- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
- 0 Shares
CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Burton has said numerous times in the past he loves driving a race car so much that he'd probably do it for free if he could.
If his team's thus far futile search for a major sponsor continues to come up empty, it's quite possible Burton may very well soon be driving for free -- or close to it.
With the season-opening Daytona 500 just over a week away, Burton's No. 99 Ford remains a gray entity in a multicolored sport. Namely, he faces the potential of running almost the entire upcoming season without the colors of a major sponsor supporting the efforts of him and his No. 99 Ford Taurus.
"From a driver's standpoint, this is not the kind of position you want to be in, looking at the beginning of the year without full sponsorship on the car," Burton said. "It's not where you want to be. Fortunately, we have a real strong company that can afford some of that."
In fact, Burton has only one deal at the present time: He'll be sponsored for the Daytona 500 by Turner Broadcasting Systems, promoting the NBA All-Star Game telecast on TBS later that same evening.
After that, Burton could very well have a similar fate as unsponsored rookie Tony Raines did last season, driving a mostly-blank race car for the remainder of the 2004 campaign. In fact, BACE Motorsports announced Friday that Raines will not be at Daytona next week because the team could not financially justify running an entire season-long operation out of its own pocket for a second consecutive year.
Since Citgo Supergard announced at the end of last season that it was pulling its sponsorship from the Roush Racing-owned Ford that Burton drives, conventional thought was that the powerful Roush organization would have no problem finding a replacement major sponsor.
After all, Burton is as close to a sponsor's dream as you're going to find in NASCAR. He's intelligent, always has a good quote for reporters, can speak prominently on a variety of topics both on and off the racetrack, is handsome, a fan favorite, has won 17 Cup races in his career and is a perennial challenger for the championship.
Quite frankly, a potential sponsor couldn't do much better than backing Burton.
But as weeks turned into months and the team received only a few nibbles during the offseason, it became apparent Burton's team was in trouble. Rumors floated that he would only run a partial season if a major financial backer couldn't be found.
Jack Roush himself finally put an end to those rumors about a month ago when he said the team would float Burton's operation, if necessary, out of its own deep corporate pockets for the entire 2004 season.
"We are prepared to put together enough small programs if we have to to get through the end of the year with this thing," Roush said. "Having said that, I like our chances of at least 80 percent of being able to announce some type of full remainder of the year sponsorship for the 99 car. I'm very confident of that."
That type of unfailing support greatly reassured Burton. Now that his future is assured for the upcoming season, and that he'll be at all 36 races, he can forget about worrying who will be paying the bills and focus on what he does best: racing.
"(Lack of sponsorship is) a distraction, but we can't let it distract us," Burton said. "I have to focus on the racing, keep my team focused on the racing, to worry about how to make the car goes fast and to make sure it runs 500 miles.
"My focus is on doing our job, doing the things we need to do and doing it better than we did it last year. I don't have the energy or time to think about the sponsorship thing. I'm thinking about going faster, being reliable and making moves on the racetrack that we need to do to be in the top-10 when it counts toward the end of the year.
"Sure, it's frustrating. It's certainly not the position we thought we'd be in, but it is the position we are in, so we have to, No. 1, understand it, and No. 2, we have to change it. That's the only thing we can do. My goal is to focus on my racing and pay attention on what we have to do to win races."
With his mind focused solely on getting back to victory lane after a more than two-year absence, Burton is also intent upon finishing in the top-10 after the first 26 races this season, thus qualifying for the NASCAR's new, season-ending 10-race "Chase for the Championship."
But as always, Burton remains very opinionated about the format and potential end result.
"Formula One had a boring point race in 2002, so they put the NASCAR plan in place," Burton said. "Now, they'll deny that, but the truth of the matter is they looked at what NASCAR did and said, 'We need to make our cars more equal, we need to make racing more exciting, we need to make it where one manufacturer doesn't have such a huge advantage, and we have to worry more about what the quality of race is then perhaps how fast the car is.' Now, they've never admitted that, but that's the way the NASCAR formula works.
"If this (the "Chase") works, you will see variations of these rules throughout motorsports. We're the only major form of sport, with the exception of golf, that has a system where the beginning of the year is the same as the end of the year. Every other sport has an ending that had a beginning that created a situation for an exciting ending. We have an exciting beginning with the opportunity for a boring ending. There's nothing wrong with looking at the good of other sporting events are and to take advantage of. I think that's what's happening here.
"I'm a big sports fan. I like that Duke is able to beat UNLV in a system where, if you just gave points for how you competed through the whole year, they'd have never had the opportunity to do that. I like the drama it creates, the intensity that's created by it, I enjoy all of those things. There's nothing better for an athlete to say, 'I got 10 races to go, I've got a 10-point disadvantage, let's figure out how to make this happen,' versus 'I got 10 races left, I can't catch the leader, I could finish third or I could finish as bad as seventh.' That's a big difference right there. I'd prefer to be the other way, rather than the last one."
After four consecutive years of finishing between third and fifth in the standings from 1997 through 2000, Burton dropped to 10th in 2001 and has finished 12th in each of the last two seasons.
It's time to get back into the top-10 game, he says.
"We're a competitive team, we have a driver who's won a lot of races and contended for championships, and I think the sponsorship thing will happen," Burton said. "It's unfortunate that it's at this time of year now, but it's my intention that it will be there and to go forward and run for the Nextel Cup championship. That's my mind set."
Added Roush, whose driver Matt Kenseth is defending Cup champion, "I think that 2004 for Roush Racing and all the drivers and all the sponsors can be our best year ever."
Even it means Roush footing the bill himself.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
5dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz