The Frontstretch: Vexing Vito: Burton Bows Out, Smoke Rises, And Martin's Move To SHR by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday September 5, 2013

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Vexing Vito: Burton Bows Out, Smoke Rises, And Martin's Move To SHR

Vito Pugliese · Thursday September 5, 2013

 

So while the entire world was complaining about nothing really happening for silly season about a month ago, you sure got your fill the last four weeks. The latest move have Jeff Burton exiting RCR and the No. 31 Caterpillar team who he has driven for since 2005. Burton joined RCR midway through the 2004 season, after vacating the No. 99 Roush Fords he had piloted since 1996. Burton has been winless since 2008, when he won two races and finished sixth in the point standings. Since then it’s been one uninspired season after another: 17th, 12th, 20th, 19th, and 22nd in points with no wins and a smattering of Top 5 Finishes.

“I strongly believe in the No. 31 team as to what we can achieve this year, and for the team in seasons to follow,” Burton said in a press release. “However, the financial realities for next year were obvious to both Richard and me. So we talked about it and both made the decision to make this move for the team’s future.”

Burton’s replacement in the No. 31 will be Ryan Newman. Richard Childress had mentioned weeks ago that he would be his top pick of the drivers available at the time, and while there has been some fretting over how Newman was ushered out of SHR, this actually plays very well into his favor. I wouldn’t say that Newman played a second fiddle to Tony Stewart at SHR, but with Danica Patrick coming on board and the guy’s name on the door having won a title two years ago, there’s only so much that can be prioritized. Newman was arguably the most productive member of the bunch this year, after Matt Borland re-assumed the crew chief role he held during their most successful years with Penske Racing.

Jeff Burton’s time with the Caterpillar car is coming to an end. The veteran announced Wednesday he won’t be back with the RCR organization, where he’s driven for nearly a decade come 2014.

With Kevin Harvick exiting and Austin Dillon moving up to Cup next year, it will be rejuvenating on a number of levels at RCR. With Kevin Harvick having been in the No. 29 car for 12 years and Burton with the organization for nearly a decade, a change of scenery within the company and some new blood should help revitalize a team that has seen its fair share of tension over the years.

This latest move marks a shifting tide within the NASCAR landscape as well. It’s early September now, and Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin – 82 wins and a Cup title between them – do not have rides in place or announced yet for 2014.

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A number of topics were discussed during Tony Stewart’s press conference on Tuesday. Smoke Will Roll – err – Rise event was his first public appearance since a sprint car accident nearly two months ago, send a driveshaft into his leg, breaking it in two places. Not the least of which that was covered was the move by Gene Haas to secure the services of Kurt Busch for 2014, and his impromptu move to expand the infrastructure and for the 2004 champion.

While it was originally portrayed as a power play by the money guy, while the talent was laid up with a bum wheel, Stewart defused the situation by explaining it was more of a case of Haas making off the cuff remarks about if Tony didn’t like the move he could, “get out of the building.”

“We sat with him last Monday and said, ‘listen, what are you going to say when you go down there tomorrow?’ He’s like, ‘I’ll just wing it.’ I’m like, ‘no, you can’t do that. Speaking from experience you can’t just wing it when you get down there.’ He called me two days later, and he goes, ‘man, you were right.’ He read what was written and realized that you’ve got to think about it or more than just shooting from the hip with it.”

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While the talk centered mostly around his injury, the recovery period, and the expectation that he will be back in the car at Daytona in February, he also mentioned the newest member of the team and one who he hopes will stick around next year – Mark Martin.

Martin was in discussions with Stewart before his accident for 2014, and will likely do some testing for SHR, as well as provide some assistance for Danica Patrick. While Martin made a point of saying, “Danica Patrick doesn’t need a coach. She already knows how to drive”, he can help translate information from her to crew chief Tony Gibson. Gibson was Martin’s crew chief during the 2008 season, one he had some of the most fun with during his career, and felt he called some of the best races among those he has worked with. As he told me at Michigan International Speedway a couple of weeks ago, “I work well with and understand the engineers, and can help communicate that to some of these younger drivers who might not know what to ask, or what it is they’re looking for.”

It was Martin who originally stopped Patrick after an early exit at Dover at a 2010 Nationwide Series race, where he provided her a bit of a revelation: the team needs to get the car so the front end does what she’s asking of it. Patrick later that year spent a day with Martin during a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway, shadowing him as he helped her then JR Motorsports team establish a baseline and tune her car for the October Nationwide Series race.

Another fun fact linking the GoDaddy.com-sponsored duo: Martin’s last Nationwide Series win at Las Vegas in 2011, was the site of Patrick’s best NASCAR finish to date — a fourth place result.

One other dimension that Martin brings to the table: a bit of stabilizing veteran influence. Martin always worked well with Kurt Busch at Roush Racing – essentially trading teams with him for the 2002 season. Martin has thought very highly and spoken well of both Busch brothers and their talent, and should the powder keg of Smoke, Happy, and The Outlaw start to get out of hand, he might end up being the one who’s able to help reign those personalities in. With Stewart needing to put a bit more focus on physical fitness as he begins the rehab portion of his therapy, it’s hard to imagine a better example and mentor in that regard, than Mark Martin.

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Carl D.
09/05/2013 10:48 AM
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I have nothing but respect and admiration for Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton. That said, they both need to plan a nice long vacation for next February. Anywhere but Daytona.

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