Jeff Burton Talks Loudon, TMS, Family And TV

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 2 2020

Jeff Burton has moved from the Cup cockpit to the TV booth. He talked about both this week. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Once upon a restrictor plate, Jeff Burton led every lap of a NASCAR Cup Series race on a strange, early autumn Sunday afternoon in Loudon, N.H.

The events surrounding the Dura Lube 300 on Sept. 17, 2000 likely will be revisited this afternoon when Burton, in his role as NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports Group, covers the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m., EDT, NBC Sports Network). But on that overcast race day nearly 20 years ago, the late Bob Bahre’s 1.058-mile oval was known as New Hampshire International Speedway _ and it was enveloped in controversy.

Kenny Irwin Jr., 30, had been killed at NHIS on July 7, 2000 in a crash during a Cup Series practice session. Irwin’s fatality occurred at almost the same spot in Turn 3 where 19-year-old Adam Petty _ grandson of King Richard and son of Kyle _ died on May 12, 2000 during a Busch Series practice. In both instances, reports cited stuck throttles with sending the respective cars head-on into the Turn 3 wall during a time before the mandated installation of SAFER Barriers.

In a bid to reassure its competitors and the public that the flat, paperclip-shaped NHIS layout was safe for big-time auto racing, NASCAR opted to slap restrictor plates onto the engines of each Cup car for the fall event. Plates had been in use only on the high-banked/2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway since 1998 to restrict an engine’s ability to create horsepower. While mandating plates didn’t necessarily address the throttle issue, it did drop speeds by approximately 10 mph.

Jeff Burton remembers the day plates were on the table at New Hampshire.(RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

Burton qualified second to pole-sitter/championship-leader Bobby Labonte, immediately jumped to the front and went on to lead all 300 laps around the “Magic Mile.” Burton, driver of the No. 99 Exide Batteries Ford Taurus fielded by Jack Roush, said that rather than complain about the plate mandate, he and crew chief Frankie Stoddard “were very focused on trying to get stuff done.” To that end, Burton joined Steve Park, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet fielded by Dale Earnhardt Inc., in a test on the Wednesday before the NHIS race at The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.

“At New Hampshire, when they put restrictor plates on the cars, we didn’t complain about it, we just went to work,” Burton recalled during a phone interview with RacinToday.com. “We went to Milwaukee and tested and were really good at that _at not getting caught up in complaining. We were just really focused on us.”

The race ended under caution when Sterling Marlin’s No. 40 Chevy blew a tire with three laps remaining, capping the safe and uneventful day the sanctioning body desperately needed. Burton’s average speed in a race slowed for 42 laps by seven caution flags was 102.003 mph.

Burton also had won the Pepsi 400 at DIS in July, giving him two consecutive victories in restrictor plate races. “This was a lot different,” Burton said. “Anytime there is big change and you do well you have a lot of pride.”

That workmanlike approach, Burton noted, had carried him to his first Cup win in another controversial race. Burton posted the first of his 21 Cup victories in the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 6, 1997 before a crowd of over 200,000 in Fort Worth. 

“It started at the test,” said Burton, then paired with veteran crew chief Buddy Parrott on the No. 99 team. “I went out there in a rental car and about wrecked coming off Turn 4. I almost hit the wall and immediately went, ‘Oh my God!’ All we kept hearing is, ‘It’s just like Charlotte’ and I made a lap in a rental car and I’m like, ‘This is NOTHING like Charlotte.’ It was sketchy. Like, if you missed a groove you we’re going to wreck. It was a mess.

“But our team was really good at this. We didn’t do a whole lot of complaining about race conditions. It was what it was. And if you look at our wins, we really won races where we had adverse situations. So that approach led into the race (at TMS). This is going to be really difficult, but we’re in control of this. That attitude was really a lot of what helped us on that day.

Jeff Burton has vivid memories of racing at Texas Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

“That goes into the year before as well. The year before that we had started the No. 99 team and had come really close to winning some races. And there were times we looked like a really, really good experienced team and there were times we looked like a very inexperienced and immature team. We were putting ourselves in a position to win and we just weren’t pulling it off. We just weren’t making it happen. I mean, we were a brand new team. Hell, we didn’t have a car. We didn’t move into our shop until after Thanksgiving (1996), so we were just crawling. So that year and early in 1997 was kind of the culmination of all that stuff.”

Somewhat fittingly, the native Virginian also became the first repeat Cup winner in Fort Worth by leading the 334th and final lap in the No. 31 Chevrolet Monte Carlo fielded by Richard Childress Racing during the Samsung 500 on April 15, 2007.

Burton’s NASCAR resume at TMS also features a celebrated physical confrontation with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “Unfortunately, it’s really high on my list. It’s one of the moments I really regret,” said Burton, referring to the crash and resulting backstretch shoving match involving Gordon during the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 7, 2010. Burton admittedly initiated the contact _ under caution _ after an incident that began to unfold through Turns 3 and 4.

“It’s one of the few things that are kind of humorous after the fact, but one of those moments I wish I could have taken back,” Burton said. “Jeff and I…I think we were running 17th and 18th and that’s where the problems start _ we’re both running frustrated and both mad and both of our angers got the better of us. It’s one of those moments I look back on and am not proud of.”

Still, all those moments have shaped the perspective Burton now brings to the TV audience. And in his role as NASCAR dad, every hot lap is central to the advice Burton is passing onto 19-year-old son Harrison in his fledgling Xfinity Series career.    

“You have to have a code in which you’re going to race,” said Burton, 53. “You’re going to race people a certain way. And when you race people that way, you should expect that they race you that way.”

That advice came into play after the Alsco 200 Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway on July 17. Noah Gragson drifted into Harrison Burton during a restart with 13 laps to go, sending both cars into the outside wall and out of contention for possible top-five finishes. Burton confronted Gragson post-race, with a conversation escalating to the point where Burton shoved Gragson in the chest. Gragson, 22, responded with a right cross that caught Burton’s ear before NASCAR officials and crewmen ended the scrum.

Burton, who drives the No. 20 Toyota Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing, said he was frustrated with Gragson after a similar incident this season at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the No. 9 Chevy Camaro fielded by JR Motorsports.

“Harrison and I didn’t ever have conversations about, ‘Well, you need to learn how to fight,’^” Jeff Burton said. “I’m not the dad that hugs my kids when they get in a fight. I’m the dad that believes that your kids need to treat people the way they want to be treated, and there’s times that you have to make a stand. And I thought that Harrison would be making a mistake to leave that racetrack without letting Noah know how he felt.”

Jeff Gordon’s car after run-in with Jeff Burton at Texas a couple years back. (File photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)

At the same time, Burton reiterated he is a TV analyst and an easy target of social media second-guessing when it comes to nepotism.

“I’m not able to just be a dad,” Burton said. ”Noah Gragson deserves to know that I’m going to be fair to him, too. I see Noah as a young driver that in the offseason has decided he needs to make a mark. He’s said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing next year. I don’t know what I got going on.’ He has told us in interviews with our NBC crowd, ‘They don’t ask how you’ve won, they ask how many you’ve won.’ So here’s a young man trying to make his way in racing and he’s decided he’s going to push the barriers in an effort to get what he needs out of the sport.

“I have to respect that, too. My situation is unique. I don’t get to pick a side.”

The TV booth has been Burton’s second “garage area” since joining NBC in 2015. As has been the case during the current COVID-19 pandemic, Burton will be covering Sunday’s race from a booth at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. That facility has two individual booths, with Burton and former Hendrick Motorsports Cup superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. in one and lead announcer Rick Allen and former Hendrick Motorsports Cup crew chief Steve LeTarte in another. The crew works off monitors and screens covering the entirety of the track.

“We’re doing our best to simulate being at the track without being at the track,” said Burton, whose transition from driver to analyst has been relatively seamless. Still, prep work certainly is part of his weekly routine.

“We’re pretty low on meetings (at NBC),” said Burton, whose network nickname is “Mayor” of the Cup garage. “We typically have a meeting during the week that lasts 30 to 45 minutes at the most. And then we’ll have a get-together when we first arrive at the track _ six-seven of us at the most _ and have a conversation. That’s about it.”

Burton said he keeps in near constant contact with crew chiefs, car-owners and crew members during a typical week. “I’ve learned that texting is the most effective way and the texts many times lead into a phone conversation,” Burton said. “It’s reading articles. It’s reading stuff the teams put out. It’s going back and listening to interviews. It’s the texting and calling that I do myself. We do ZOOM meetings with drivers.

“So I don’t know how to put a timeframe on it because with social media you’re constantly following the drivers, the teams and all that. I don’t want to say it’s all the time, meaning I’m just sitting in my house looking at Twitter and Instagram and press releases and all that. But you’re constantly checking on things.”

And despite his natural gift-of-gab, Burton admitted to once being lost for words on-air. “Oh, yeah. The one that really sticks out is the very first race that I did, when Austin Dillon got into the fence at Daytona,” Burton said.

Recall that the finish of the Coke Zero 400 on July 6, 2015 was marred by a crash that catapulted Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet from the bottom of the track, over two rows of speeding cars and into the catchfence at DIS. Shredding parts and pieces, the car slammed back onto the track on its roof and spun to a halt. Miraculously, Dillon exited the wreckage with help from safety workers and waved to the crowd. 

“It happened almost right below us and the view I had was terrifying,” Burton said. “I know Austin’s dad (Mike Dillon) really well and his grandad (team-owner/former boss Richard Childress) really well and at that point, I was at a loss for words. And there’s times you really don’t need to say anything. It’s important to remember I’m an analyst, and Rick, he’s our ‘voice.’ And in moments like that it’s best to just step out and let Rick handle it. But that one time really sticks out, for sure.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 2 2020
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