As the first press conferences of the day from Lowe’s Motor Speedway unfolded, no one was surprised to hear the recent controversies of Talladega repeatedly mentioned. Be it the yellow line pass of Regan Smith or Carl Edwards’s bump-draft that took out two fellow Roushketeers, there was certainly plenty to ask about from Sunday.
But what was perhaps unexpectedly prevalent was discussion by fellow drivers of their perceptions of an emerging Chase darkhorse from that race – fourth-place finisher and points man Jeff Burton. It’s a sign of how Burton remains the steady veteran in this Chase, a man whose presence demands that no one forgets his possible impact.
Burton was the first driver to speak in the media center this afternoon, and his remarks were both insightful and outspoken, just as all race fans have come to expect. He professed his enjoyment of racing at LMS. He questioned the ability of some drivers to let wrecks at tracks like Talladega and Martinsville just go (“Wrecks don’t just happen by themselves, they are caused by the drivers.”) He referred to anyone that questioned whether Jeff Gordon has slid as a driver as someone who “lost their mind.”
And he was perhaps clearest of all as to his chances at scoring a Cup out of this year’s Chase.
“They’ve (the No. 48 team) done it better than what we have, and we just got to go knock them off [their perch],” he said. “We can’t ask them nicely to give it to us, we just got to go take it from them. That’s what we’ve got to go do.”
There’s no question that Burton and his No. 31 team are aware of the challenge ahead to claim the title. But there seems to be question among his fellow competitors as to whether or not others even have a shot at stopping Jimmie Johnson’s push for a three-peat. When asked if this Chase was simply Johnson’s to lose, Greg Biffle responded simply, “I think that’s clear.”
Matt Kenseth was more optimistic that the No. 48 could be overcome.
“In my book, the [No.] 48 is probably pretty heavily the favorite right now, but [72 is] not a lot of points, and you know one flat tire or one broken part can change the way the whole thing looks. I hope Greg [Biffle] and Carl [Edwards] can get back in it, and hopefully have a tight race down to the end.”
Note that Burton didn’t come to Kenseth’s mind, despite being fourth in points and only 99 out of the lead. Perhaps most telling were the words of Burton’s RCR teammate, Kevin Harvick. When questioned regarding Burton’s status as a threat to win the Cup title this season, Harvick bluntly stated, “You know, right now I think the No. 48 car is the car to beat, and I think it’s theirs to lose.”
Not every driver in the Chase, however, is discounting Burton – and that includes Johnson himself.
“I absolutely believe that Jeff Burton is a threat for this championship,” he said. “He’s far from a push-over.”
And while fellow Chasers were not in consensus regarding Burton’s contender status, his character remains above reproach.
Said Johnson of his fellow competitor, “He is a man of his word. He races people with respect. He acts that way through the garage area.”
Johnson recalls an incident from 2004 in which Burton plowed over Johnson’s Chevrolet late in the running at Martinsville as a prime example.
“He comes in the garage area, comes into the transporter after the race, through all my guys who are just as mad at him as I am. Walked through and came up to me and said, “‘Hey, I am not making up any excuses, I ran you over and I thought I should be here as a man and tell you that I meant to move you out of the way. Sorry I got so rough with you, but I intended to do that.’”
“I thought, well, at least he didn’t lie to me and say,’ Hey buddy, I didn’t mean to do that.’ So I have a lot of respect for him.”
Teammate Harvick was even more complimentary.
“You know, Jeff Burton is one of the best people you’ll ever meet no matter if you’re in the garage or just in everyday life.”
“I think Jeff Burton’s helped me more as a person than he’s helped me as a racecar driver, and that’s more rewarding than anything that you can do.”
Harvick referred to Burton as a man who knows how to make things work. And while it remains to be seen whether Burton and his No. 31 team can work their 2008 campaign into a championship, there’s no doubt that as a racer, a teammate, and a man, Jeff Burton has certainly made his career in NASCAR racing work.