CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ For all those people ready to hand Jeff Burton the championship trophy with five races to go, the veteran driver has some friendly advice: Not so fast.
``We've done a nice job of positioning ourselves,'' Burton said. ``At the same time, I'm pretty sure that these other guys aren't just going to say, `He's got the lead so we'll give him the championship.' I'm sure they're going to race every week.''
After a hard-earned third-place finish in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway _ the halfway point in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup championship _ Burton is leading 2003 champion Matt Kenseth by 45 points heading to next Sunday's race at Martinsville.
Six other drivers are within 160 points of the leader, and even Jeff Gordon, who fell to last in the 10-man, 10-race playoff because of an engine failure, is still mathematically alive, despite trailing by 216 points.
But Kasey Kahne, who won the race, and runner-up Jimmie Johnson are still seventh and eighth in the standings and didn't make up that much ground on Burton, who still leads Kahne by 160 points and Johnson by 146.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished third, gained one spot to fifth in the standings but remained 106 points behind _ exactly the margin he took into the race.
``We didn't get to gain on the new Ice Man, Jeff Burton,'' Earnhardt said, shrugging. ``They are there every week doing a great job. He's not indestructible, but this guy knows how to win championships.''
Burton has been leading the standings since winning at Dover in the second race of the Chase, and his consistency has made him the odds-on favorite to give Richard Childress Racing its first Cup title since the late Dale Earnhardt won the last of his seven championships in 1994.
A week ago at Talladega, Burton had his worst day in the Chase. He had to pit with a flat tire with nine laps remaining while running fifth and wound up 27th. That tightened up the points considerably.
But bad nights for Kenseth (a loose wheel that cost him two laps early in the race), Mark Martin (crash while running in the top 10), RCR teammate Kevin Harvick (racing at the end with only fourth gear), Denny Hamlin (heavy crash on the first lap) and Gordon left Burton still very much in charge.
Not that the race at the suburban Charlotte track was easy for Burton, either.
First, the longtime NASCAR star having a resurgent season made an uncharacteristic mistake, killing the engine on his No. 31 Chevrolet after overreving leaving the pits. That put him a lap down and cost him any shot at winning the race.
Burton got his lap back with the help of a caution flag then got a big scare when his car developed a nasty vibration after his final pit stop.
``We put a set on Thursday (in practice) that shook so bad I told them that something was going to fall off the car,'' Burton said. ``We took the tire to Goodyear and they rebalanced it and we put it back on the car and it was all good.
``Tonight, when I drove into turn one, they dropped the green flag and, I mean, it shook. It shook enough where it scared me and I screamed `We got a wheel loose! We got a wheel loose!' And they said, `We do not have a wheel loose. We know we got them tight.' ``
Burton put his trust in the words of crew chief Scott Miller and held the gas pedal to the floor to the finish, making a strong outside pass on Earnhardt for third place near the end.
``It probably wasn't very smart to keep running, but I was banking that we had the same deal that we had Thursday,'' he said. ``I would have pitted and lost a lot of positions and points without that experience.''
That's just the way things have been going for Burton.
Kahne, who trailed by 273 points after finishing 33rd three weeks ago at Kansas, has made up considerable ground with consecutive finishes of second and first. But Burton isn't making it easy for anybody to play catch-up.
``He ran another great race,'' Kahne said. ``If he keeps running great races, you're not going to be able to catch him.''