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A Year to Savor for NASCAR's Jeff Burton

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ They were calling Jeff Burton the ``Ice Man'' three weeks ago, all but conceding the Nextel Cup title to the driver who could do no wrong in NASCAR's Chase for the championship.

The nickname was meant as a compliment, a nod to Burton's smooth and steady approach through the first five weeks of the Chase.

It turned out to be more like a curse.

Nothing has gone right for Burton since those words were uttered, when rival after rival tabbed him as the driver to beat.

First it was a blown engine, then a poorly timed caution. His championship hopes finally exploded 90 laps into Sunday's race when his tire popped, sending him hard into the wall at Texas Motor Speedway.

``That pretty much does it for us unless something crazy happens,'' Burton said.

And just like that, Burton's dreamlike season is over. He's now seventh in the standings, 184 points out of the lead with two races to go. He could certainly close the deficit on leader Jimmie Johnson over the final two weeks, but the odds of the five other drivers in front of him all collapsing are about as good as Dale Earnhardt Jr. boycotting Budweiser beer.

So it's not going to happen this year for Burton, who likely left Texas bitterly disappointed about his rotten luck.

But Burton is a realist, and after he's had a day or two to accept his fate, he'll surely recognize what a wonderful and resurgent year it has been. This will undoubtedly go down as the year Burton got his groove back.

Remember, nobody predicted anything good happening to him this year, and anyone who claims to have picked Burton to contend for the title is probably lying. After all, he went 175 races without a victory during a five-year drought. A driver once part of NASCAR's elite was now a driver many believed had lost the nerve to race for victories.

His confidence was shattered. Burton admits he was too embarrassed to look the Jeff Gordons of the sport in the eye. And when he couldn't turn things around at powerhouse Roush Racing, where all his teammates were contending for titles, he left to join an organization that was struggling just as much as he was.

What looked like a sad, desperate decision to join Richard Childress Racing actually turned out to be the perfect pairing.

The two joined forces to jump-start both Burton's career and the once-proud organization, and hit pay dirt in their second full season together. RCR put two drivers in the Chase this season _ after missing it completely in its first two years _ and Burton finally found himself running up front again.

Of course once there, it sometimes seemed as if he needed a road map to find his way back to Victory Lane. He led so many times this season in the middle to late stages of a race, only to hit a setback when the win was his for the taking.

But it all finally clicked in Dover, Del., during Round 2 of the Chase, when Burton used a dramatic late pass on Matt Kenseth to grab the checkered flag for the first time since the 2001 season. That win put him on top of the points standings, where he stayed for an entire month.

During those four weeks, Burton proved a remarkable points racer. Focused on the big picture, he overcame every hiccup to salvage a decent finish and solidify his spot atop the leaderboard.

Alas, it all came crashing down in a fraction of the time it took him to get there. The title was his for the taking, and when he reached his hand out, it was cruelly yanked from his reach.

Still, things could be worse for Burton. He could be back to where he was three seasons ago, stuck in a rut and wondering if he'd forgotten how to drive. Or he could be his brother, Ward, who spent the past two years out of racing entirely and is now banging down doors trying to get back in.

So the best thing for Burton is to allow himself to enjoy this year. He was back on top again, which is where he flourishes. Well-spoken and intelligent, he's the sport's ideal ambassador. And now that he's competitive again, he's an automatic go-to guy for any event, appearance or issue.

Burton also understands how fleeting these moments are, and how cyclical careers can be. And when all is said and done, this season will be one he won't forget. Not because of the championship he lost, but everything he won along the way.
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