LOUDON, N.H.—What is this newfound bravado we’re seeing in Jeff Burton?
Fresh from his first top-three finish since July 2012 at Daytona—and his first at a non-restrictor-plate race track since the 2010 Chase race at Dover—Burton strides into the media center at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and starts talking about making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
That’s right, the Chase—the 10-race championship battle reserved for the top 12 drivers in the series after a regular season of 26 races. After finishing third in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Burton is 17th in points.
So is Burton just high on life after running third when he talks confidently about the Chase? He has seven races to make up seven positions before the Chase field is set at Richmond.
“We don’t think we’re out of the Chase,” Burton said. “I know everybody else in the world does, but we don’t. We feel like we can still do it. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen between now and Richmond.
“It’s so competitive, so tight. … Everybody is racing each other that’s racing for those spots, and if we can get on one of those streaks that I used to get on, we can make it—and we intend to. I know it’s a long shot, but I think we can.”
You heard him. He’s serious—really. This is a guy who acknowledges that, collectively, he and his No. 31 team haven’t really been pulling their weight at Richard Childress Racing for the past few years.
Nevertheless, the interesting thing is that there are plenty of reasons why the rest of us should take Burton seriously when he asserts that a Chase spot is a realistic goal.
First of all, Burton’s relationship with crew chief Luke Lambert is starting to bear fruit, and the addition of Eric Warren as RCR’s director of competition has made a difference.
Lambert, 30, is relatively new to the role of Sprint Cup crew chief. Heck, the baby-faced Lambert is relatively new to shaving. But he and Burton, one of the most respected veterans in the Sprint Cup garage, have bonded this year, Lambert’s first as a full-time crew chief at NASCAR’s highest level.
“Half the people on this team are new,” Burton said. “We’re so new to each other, and we got off to a start of the year where we were not running as well as we need to, and if there was a wreck on the race track, I was in it. I couldn’t miss a wreck to save my life.
“And all that stuff drove us back in the points, but most of it was … a lot of the point thing was we just didn’t have any luck.”
According to Burton, the No. 31 team’s fortunes and performance began to turn at Charlotte nearly two months ago, and the numbers bear that out. Only once since Darlington in early May has Burton finished outside of the top 20. In five of his last eight races, Burton has finished in the top 12, culminating with the third-place run at Loudon.
“We’ve been running a lot better the last two months,” Burton said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we’re the class of the field, but we’re definitely making progress, and we feel like we’re starting to build on something—and we understand what we’re looking for now.”
Now that teammate Kevin Harvick’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing, along with sponsor Budweiser, is signed, sealed, delivered and announced, and now that Harvick has begun to say how much he looks forward to driving Hendrick equipment at Stewart-Haas, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a shift in emphasis of the Childress organization more heavily toward the efforts of Burton, whose contract with RCR runs through 2014.
So if you want to dismiss Burton’s chances of making the Chase, do so at your own peril. After all, Burton is only 25 points behind 10th-place Kasey Kahne, and the movement within the standings has never been more volatile.
Yes, Burton will have to negotiate Watkins Glen, and road courses have not been his favorite milieu. His worst finish in the last eight races came at Sonoma, where he ran 31st. On the other hand, Burton has two ninth-place results in his last three races at the Glen, which is faster and less technical than Sonoma.
If Burton is still in the mix come Richmond, as he is likely to be, remember that he ran fifth there in April, his only other top five so far this year. Who knows what another fifth-place run there might accomplish with a Chase spot in the balance?
Realistically, anyone outside the top 10 without a win is an underdog to make the Chase, but as confident as Burton is that he can get the job done, it would be a mistake to bet against him.