As the sun set over Bristol Sunday, Dale Jarrett took off his driver’s helmet for the final time. The dimming sunlight was a fitting backdrop for a career coming to a halt; for at 51, one of the most respected drivers the NASCAR garage has ever had was ready to pass the torch of elder statesman.
Halfway across the racetrack, the sun was rising on Jeff Burton in Victory Lane. At 40 years old, Burton nabbed his first Bristol win in 29 tries, tiptoeing to triumph at a track that tends to make mincemeat out of men who drive the right way. But the Virginian not only survived, he thrived; beating younger teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer to the line, Burton became the first 40-something victor here since Rusty Wallace back in 2000. What’s more, he didn’t have to lay a bumper to a single guy in the process, a strategy that spoke volumes about the way he drives.
Looks like Jarrett has a place for that torch after all.
“We tell [Jeff] he’s an old fart,” joked Bowyer after the race. “[But he] proves week in and week out on the racetrack that he’s plenty capable of getting the job done. Winning here at Bristol, I know that’s important for him.”
Importance increases when you consider the generation Burton’s lifting on his shoulders. On the heels of his 20th career win, the man isn’t just laying the foundation for his third straight Chase bid; he’s on the heels of accepting a role far larger than that. As Jarrett walks off the grand stage, Burton remains front and center, the most successful man from the 40-and-over crowd running a full-time schedule. Yes, Jarrett’s competitive juices had stopped flowing long ago – his last top 10 was with Robert Yates Racing in 2006 – but while still in a driver’s seat week in, week out, his presence alone served as the voice of reason. For there is a reason Jarrett is going from the cockpit to the broadcast booth; when he has an opinion, people have always listened, and the respect earned through 32 victories and a 1999 Cup championship gives him the ability to carry some weight. Just last week, Jarrett’s comments supporting Tony Stewart‘s criticism of Goodyear put immediate legitimacy behind a complaint that, without some support, may have died on the vine as another one of those “Tony temper tantrums.”
But now, Jarrett has hung it up; and with Mark Martin and Bill Elliott positioned for part-time duty, it appears the role of elder statesman will fall into Burton’s hands. One of just two 40-somethings in the top 25 in Cup points – 2000 champ Bobby Labonte is the other – Burton is among the remnants of a generation that turned the sport on its ear in their 20s, setting up the transition for the young gun environment the Cup Series has today. With sponsorship savvy combined with immeasurable talent, Burton joined a bevy of kids who made it a necessity for owners to consider inexperience and youth for even the most coveted rides.
Of course, there’s just one problem; that movement has left nothing but Young Guns left at this point to surround the 15-year veteran. Once on the cusp of progression, Burton has watched the changes grow to the point they threaten to overrun anyone over 35 – and now, he’s in that dreaded category.
But while others have fallen victim, Burton has taken charge; and on days where veteran knowledge proves helpful, he’s still capable of taking advantage. Case in point: with a handful of laps left Sunday, Burton remained patient while teammate Harvick, on fresh tires, got overaggressive in trying to run down both Stewart and Denny Hamlin. Harvick paid the price; he got into Stewart, and the resulting contact slowed him down while wrecking the No. 20 – allowing Burton to slide by into second place. On the ensuing restart, Hamlin’s car endured some sort of fuel pickup problem, and just like that, victory went to the No. 31 Chevy.
“The way Jeff has been weaving through wrecks since I have been working with him is miraculous,” added crew chief Scott Miller following the fracas. “He just seems to have a sixth sense of where to be and where to stay out of trouble.”
“I am just so proud of Jeff Burton giving us 100% every week.”
The winner wasn’t quite so “superhuman;” for him, humility was the word of the day. Happy yet business-like in the post-race press conference, Burton expressed the same type of tried-and-true rhetoric that has kept him grounded throughout a decade of success.
“We put ourselves in position [to succeed], and that’s how you win these races,” he explained. “We did all the little things well. And when you do all the little things well, a lot of times the big things take care of themselves.”
“That’s the sign of a team that’s mature.”
Mature is the right word for a car that continues to exceed expectations four years into Burton’s tenure. And with a driving style that’s apt to impress rather than annoy, these victories always give the appearance that they’re the most well deserved on the circuit.
“Last year, he didn’t use the bumper to win the race,” noted Miller, reflecting on a second-place finish in which Burton held the inside line but did not turn defending Bristol champ Kyle Busch. “That just isn’t who he is to race that way. So, maybe this good fortune we had today was payback.”
Of course, duplicating that winning effort every week isn’t always easy; but as even Burton’s teammates can attest to, his success isn’t just measured through racing trophies.
“Jeff’s the calm [voice of] reason between myself and Clint,” said Harvick Sunday, repeating a theme that’s been uttered many times these past few years. “I’m one extreme; he’s another extreme. Clint’s in the middle of the road. He kind of bounces off of both of us. I’m just glad that Jeff’s a part of our team so we can all stay sane.”
It’s the type of professionalism and dedication that anyone will tell you was a part of Jarrett’s repertoire; and while his accomplishments at MWR weren’t as dazzling throughout his career’s final stages, the ability for his voice to be heard remained just as strong. It was through Jarrett’s recommendation that David Reutimann was named his successor at the No. 44, and it was Jarrett who pushed behind the scenes for some of the changes that have that three-car team on the upswing.
Now, as he leaves the stage, it’s Burton who should fully inherit the role left behind. Still expected to be in the sport for several years to come, Burton’s already a champion for many causes in the NASCAR garage, driver safety among them. But the list of future issues remains long; and in the wake of the tire crisis this week, the suggestion of a driver’s union was enough to remind us that the relationship between them and stock car racing’s braintrust isn’t always on solid ground.
However, with Burton taking the lead on things – a man who is already one of the easiest, most resourceful interviews in the garage area – these young men would have the leadership they would need to bond together in times of crisis.
The only question is simply whether the man will be expected to step up to the plate; and as Jarrett’s shadow and the sounds of victory lane merged with the darkening skies, that was an issue which remained unclear.