Jeff Burton is back in chase once again
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
Jeff Burton is still chasing a championship. And he hasn't gotten dirty.
Almost 40 years old and nearly three years after a team switch that had some writing off the once up-and-coming star, Burton is only eight points behind Jeff Gordon for the Nextel Cup points lead.
"I feel like I'm new at it again," said Burton, in his 14th Cup season. "My enthusiasm is as high as it's ever been, my excitement is as high as it's ever been and I hope that people look at me and say I can do it again."
Burton's coming off his first victory of the season at Texas, where his only lead came after he passed former Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth on the backstretch of the final lap.
Instead of trying to push Kenseth out of the way on the closing laps, Burton raced clean and waited for his chance to pass. It was the same strategy he used last month at Bristol's short track, when he refused to bump Kyle Busch on the last turn and finished second.
"Racing for the win with Burton is the same as racing for the win with Mark [Martin]. You know the guys are going to give you room, you know they are going to race you fair," Kenseth said. "But they're going to drive it for everything it's worth."
Two-time winner in Texas
Burton became the first two-time winner in the 13 Nextel Cup races at Texas, where in 1997 he got the first of his 19 career victories in the inaugural race on the 11/2-mile, high-banked track.
When Burton won at Texas a decade ago, it was the first of 17 victories for Roush over a five-season span (1997-2001). He finished in the top five in season points four times and was 10th the other.
By 2004, his ninth season with Roush, Burton was racing without a primary sponsor. After 22 races that year, Burton left Roush for Childress and was replaced in the No. 99 by up-and-coming Carl Edwards, who won four races the following season.
"We were contending for championships and then things got to the point when we couldn't contend at all," Burton said. "We were 12th in points, 12th in points and then 18th. Everyone wrote that off as disgusting, but if you look at the whole scheme of things, it wasn't that bad."
Off to good start
Now in his third full season with Richard Childress Racing, Burton has finished lower than sixth only once in the first seven races. That was a 15th-place finish at Las Vegas after a late penalty for going on pit row when it was closed.
His next race is Saturday in Phoenix, where Burton has won twice -- including his last victory for Roush in October 2001.
With Burton, Childress finally might have another championship contender. Childress last won a title in 1994 when the late Dale Earnhardt won the last of his seven season championships -- six of them for Childress.
"It's the best I've ever gotten off to a start. I'm sure Richard has gotten off to a better start with Earnhardt," Burton said. "I can't imagine getting off to a better start."
Battles with Gordon
Only Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, can match Burton's six top-10 finishes this season. Both have finished in the top five in all but two races.
The area in which Gordon has dominated is laps led. Gordon led 173 of 334 laps at Texas and has run out front for 404 laps, leading at least once in every race except the season-opening Daytona 500.
Burton led only one lap at Texas, the one that mattered. He has led only 25 laps all season.
"We need a little more speed," Burton said. "There are areas that we've got to be better in. But from a finish standpoint and a consistency standpoint, it's consistently finishing in the top six. That's really hard to do. We've found a way to do that."
Last season, Burton got into the 10-race Chase for the championship without winning a race before then. He then led the standings for four consecutive weeks after winning at Dover, but an engine failure at Martinsville led to a 42nd-place finish. That knocked Burton out of title contention with four races left, and he wound up seventh in points.
This season, Burton quickly has re-established himself as a contender.
"We get such a great effort out of Jeff Burton every weekend, that makes our job a lot easier to put in the long hours and go the extra mile," crew chief Scott Miller said. "Because we know he's going to do that every time he straps into that car."
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