Burton and his team persevere

Monday, October 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ Disappointment hasn't clouded Jeff Burton's vision of himself or his team.

``We're not quitters,'' Burton said Sunday after pulling away to a hard-earned victory in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Considered a title contender entering this season, Burton finds himself a distant 10th in the points with four races remaining.

``I'm proud of everyone on our team because a lot of teams wouldn't have held up to what we've been through,'' Burton said. ``There would have been a lot of fighting ... . There would have been a lot of finger pointing. There would have been a tremendous amount of stress.''

Instead, the crew for the No. 99 Roush Racing Ford have turned things around, with only a top-10 finish in the points as a likely reward.

Burton has 14 top-10 finishes in 32 races this season, and four of his seven top-fives have come in the past four races.

``To knock off three top-five finishes in a row and then to get a win today really shows the character and the heart of our team,'' Burton said. ``Until now, the effort has been awesome, but our results haven't been good.''

Burton passed gambling Mike Wallace for the lead with 33 laps to go Sunday and went on to his second victory of the season and the 17th of his career.

``We just had to find the sweet spot,'' Burton said. ``That's been our problem all year long, finding that sweet spot, the balance, and making the car do what I want it to do. Luckily, we weren't far off at the beginning today and we were able to keep working on the car and making it better and better.''

Wallace, in only his fourth race with Penske Racing South _ co-owned by older brother Rusty _ jumped into the lead on lap 241 of the 312-lap, 500-kilometer race when crew chief Peter Sospenzo elected to put on only right side tires while the rest of the leaders were changing all four.

Burton came out of the leaders' pit stops, under the fifth of seven caution flags, third, trailing Wallace and Ricky Rudd. Burton quickly moved into second place after the green flag waved and began to stalk Wallace.

Two more caution flags helped Wallace stay out front for a while, but Burton's Taurus went into the lead on lap 279 and pulled away, leaving Wallace to hold off Rudd in their battle for second.

Burton crossed the finish line 2.6-seconds _ about 30 car-lengths _ ahead of Wallace on the flat oval. Burton averaged 102.613 mph in the race slowed by 45 laps of caution.

``Mike was fast but my concern was that he has never won a Cup race and I figured he would do anything to win,'' Burton said, grinning. ``He's auditioning for a job and he did a great job. He ran me hard and clean and we never touched.''

Wallace, who moved into the No. 12 Ford after Jeremy Mayfield was fired, is signed only through the end of the season.

Wallace, the middle of the three racing brothers from St. Louis, said: ``I haven't been in a position to win a race all year and I did all I could without putting the cars in jeopardy. Jeff just had a better run and a better car, but to finish second is wonderful.''

The best previous finish for Wallace in 102 starts was fifth in the 1994 season-finale in Atlanta.

Rudd's third-place finish, combined with a sixth-place run by Jeff Gordon, cut 15 points off the three-time Winston Cup champion's series margin. But Gordon still leads Rudd by a formidable 380 points and needs only to finish 24th or better in the four remaining races to wrap up another title.

``We did what we had to do for the championship, but I'm certainly not happy with it,'' said Gordon, who was in the top 10 most of the race but never led. ``Unfortunately, we got behind and just couldn't make up enough.''

Matt Kenseth, one of Burton's Roush teammates, finished fourth, followed by Tony Stewart.

The majority of the caution flags were brought out by blown right front tires. Goodyear, the exclusive tire supplier for the Winston Cup series, said the problems were caused by a combination of debris on the track, unseasonable temperatures in the high 80s and some teams using less than the recommended 28 pounds of air pressure in the right side tires.

Rusty Wallace, Mike's older brother, was one victim of the tire situation.

The elder Wallace led four times for 91 laps, topped only Burton's five times for 102. Wallace's flat right front tire came when he was trying to hold off Burton for the lead on lap 185.

``To have a strong car like that, the strongest thing out there, and get bit by a tire deal, it really hurt,'' Rusty said. ``It's a shame because we could have won the thing.''

He did regain the lost lap but wound up a distant 15th.

Burton said it was Rusty that he feared before the flat tire.

``My car actually got a little tight there at the end,'' Burton said. ``It would probably have been tough to beat the 2 today if that hadn't happened.''

Several cars bounced off the concrete wall during the race but the biggest crash came on lap 255, when Jimmy Spencer bumped the sliding car of rookie Kurt Busch. Before it was over, the cars of Mark Martin, Dave Blaney, Ryan Newman and Michael Waltrip were involved.