As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prepares to race at its only New England venue this week, talk is also heating up about Silly Season. As drivers and sponsors begin to make moves (Matt Kenseth has already announced that he will be leaving Roush Fenway Racing for an as-of-yet undisclosed team, while sponsor U.S. Army has declared its plans to leave NASCAR racing at the end of the year), there are always questions. After the Army announcement earlier this week, Ryan Newman is suddenly in the midst of the talk, while in the background, quiet speculation has been made about the career of another veteran driver, Jeff Burton.
Both Burton and Newman are returning to a racetrack that fueled talk of championships to come. A year ago this weekend, Newman was standing in New Hampshire’s victory lane for the third time after leading 119 of 301 laps in a convincing performance. Newman also has New Hampshire wins in the fall race in 2002 and again in 2005. These represent three of Newman’s 16 Cup wins since joining the series in 2002, when Newman beat Jimmie Johnson for the Rookie of the Year title and seemed to be on the fast track to NASCAR greatness.
It was Newman’s qualifying prowess that first turned heads. He won his first pole in May of 2001 at Charlotte, a full eight months before his rookie campaign officially began. In his rookie season, Newman took the top starting spot six times, including his Loudon win in September, the first victory of his career. A year later, Newman won eleven poles and eight races, and it looked as though Newman, not Johnson, was going to start raking in titles in no time, and there was a quietly growing rivalry between the two. At the end of 2003, Newman had the numbers: 18 poles and nine wins to Johnson’s six poles and six victories. Surely it was only a matter of time before Newman finally delivered Roger Penske a Cup title.
But perhaps Jeff Burton’s tale should have been a cautionary one for Newman and his fans.
Like Newman, Burton is a former Cup Rookie of the Year (1994) whom everyone said was on the highway to the championship for then-car owner Jack Roush. While he didn’t rack up the numbers Newman did in his early seasons, by 1997, Burton could boast a season with three wins and 18 top-10 finishes. Like Newman, Burton found fast success at New Hampshire, winning there four times, including three summer races in a row from 1997 to 1999. From 1997 to 2000, Burton was a fixture in the top 5 in then-Winston Cup points, and was considered a shoo-in for a championship. There was no way he wasn’t going to get one the way he was running. By the end of 2000, Burton had 15 Cup wins.
And then came 2001. Burton won twice, but dropped to 10th in the standings. Longtime sponsor Exide had been priced out of the series as a primary sponsor, replaced by Citgo. Burton raced in the Roush No. 99 for three more years, but went winless from 2002-2004, finishing no better than 12th in the standings.
And then came the sponsor woes. In 2004, the No. 99 was fully sponsored, but by a hodge-podge of companies, not a single strong entity. And as the uncertainty grew, it became clear that Burton would move on, which he did in 2005, to Richard Childress Racing. By 2006, Burton was back in the top 10 in points and the speculation about a championship returned, but Burton would not crack the top 5 again after 2000.
Newman’s career has been, in many ways, similar to Burton’s. In the top seven in points in each of his first four seasons at the Cup level, Newman has only broken into the top 10 in final standings twice since, when he finished ninth in 2009 and 10th in 2011, never quite able to duplicate that early success. At age 34, Newman is at a bit of a crossroads, like Burton was when he left Roush after 2004. He’s still young enough that he has time to make a championship bid (actually, he’s three years younger than Burton was) but no longer young enough to be considered an up-and-comer. He’s a series veteran who can win races, but his days of being the next big thing in Cup racing are behind him. The wins that once came fast and furiously have tapered off; Newman hasn’t had a multiple win season since 2004. He qualifies well and will finish races and take home the win sometimes, and that still makes Newman a valuable commodity, as it has Burton for many years.
At 45, Jeff Burton is no longer the young driver that showed so much promise. He’s still got some years and some wins left in him, but there is no longer talk of when, not if, he’ll win the championship. Burton made the Chase in 2009, but is in a difficult spot at Richard Childress Racing. RCR has never thrived with four teams, and even if the team does expand at the end of 2013 for Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon, there’s still brother Ty waiting in the wings, and the most logical person for one of the Dillon brothers to replace is Burton. Kevin Harvick is likely to stick around and while Paul Menard lacks Burton’s talent, he has a guaranteed sponsor in the chain of stores owned by his family.
The sad reality is that Burton is unlikely to land a top ride the way Mark Martin did late in his career at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s more likely that he’ll wind up with a mid-tier team, and then retire without fanfare as his son Harrison moves up the racing ranks. And while it _is_ sad because Burton never quite matched the predictions, it’s not a terrible ending to a long and outstanding career. In a way, not having that past champion’s provisional is a good thing because it won’t drag out the inevitable for years too long. But a part of each observer of Burton’s early career will always wonder what went wrong.
Newman still has time left to make a statement in the sport, but if he signs a contract with a team for more than one year, that step will likely be the one that seals his fate since title hopes do decrease dramatically after age 40. Newman would like to stay at Stewart Haas Racing and Tony Stewart would like to have him, but with sponsorship uncertain, that door could close, leaving Newman little chance at landing the type of ride that could take him to the championship that everyone expected. Hendrick Motorsports has four championship-caliber drivers already locked into long term contracts. RCR already has more drivers than seats in the next few years. Roush Fenway Racing is struggling to fund three teams and just let a proven champion go after this season. Joe Gibbs Racing may add a fourth team, but all indications are that if they do that, Matt Kenseth will fill the seat. Penske Racing…well, Newman has been there, done that.
Which leaves teams such as Richard Petty Motorsports or Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing…teams with which Newman could win races and fill the role of team leader-an exciting prospect in itself for many drivers-but is unlikely to contend for a title. If reports of Michael Andretti forming a NASCAR team come to fruition, Newman could be a good fit there as a veteran presence. If nothing materializes in those arenas, there are still possibilities, but they’re teams like JTG-Daugherty or Germain…decent in their own right, but not a big blip on the radar of most fans…or sponsors.
Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton…though both are at different stages of their respective careers, each has found more than his share of past success at New Hampshire. With the series making that northward swing this week, a visit to Victory Lane isn’t out of question for either…in fact both should be on any list of favorites to take the checkers first on Sunday. And both need it. With the win, Burton would show that he’s still very much relevant. With another trophy, Newman could prove his worth to a sponsor who could keep him in his ride. The time is now…and for two very different drivers whose careers show remarkable similarities, there is no better place for now to come than Loudon, New Hampshire.