Commentary

2008 has been 'a gut-check year' for Burton's Nationwide program

Jeff Burton is used to winning in the Nationwide Series. So why is he having such a hard time in 2008? Joe Gibbs Racing has something to do with it, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: October 9, 2008, 3:59 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Burton has one more shot to win in the Nationwide Series this season and he hopes to make the most of it. The trick, as it has been all year, will be catching the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.

A winner in 12 of his 18 Nationwide Series seasons entering this year, Burton's runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway back in the spring is as close as he's come to getting back to Victory Lane. But even if that changes in Friday night's Dollar General 300 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, it'll hardly be the type of year Burton's grown accustomed to in the series.

"It's been good, it just hasn't been great," Burton said, summing up the season for himself and Richard Childress Racing as a whole. "A lot of years at Childress, we've been able to get a lot of wins and contend for championships -- which Clint [Bowyer is] doing this year. Off those standards, we haven't been there. We haven't been able to do the things we were able to do last year, so it's been disappointing.

"It is important for us to remember that we haven't been awful, it just hasn't been great and we've become accustomed to great. This year's been humbling, it's been an eye-opener. It's really been kind of a gut-check year to refocus everybody -- even Clint. They've been leading the points for quite a while and have been very competitive, but not to the point where they were last year. I think we've overall been a little disappointed, but it's not because we haven't been trying, not because we don't care anymore, but because some other people have done a better job."

While Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards -- who trails Bowyer by 196 points for the championship with five races remaining -- has won four times, it's Joe Gibbs Racing that's set the tone this season with 17 victories between its No. 18 and 20 teams. Those three teams have 21 wins in 30 starts, leaving the rest of the field to split the remaining nine wins.

Bowyer finished a competitive second at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago, but the winner was JGR's Kyle Busch. It was a sign of progress for RCR -- at least for Bowyer's No. 2 team. Burton, meanwhile, struggled to a 14th-place finish.

Burton, a 27-time winner in the series, just hopes the layout at 1.5-mile Lowe's allows him to be at the front of the pack.

"Charlotte's pretty unique because the outside groove has gotten so good there," Burton said. "You'll see a lot of multi-groove racing, for sure, but the Gibbs cars have just been so fast we have to find a way to try to knock them off their perch. That's what everybody's trying to do."

"There's days I see light, there's days I think we're gaining on it. Clint did run well at Kansas and, at the same time, that's probably the worst we've run all year. There's hope because we had a teammate who looked really strong, but at the same time we ran worse than we have all year. Hopefully we can learn from what Clint and those guys were able to do and try to move the ball a little bit."

Bowyer has just one win, but he owns a comfortable lead in the points that he looks to maintain Friday. He'd like a win, but the race isn't his top priority at this point.

"Consistency is still going to be the name of winning this championship," Bowyer said. "We've given up a couple of wins here as of late, but if you look at our top-5s and top-10s, we're doing what we need to do. We may have lost a few battles, but we're winning the war."

While veterans Burton and Bowyer will focus on winning the race or the championship, Joey Logano is just looking forward to his first start at Lowe's. He's run in smaller divisions, on a smaller track, at the facility, but never on the 1.5-mile track itself.

His only true experience at Lowe's came during a recent Sprint Cup Series test, where he worked with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch.

"We talked about all of the different things we could try to make the car go faster. We compared our data, and I think having them there helped me get up to speed a lot faster," Logano said. "I got to find out what different changes did to make the car go faster or slower. I enjoyed the experience a lot.

"I definitely think we'll be OK there in the Nationwide car. There are some little things about the track that I'm glad I got to experience before going there this weekend in the Nationwide car. There's little stuff you find about every track once you get a chance to drive it. No two tracks are the same. No two corners are the same. There should be some really good racing because you can attack the track from top to bottom."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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