CONCORD, N.C. (AP) _ Jeff Burton's troubles appeared to be over two weeks ago in Richmond.
He pulled his Ford to the inside of Jeremy Mayfield for the lead, but lost control and spun. That mistake dropped him to the rear of the field, and he finished 14th.
``I think you take a race like that for the good and the bad,'' Burton said Thursday. ``We had a really good car at Richmond and ran up front and performed well, then we go all the way to the back with the spin.''
Burton used to come to each track, particularly Lowe's Motor Speedway, as one of the favorites.
He won 17 races in a five-year span, and finished a career-best third in the final Nextel Cup standings in 2000. Two of those victories came in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's.
But since winning at Phoenix in October 2001, Burton has gone 87 races without a victory. He has only eight top-five finishes in the past two seasons.
``We just haven't done what we needed to do lately,'' Burton said. ``You have to put yourself in position to take advantage of any break you get, and we just haven't done that.''
So far in 2004, he has only one top-10 finish, a seventh at Talladega, and he comes into Sunday night's 600 29th in the standings. He qualified 34th as Jimmie Johnson, the last of 52 drivers to make his attempt, set a track record to edge Ryan Newman for the top qualifying spot Thursday night.
Johnson ran 187.052 mph _ about 0.02 seconds better than Newman _ for his first pole of the season.
``The way I got through Turns 1 and 2, I knew the car was really hooked up,'' Johnson said. ``I got a little loose in Turn 3 and had to pause on the gas pedal, and I was a little nervous coming off Turn 4.
``I told the guys, 'Let me know if I've got this thing.' Shortly thereafter, I heard screaming and yelling, so I figured that was good enough.''
Newman, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler and rookie Brian Vickers rounded out the top five. Matt Kenseth, who won the Nextel All-Star Challenge at Lowe's last week, ended up 37th, and points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 10th.
Burton wound up 34th. What makes his descent over the past couple of seasons even more striking is the success of his teammates, Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
Kenseth won the Nextel Cup title last season, using a consistent run that included a series-best 25 top-10 finishes. Busch had four victories _ a total second only to Ryan Newman _ and wound up one spot ahead of Burton in the standings in 11th.
Even rookie Greg Biffle won a race, using fuel mileage to pull off a bit of an upset in July at Daytona.
Only Burton and Mark Martin went winless with Roush.
``We just didn't have what the other cars had,'' Burton said. ``Not that it wasn't available to us, but we didn't use what they did. Hopefully, we can use that information and get our stuff better.''
His brother, Ward, understands the frustration. He went nearly five years between victories earlier in his career, so he appreciates how tough it is.
``People don't understand how hard it is to win,'' Ward Burton said. ``A few years ago, Jeff was finishing in the top five, the top 10 every week. I'm sure it's got to be hard on him, but I haven't noticed that he's gotten down on himself.''
Not yet. Jeff Burton started this season without a full-time sponsor, leading to rampant rumors that team owner Jack Roush planned to pull the No. 99 off the track.
In the past couple of races, Roundup lawn and garden products has supported the team, and Burton is hopeful an announcement will be made soon about the rest of the season.
Until then, he and his crew members likely will face more garage gossip about the situation. The most persistent of this talk has him joining Richard Childress Racing.
``It's bad to hear that,'' Jeff Burton said. ``People forget that this is what me and these guys do for a living. It's what they support their families with. It's hard to hear all this talk about the demise of our team. It's frustrating.''
Ward Burton acknowledges his younger brother probably has a tough decision to make ``in the next few months.'' Until then, all Jeff can do is try to rid himself of a string of poor runs.
``I don't believe in luck,'' Jeff Burton said. ``Certainly, there's times in your career where you can do no wrong, and other times where you can't do anything right.
``But we've got everything in place here to turn this around. We've just got to do it.''