For those that haven’t noticed, Jeff Burton is presently second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers’ championship. It sounds like a fact that’s hard to miss; but really, it’s easy to overlook a man sandwiched in the standings between media darlings Kyle Busch – leading the points race due to his phenomenal on-track performances – and the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. But the reality is it’s Burton who trails Busch by just 103 points, while remaining ahead of Earnhardt Jr. by 49. He continues to be a genuine contender for the 2008 Cup title, even though his workmanlike approach continually fails to capture the headlines.
Though Burton scored his 20th career win this March in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, his total for the year pales in comparison to Busch’s five trips to the winner’s circle. However, for the soon-to-be 41-year-old South Boston, Va. native to be within striking distance of Busch for the points lead after having topped the standings going into Richmond in early May has certainly compensated for this disparity in trips to victory lane. Burton, after finishing 13th at Infineon last Sunday, has now finished inside the top 15 in each of the 16 races held so far this season. Conversely, Busch, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, has failed to crack the top 15 three times in ’08; and two of those finishes, a 38th at Martinsville and 43rd at Pocono, certainly negated some of the points advantage received through his series-leading win total.
Burton’s solid top-15 runs just are not as glamorous as a string of wins; but there’s no doubt that they score a lot of points, and will easily get a driver into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. And once that 10-race battle begins, it truly does become any of the 12 eligible drivers’ title to win… or lose. Even with the newly instituted bonuses being awarded for wins during the first 26 races of the season, no playoff participant is so far behind he faces a deficit he cannot overcome. And based on Burton’s wealth of experience – he placed eighth in the final standings in 2007, and has made the Chase two years in a row – you can bet he won’t be standing down from the challenge anytime soon. Based on his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team’s continued improved performances this season, it is safe to assume that consistency will result in Burton being a legitimate contender for the championship.
And should Burton continue to perform to the point racing luck favors him in winning his first title, rest assured it would be without the media fanfare that would accompany a Kyle Busch or Earnhardt Jr. championship. Burton, though recognized as a consummate professional by his peers, just doesn’t operate in a manner that garners a lot of attention. His driving style and philosophy is similar to that of longtime Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin, whom Burton teamed with for more than eight years – a methodical and patient approach to driving that, more often than not, will pay off in good finishes and consistent opportunities to race for the lead in the final laps of an event.
But staying out of trouble to be there at the end simply is not as exciting to the fans and sports writers as some of the “hot shoes” of today, drivers that gain their on-track success through a belief that it is better to push their equipment to the front as quickly as possible. These hard chargers race as if every lap is the last one – a style that is fair to say the current points leader employs, for better or for worse. It’s a “go for broke” approach to driving that the veteran Burton would probably never be able to adapt to; since the 2006 Daytona 500, the veteran has fallen out of a Cup race due to a wreck just once.
Those stats support a conservatism for Burton that was born out of the necessity to simply survive during the first few years of his career. Simply put, there was no driver development program for drivers of Burton’s era as they fought to become noticed and rise into the NASCAR Cup series. Burton – and others such as his mentor Martin – struggled to show their abilities in underfunded and inferior equipment during the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, drivers such as Kyle Busch were provided championship-caliber organizations from the start – complete with cars that ran faster, handled better, and could be driven flat out every lap. These youngsters had the hot rods they needed as they campaigned in NASCAR’s lower divisions and, in short order, catapulted into NASCAR’s top division on the strength of the equipment and engineering underneath them.
Well, that’s a far cry from the poorly funded family project Burton first was a part of once he entered the former Busch Series in 1986. He had racecars woefully lacking in speed, and there were many times they needed nursing simply to gain a decent, and much-needed, payday. Taking care of the equipment and staying out of trouble is all that Burton knew through the early years of his career – optimum performance was replaced by the cold reality of simple perseverance.
Those early struggles have led to developing a driver whose even-keeled demeanor always outshines his on-track effort. Burton is “rock solid,” not prone to creating or being involved in controversial situations that may shine a negative light on him or meet with significant outrage from the public. Rarely have fellow competitors felt the need to point an accusatory finger at the 1994 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year for committing flagrant misdeeds. Nor does Burton engage in “calling out” other drivers publicly; in fact, he is known to, on occasion, resolve his differences with a competitor man-to-man – away from the cameras and in a civil yet assertive manner.
Though fans debate the opposing on-track approaches to racing employed by a driver like Busch versus the more conservative driving manner of Burton, one thing remains clear: Kyle Busch’s “flat-out” style is more apt to create a much larger media stir when winning and when wrecking due to his more aggressive nature behind the wheel. Either way, the Las Vegas native and younger brother of 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch provides fodder for the sports media outlets that others quietly going about their business just can’t provide.
It may be that Burton is just too “vanilla” to ever be a media superstar. When interviewed, instead of acidic responses laced with words such as “sucked” and “crap,” Burton provides reporters with well thought out, clear, and concise answers, responding without any intended malice towards the sport or its participants. Yet, it seems that it is not this mature, deliberate, and professional conduct on and off the track that captures the sport’s immediate attention – at least for now.
But as evidenced by Burton’s pal Martin’s ever growing popularity, being steady and true will win out in the end. Like Martin, Burton has never achieved a Cup championship; he has come close, finishing third in points during Bobby Labonte‘s championship season of 2000. Though not comparable to Martin’s four runner-up finishes, in 14 full seasons of racing in the series, seven times Burton has finished inside the top 10. Certainly, a case could be made that he “is due.”
Predicting who the 2008 Sprint Cup champion will be after the first 16 races of the season would be fool-hearty, to say the least. With that in mind, should Kyle Busch put together a string of wins, as he has proven capable of, during the season-ending 10-race championship Chase, he would undoubtedly be the favorite to win the title. However, if Busch should stumble – as is known to happen to drivers that employ a “go for broke” philosophy – look for the steady Jeff Burton to win the 2008 Sprint Cup championship through persistence and measured patience.
And if that happened, there’s no doubt he’d be a champion that could be counted on to represent the sport well.
And that’s my view from turn 5.