As Jeff Burton pulled into Victory Lane on Sunday, winless monkey off his back and championship trophy suddenly within reach, it was hard to ignore the irony surrounding the end of his 175-race winless streak.
Richard Childress Racing had scored their third Cup win in a row.
Back in 2000, Burton was battling a No. 3 of a different kind – the Intimidator himself, as the two fought tooth and nail for a Cup title. It was the peak of Burton’s career with Roush Racing, as the then 33-year-old Virginian won four times and racked up 22 top 10s in 34 starts. That set up a classic battle with the Intimidator, having a comeback season and desperately reaching for an eighth title he long coveted but never achieved. In the end, both drivers lost out to Bobby Labonte, with Dale Earnhardt squeaking Burton in a battle royale for second best that had both drivers rallying hard to try and beat one another.
As the season wound down, Earnhardt and Childress met to talk about the future. Turning 50 years old the following year, it was clear the Intimidator would soon begin winding down his career, only driving a few more seasons before giving up the driver’s seat to a rising young star. As a final contract was signed that would put Earnhardt in the No. 3 car through the 2003 season, there were several discussions between the two men as to who might be the best replacement for Earnhardt heading into the future.
Burton revolved around most all of them.
Quietly hand-picked as the replacement, it was the plan of Childress and Earnhardt to have Burton driving the famed No. 3 beginning with the 2004 season. Of course, Burton never got the chance; one brush with the outside wall at Daytona in February 2001 forever altered a sport, sending ripples of change through several career paths. Still entrenched at Roush, there was just no way Burton would leave a championship-caliber team to take over Earnhardt’s seat; instead, Childress tapped rookie Kevin Harvick to take over. Everyone knows the story from there; adrenaline produced early success for Childress and Harvick, only to be replaced by the cold shiver of frustration as time went on and memories failed to fade.
Meanwhile, Burton was having issues of his own over at Roush Racing. Labeled a title favorite in 2001, his team suffered through a streak of bad luck and never contended. Burton finished 10th in points that year; it would be the last time he’d ever finish that high driving Roush’s No. 99. The next two years, Burton and the team finished 12th, sliding back into the black hole of mediocrity.
By 2004, Burton’s tenure at Roush had snowballed into a marriage gone bad. His team sponsorless and his career heading towards the nearest garbage pail, Burton reached a low point by leading two races for just 16 laps during the entire first half of the season.
Clearly, a change was in order. Never forgetting his conversation with Earnhardt, Childress saw he had an opportunity to nab the driver they always wanted, making Burton an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was with one of the premier teams in racing (Roush),” said Burton about his decision to switch. “There was zero doubt that everyone looked at me and wondered ‘what is that man thinking?'”
Still, just like that, Burton was in an RCR car in 2004 – exactly on the timetable Earnhardt had wanted. Several questioned it, especially since Burton’s professional, clean-cut style of racing on the track didn’t fit in with the aggressive tactics long perfected by the RCR stable. One look at Burton, in fact, and the word intimidation is the last thing that comes to your mind. Future politician, maybe, but not Intimidator.
Yet, maybe that’s just why Earnhardt wanted Burton in the first place. Always a visionary, maybe he could see the sport changing, realizing that in the future it would be more about a driver who can mix aggressiveness with consistency, manage personalities as well as he could manage handling problems on his racecar.
“I’m not good at enjoying the moment,” said Burton Sunday while describing his personality. “But the positive to that is, I don’t relish on the bad either. I’m on to the next thing pretty quick.”
That ability to move beyond those bad moments was exactly what Childress needed to take the next step and put the tragedy of Earnhardt behind him. Burton provided a fresh outlook, someone excited with the prospect of working together to take a once-proud program and turning it into something to be feared all over again. Burton saw through Childress’s grief to see the talent that lied beneath, talent that could be tapped again after years of lying dormant.
“When I looked in [Childress’s] eyes, I saw somebody that had a passion for what he does, that was and still is committed to getting back to the top,” Burton explained. “I didn’t look at the success level; I looked at the potential of the organization. When I looked around, I saw (that RCR) has a lot of good people. I looked at the tools and resources available to us and I thought there was no reason that RCR shouldn’t run well.”
No question, Burton has taken his positive attitude and done just that, utilized the resources in front of him to succeed. Emotionally, he’s made the difference the Intimidator could have only dreamed he would. Especially with Harvick, once made out to be the equivalent of the high school bully at one point in his career with Childress. A year removed from being halfway out the door with the organization, Harvick has been molded into a full-fledged team player, so much so that he was one of the first people in line to congratulate Burton on his win, so happy in Victory Lane it’s as if he forgot he had blown a motor 30 minutes before.
“This is a grossly underestimated race team,” said a passionate Burton in his postrace press conference. “The core of this team has been together for a long time. This team is as together and pulls in the same direction as good as I’ve ever seen.”
“It feels so good to have the support of so many people.”
That support extends out to the NASCAR community at large. As the rain opened up on Victory Lane, the downpour didn’t stop the line of drivers, crew members, and media from walking their way down to congratulate Burton. Clutching a trophy for the first time in five years, you could tell with each shake of the hand how happy Burton and his team had become, a team at peace with itself and focused on where it plans to go. Slowly, the man who never let himself get caught in the moment allowed himself to smile.
But perhaps the biggest smile was shining down from up above.