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Burton finishes first, and with a clear conscience

4/16/2007 - NASCAR

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jeff Burton got what he deserved. After all, the man built up some serious good karma a few weeks ago at Bristol.

Just as he did that day, Burton raced clean at the end while battling the leader. And this time, he won.

Burton passed his good friend and former teammate Matt Kenseth on the final lap to win the Samsung 500 Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Sometimes, good things really do happen to good people.

It didn't turn out that way for Burton last month when Kyle Busch won with Burton right behind him. Burton could have opted for the classic Bristol bump-and-run to win. He didn't.

"I took some criticism for that," Burton said. "I am who I am. I race the way I race because that's me."

Burton was in a similar position Sunday. He didn't change his M.O. He didn't bang sheet metal with Kenseth to try to get by him. He found a way to win without any questionable tactics.

"Matt would have driven me that way," Burton said with his son Harrison on his lap. "Winning a race by knocking someone out of the way doesn't mean you were better. It means you were willing to give up integrity to get a trophy."

Burton was given the Texas Motor Sports Hall of Fame Sportsmanship Award on Wednesday because he won't sacrifice his integrity.

Maybe it's the start of a new era in racing. Some call it the woosification of NASCAR.

Baloney. Burton is leading the sport to a classy future, a time in which respect and honor mean more than winning at all costs.

And Burton is a winner, becoming the first driver to repeat in 13 TMS Cup events. It's fitting that the man who won the inaugural Cup event on the 1.5-mile oval in 1997 is the first to win here twice.

"I feel like I did then," Burton said. "It was my first victory on a young team. We went on to contend for championships and win races. Then we couldn't contend at all."

At age 39, Burton is contending again. He's second in the standings, only eight points behind Jeff Gordon. His career is better than ever in his fourth season at Richard Childress Racing.

"I didn't forget how to drive," Burton said. "Some people thought I did, but Richard didn't. What Richard gave me is a chance to feel new at it again."

Burton and Kenseth had to feel good in the dramatic final 10 laps after watching Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch race in front of them most of the day.

One by one, those drivers found out the meaning of bad karma on a perfect North Texas day when they could have won. Their misfortune set up a heck of a show at the end.

Gordon appeared headed for his first TMS victory when he brushed the wall exiting Turn 4. It did just enough damage to the No. 24 Chevy that Kenseth was able to catch Gordon and pass him three laps later.

"I'm just sick," Gordon said. "I don't want to give races away. I felt we had the car to beat. The car just took off for no reason."

Burton passed Gordon three laps later and headed for Kenseth. The closing laps were racing at its best. For the announced crowd of 191,000, it was everything they could hope to see, except Earnhardt wasn't in front.

Burton had the faster car, but Kenseth showed his amazing skills at the wheel and kept Burton at bay for nine laps until their positions changed.

"It stunk from my vantage point," Kenseth said. "It's painful to lose on the last lap, but Jeff is a great friend and nobody is more deserving."

For several laps, Burton would get inside of Kenseth entering the turns, but Kenseth stayed in front when they exited the turns. The two cars never touched.

"Matt is a hell of a driver," Burton said. "He did a great job of putting his car in position to prevent me from being where I wanted to be exiting the corner. To beat him on the last lap, you guys don't understand how much that means."

Burton never changed his strategy. He didn't panic. He didn't do anything crazy that could have wrecked them both.

He was just a little better. Burton got far enough ahead on the inside of Turn 2 that he was able to pull his No. 31 Chevy in front of Kenseth as they headed down the backstretch for the last time.

"I did the same thing on those other laps," Burton said. "Why it happened then, I have no idea."

We do Jeff. The good karma paid off and you reaped the rewards.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.