NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton

2011 Ride: No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
2011 Primary Sponsors: Caterpillar (33 races), CAT Financial (2 races), Caterpillar Global Mining (1 race)
2011 Owner: Richard Childress
2011 Crew Chief: Todd Berrier (Daytona 500 – Loudon in July), Luke Lambert (Indianapolis in July – Homestead)
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 20th in points

High Point: In an uncharacteristically poor year which saw Burton and company flounder outside the top 20 in points for the majority of the season, there are only a handful of races that can be considered when choosing the high point. The event that clearly stands out from the pack for Burton is the Good Sam 500 at Talladega.

With help from teammate Clint Bowyer, the No. 31 team led 26 circuits, second only to Tony Stewart, including the white-flag lap. However, as is so often the case at restrictor-plate races, Bowyer turned from friend to foe when the checkered was in sight, speeding by his RCR stablemate to take the victory. While second place is often viewed as the first loser, it must have felt like a win to Burton after a year devoid of finishing up front.

It was not only the best result for the Virginia native since his runner-up performance at Dover in the fall of 2010, but it also appeared to return the entire CAT team to relevance after falling far off the radar for most of 2011. Burton eventually closed with top-10 finishes in four of the last five races, spurred to success in part by such a strong day at ‘Dega.

Low Point: The entire No. 31 team performed miserably throughout the first 19 events of the season, providing a plethora of options to select from for this category. However, the low point may not necessary be losing an engine in three of the most prestigious races of the year (Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400) or coming dangerously close to the Top-35 points bubble to start the season.

Instead, the low point may have come after the checkered flag flew at Homestead, when owner Richard Childress chose to replace interim crew chief Luke Lambert with Roush Fenway transplant Drew Blickensderfer. Lambert guided this team to its first top-10 finish of the season in only his third race atop the pit box. The momentum would continue on, as the new crew chief/driver duo would score four more top-10 finishes and charge into the top 20 in points.

Yet for reasons unclear, Childress chose to replace Lambert with the mildly successful Blickensderfer, who has spent virtually the last decade working on Fords. The chemistry built between driver and crew chief in the final third of the season appears to be lost.

Summary: Burton hoped to begin his 18th full-time season at the Sprint Cup level by shaking off a dreadful playoff performance from the previous year that saw the Virginian record only three top-15 finishes in the Chase. Instead, the team suffered from a 2010 hangover that lead to poor finishes well past the halfway mark of 2011. With the Chase far out of reach, crew chief and longtime RCR employee Todd Berrier was canned, a move meant to inject life into the team just before Indianapolis in July.

Enter Luke Lambert, a young, innovative engineer-turned-freshman on top of the box who breathed new life into Burton and crew. Lambert not only led the team to five top-10 finishes in 17 races, but seemed to relish having the role of having nothing to lose. The 28-year old North Carolina State graduate stuck his neck out, consistently making aggressive pit calls and two-tire stops to put his driver in position to win. Lambert also risked stretching the fuel mileage at Texas, a November gamble which resulted in Burton holding the top position until five laps remaining when the tank finally ran dry.

The CAT team finished the season with four top-10 finishes in the final five races and was a few fuel drops away from making it five straight. The charge catapulted Burton from 23rd to 20th in points and, more importantly, restored confidence in the veteran driver.

Team Ranking: Fourth out of four. Burton was at least the third-best RCR car down the stretch, outperforming new teammate Paul Menard. However, when looking at the season as a whole, Burton and company were clearly at the bottom of the totem pole, the only Childress entry not to record a win in 2011. Furthermore, the veteran’s total of five top-10 finishes registered as the lowest since his second season in Cup (1995).

Off-Track News: In an unlikely match, Jeff Burton, one of the most level headed drivers in the garage area paired up with Chad Ochocinco, one of the more boisterous players in the NFL for a lesson in NASCAR racing. Enjoying his “downtime” during the lockout last July, Ochocinco rode with Burton at Atlanta Motor Speedway then received a pit stop lesson from the crew of the No. 31 Chevy. The event was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter, First Take and NASCAR Now.

On the business side of things, in April, the team announced that it signed a multi-year extension with both Caterpillar and Burton, surely a welcome development in the midst of the economic environment that has plagued several teams in the sport.

2012 Outlook: Next season will be a difficult one to predict for Burton. Despite his strong finish to 2011, the Virginian once again will be listening to a new voice over the radio when Drew Blickensderfer takes over as head wrench. While not an “A” level candidate, the veteran does have some significant accomplishments on his resume, including leading Matt Kenseth to a 2009 Daytona 500 victory and David Ragan to his maiden win at the same track last July. However, Blick was not able to lead either driver to consistent enough finishes to make the Chase, and consistency is what Burton usually thrives on.

In the end, expect this team to improve and perhaps snag a victory, but ultimately come up short of the making the Chase in 2012.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: B
2008 Grade: A-
2009 Grade: B-
2010 Grade: B
2011 Grade: C

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