with Hendrick Motorsports began in the same early 1990s time frame as Burton’s at RFR. Gordon’s status as four-time series champion has elevated him to leadership status, moreso since the death of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in 2001. But Burton’s accomplishments and influence have not gone unnoticed by Sir Jeff.

“You don’t want to really comment on it (Burton’s exit) until you know what it’s really going to be,” said Gordon, third in Chase points and 27 behind Kenseth and HMS teammate Johnson. “I spoke to Jeff when we were here testing (last week) and he didn’t necessarily allude to me he wouldn’t be in a car next year. That’s possible and if that was (not the case) he will certainly be missed.

“I’ve run almost my entire Cup career with Jeff, certainly the whole time I’ve been in NASCAR. I came into the Nationwide Series and Jeff was a very strong driver in that series. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him – other than that time he wrecked me here. He’s a good guy. I think he’s a smart race car driver. I value his opinions when he‘s analyzing the sport and the cars just kind of looking at the broader picture. He’s got a good perspective and very level head about it.

“He seems to be very excited about his son (Harrison) racing right now as well. I think he’ll be a part of the sport next year and as long as he is he’s going to be contributing something that is valuable.”

Burton family history repeated at TMS in June when Jeb Burton – son of brother and former Daytona 500 winner Ward – posted his first NASCAR victory in the Camping World Series WinStar World Casino 400 on June 7. Jeb, 20, became the youngest NCWTS winner at “The Great American Speedway!”

Last December, Jeff Burton Autosports, Inc., announced a partnership with Robbie Stanley Racing, Inc., to create a path for families to get started in Quarter Midget racing. Harrison Burton has driven those vehicles since age 5. Surely, 12-year-old Harrison will advance to race at South Boston (Va.) Speedway, where Jeff won seven of 21 NASCAR Weekly Series Late Model races in 1988 and was voted the track’s Most Popular Driver. Jeff began his racing career at South Boston in the Pure Stock class in 1984.

Today, Burton ranks among the classiest of drivers to have raced and won at Texas Motor Speedway. Sixteen years after that first Cup win, Burton’s career apparently will continue solely on his terms.

“We always have timetables, but to me I don’t want a calendar to make my decision,” Burton said. “I want the evidence to make my decision. I’m waiting for everything to be lined-up the way I want it to be. If it’s not, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to look at a calendar and say, ‘I’m going to have a decision by that date,’ because I’m going to make a wrong decision if I do that.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 3 2013
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