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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Jeff Burton May Finally Be Back

If there is a Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR, it may be Jeff Burton.

He doesn’t have the Cups that the glory brothers at Hendrick Motorsports have. He doesn’t have the name recognition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He doesn’t polarize the media like Tony Stewart. He won’t even be repeatedly pronounced the best driver to never win a championship, or be called the “sentimental favorite” as long as Mark Martin is alive, since Mark will probably race for another 10 years.

So maybe we can proclaim Burton to be “the best driver to perform under the radar for the longest amount of time” or something like that.

In Burton’s long career he has put up 21 wins, but more importantly 222 top 10s – almost half of his starts, and that includes unsponsored years and his years with Stavola Brothers Racing. Fans groan about points racing, but a guy that can consistently put up good points finishes is going to do very well, even in this era of the Chase (part of Jimmie Johnson’s success has been few DNFs). This is a by-product of a driver who can take care of his stuff and be competitive on lap 200.

The pilot of the Caterpillar No. 31 may not have ever been down to the wire in a championship hunt, but he hasn’t been someone to write off either. Throughout his career, Burton has been among the best of the drivers on his respective teams, save for a difficult era with Roush Racing when sponsorship was tough and Jack seemed more determined to help his young guns excel.

From 1997-2000, Burton was putting up numbers that today would guarantee him a top ride and sponsorship even without posing for a swimsuit spread. He finished in the top five in the standings all four seasons, and this was before the Chase, when finishing in the top five meant a driver ran well every week all season. In 1998 and 1999, Burton finished more than half the races in the top five, and only in 1997 did Burton score fewer than 22 top-10 finishes, with 18.

During this time period, only Martin put up similar numbers in a Roush Ford, with 14 wins and three top-three finishes in the standings. Guys like Kevin Lepage and Chad Little weren’t even close.

Burton’s less successful years after this remarkable run came at a time when Jack Roush was attempting to prop up his star young drivers, guys named Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Jack certainly isn’t to blame for that, since both have worked out pretty well. But something hurt the performance of the 99 team at this point, and it didn’t help that Jack had to juggle sponsorships for five cars. When CITGO left the No. 99, Roush didn’t (or couldn’t) transfer a sponsor from another team, and Burton was forced to drive a white No. 99 car for a year and a half before leaving Roush. I don’t know how much of a factor this played in the lesser finishes Burton scored at the time, but it had to have been demoralizing for the whole team.

People talked about the advantage Jack Roush had with multiple cars and NASCAR enforced a misguided rule against it starting this year, but it wasn’t always thus. When Biffle and Kenseth were added to the Roush stable, Burton’s performance began to suffer, and with lack of sponsorship piled on top of it, his departure for Childress was certainly understandable.

Sponsorship, inexplicably, has frequently been a problem for one of the most likable, uncontroversial and successful drivers in the sport. Following CITGO’s departure and no replacement at Roush, there was the AT&T vs. Nextel mess, which when all was said and done led to departure of two sponsors that struggling teams could use right now. Fortunately the fine folks at Caterpillar already knew the benefits of sponsoring a Burton, and so the recognizable CAT logo now adorns the No. 31 car.

Burton moved up five places in the points standings from 23rd to 18th after leaving Roush for Richard Childress Racing in the middle of 2004. This was in a season where Jack Roush placed three drivers in the Chase, one of whom would become the Cup champion. Since then Childress has struggled and Burton has struggled with them, but he has somehow managed to make every Chase with RCR except for 2005 (when there were only 10 drivers in it and seven of them drove for Roush and Roger Penske) and last season’s, when the entire RCR organization failed to make the playoffs.

Even in RCR’s lean years from 2007-2009, Burton has put his car near the top frequently enough – 21 top fives and 46 top 10s – to remind everyone that Richard Childress was down but not out.

It’s not quite a rule, but generally Roush Racing’s strength was at the intermediate tracks, while Childress seems to fare better at the short tracks. With both teams Burton has performed very well. Name the venue and Burton has gotten it done there, with wins at Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond Darlington, Daytona, Dover and Loudon with or without restrictor plates. At nearly every venue where NASCAR currently holds events, JB has scored at least five top-five finishes, with most of the exceptions being tracks the circuit only visits once a year.

Drivers that can put up consistent finishes like this are drivers that can not only win with a great car but can also find a way to run well with a car that is junk. If you can’t get someone that guarantees a sponsor for your ride, guys like Burton are the next best thing.

I’m not ready to declare RCR’s resurgence this season just yet. Roush Fenway looked world-beating after Fontana a year ago, and they ended up having a season that was well below their standard. We’ll see how well RCR runs when the weather warms up and the tracks get slicker. But thankfully, RCR does seem to have gotten back in the game for the moment, as my friend Danny Peters illustrated earlier this week. Three drivers in the top eight at Fontana is quite a step up from 2009.

And if that’s the case all season, watch for that No. 31 car to be in the hunt in the 2010 Chase. Martin’s not the only hungry veteran out there.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Danica Patrick’s foray into NASCAR thus far reminds me of Fred Thompson’s 2008 presidential campaign. All the hype about whether he would or wouldn’t when everyone knew he would; and then he turned out to be not quite as skilled in the arena as advertised, even though I liked Fred. I’m not listening to the “she still needs to learn stock cars” argument. Sorry, that’s not something to learn in the second-biggest racing series on earth. If she wants to race there with this kind of hype, she should produce results and expect criticism when she doesn’t.
  • Speaking of the Nationwide Series, I sincerely hope the tire situation has improved since last year’s event, when the biggest stars in the series crashed on Cup tires and there were two red flags. No thanks.
  • I loved Kevin Harvick’s line after the Fontana race about the No. 48 team having a golden horseshoe in their rectum. Sometimes it sure seems that way. Then again, having seen some strange pit calls turn into gold for Johnson, I can envision Chad Knaus calculating exactly how long it would take before Brad Keselowski spun out.
  • Is it me or is there a lack of energy in the FOX broadcast booth? Sometimes it seems like they’re overtrying to sell the sport this year. And I’m hearing lots of dead-air spots, something I’m not used to with DW and Larry Mac in the booth. At least we’re seeing less of the gopher.