Drought over, Burton now aims for title
Thursday, September 28th 2006, 8:46 am
By: News On 6
DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Even with his drought over and a spot on top of the points standings for the first time since 1999, Jeff Burton's sleepless nights likely won't end.
It wasn't the five-year victory dry spell that kept him up the night before a race, anyway. It was worrying and wondering how his car would handle or how his team would perform that kept him from catching enough shuteye.
``I haven't lost sleep because I haven't won,'' Burton said. ``I know that's difficult to understand. As miserable as I am sometimes, I'm not good at enjoying the moment.''
Maybe Burton can enjoy this week just a little more than any other for most of the past few seasons.
The winless streak was bewildering for someone who used to be considered one of NASCAR's more promising drivers: 175 races, no victories, two teams and one question mark about his spot at Richard Childress Racing.
Burton said the only ingredient needed to turn around his career was the same one he used to pass Matt Kenseth with six laps left to win at Dover International Speedway: patience.
``Everybody in the garage area has come up to me and asked, 'When are you guys going to close the deal and win?''' Burton said. ``Our performance is not something that's three or five weeks old. This is a yearlong thing.''
Burton's first win since October 2001 propelled him from fifth place to first in the Nextel Cup points standings with eight races left in the Chase for the championship. He now heads to Kansas, where his best finish was 11th in 2001.
Burton can't be blamed if he feels a bit uneasy holding that lead, with four-time champion Jeff Gordon only six points behind him. Gordon wasn't surprised that Burton finally has battled his way to the top.
``You just knew that if they get it figured out and they hit on some things, they're going to be tough,'' Gordon said.
Getting there hasn't been easy for Burton since jumping from Roush Racing to Richard Childress Racing for the 2005 season. Burton won 17 times with Roush, four coming in 2000 when he finished third in the final standings. Then his career hit a slump and he made the leap to RCR, leaving a dominant team for one still trying to find itself in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death.
``I was with one of the premier teams in racing. There was zero doubt that everyone looked at me and wondered, 'What is that man thinking?''' Burton said. ``I had kind of wore out my welcome.''
That's not a problem at RCR. Both Burton and the rest of the teams have made huge comebacks this season. Richard Childress put two teams in the Chase, with Kevin Harvick sitting in fifth place. Rookie Clint Bowyer has shown promise and made it an RCR sweep at Dover by winning the Busch Series race.
``We've tidied up our house here at RCR,'' Burton said.
The season started with little reason to believe Burton again would be a contender, with three finishes in the 30s in the first six races. But he followed that with a streak of seven top 10s in eight races, and soon after that he took second in Chicago.
Burton won the pole and dominated the first half of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, leading 87 laps before fading and finishing a disappointing 15th. He led a whopping 263 of 500 laps at Bristol before again tailing off and finishing ninth. Burton led a combined 77 laps in the two races entering Dover and 637 overall, just not the one that mattered most _ the last one.
``We have put ourselves in position many times,'' Burton said. ``We have spent maybe 10 minutes total talking about why we didn't win Indy or Bristol or races that we led a lot of laps. It's my opinion that we're working hard and smart.''
Both Burton and Harvick spent the weekend denying a Speed TV report claiming their teams manipulated wheels to gain a performance advantage in New Hampshire. Burton, one of the more respected drivers in the garage, scolded the source of the story as acting childish and irresponsibly. The story proved more of an annoyance than a distraction.
But the report and the winless streak are in his rearview mirror. Now the only thing ahead of him is keeping a grip on the points lead with eight races remaining.
``We've positioned ourselves,'' Burton said, ``but we have a long way to go.''