- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Is Jeff Burton excited heading into the GFS Marketplace 400 weekend at Michigan International Speedway? That pretty much goes without saying as the veteran embarks on a new adventure with Richard Childress Racing.
Is he also somewhat apprehensive? Of course he is -- after all, he's got just one test session at Kentucky Speedway under his belt with Kevin Hamlin, his new crew chief. So heading to one of the Nextel Cup Series' fastest venues, Burton doesn't really know what to expect.
The test went well, but it wasn't as much about speed as trying to get a feel for a new team after spending nearly nine full seasons with Roush Racing.
"We're just trying to learn about each other," Burton said during his test session on Wednesday. "I'm working with the whole team to learn who's responsible for what and who I talk to about certain things. I haven't driven Chevrolets in more than 10 years and there are a whole lot of things they do at Childress that I'm not familiar with. The more I can expose myself to that, the sooner we'll have the chance to be successful."
It will come as no surprise that Burton will throw himself into the learning process full bore. No longer distracted by sponsorship issues, he can direct full attention to revitalizing his career.
After finishing third behind Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt in the race for the 2000 Winston Cup, Burton was a heavy preseason favorite the following year. Instead, the season was a major struggle and it took a late rally to come home 10th in points.
Things got worse the next two years, as a winless Burton finished 12th both seasons. Many drivers would be satisfied with those results, but for a driver with 17 Cup victories, a winless streak dating to 2001 hasn't been pleasant.
This year, though, has been even worse as Burton enters the year's 23rd race a startling 23rd in points. With nothing left to lose, he can spend the final 14 events trying to build a solid foundation for 2005.
"The reason I agreed to leave Roush rather than finishing the year out was that I thought it was in my best interest to join the AOL team and spend some time together," Burton said. "I'm ecstatic I did because there are a lot of issues I'm able to work on now, that if I weren't here we wouldn't be working on. I think we'll be better 10 races from now and next year because we've had this time together."
Besides learning how RCR prepares its Monte Carlos, Burton has to learn a new set of teammates as well. Since he joined Roush, Burton could always compare notes with Mark Martin, who turned into a close friend along the way.
While the friendship will undoubtedly endure, things won't be quite the same when it comes to comparing notes about the setups each is using. Teammates share such information, but usually not drivers from competing operations.
So instead of turning to Martin or Matt Kenseth when he's trying to get an idea of how to make his car better, he'll have to go to Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon. He plans to lean heavily on those two for advice initially, but won't simply stand back and let the information flow go down a one-way street.
"I will immediately get involved in the things that I think I know and can help them out[with], whether it be how the track changes from practice to qualifying or practice to the race, those are the sorts of thing I can bring to the table with my experience. Hopefully, we start working together on all things right out of the gate and find out what I can't bring, maybe they can and vice-versa."
It'll take some getting used to, but Burton thinks his arrival at RCR should benefit all concerned.
"I think they're going to expose me to things I haven't been exposed to and I'll expose them to some things they haven't been exposed to," Burton said of Harvick and Gordon. "We'll be able to work well together. Kevin and I have talked a lot already. Robby and I haven't had the chance, but I'm sure we will. I'm looking forward to it, I think it's going to be good."
Burton knows not to expect too much right off the bat. Winless in 21 Cup starts at the wide and fast two-mile facility; he does have eight top-10 finishes at MIS.
"Michigan is actually one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy going there," Burton says. "I think it's a great track to start another relationship and start building on something because it's a track that is very smooth, not a bunch of bumps but does have a bunch of different grooves to run. I would much rather be going to Michigan than to be going to Bristol with a new team. This will give us a little bit of time together, so I think that's a good thing."
Both Burton and Childress are convinced the new relationship will prove to be a good thing. Burton's career seemingly needed a fresh start and Childress can only hope Burton provides the No. 30 team with the stability that's been lacking from its inception.
Harvick was introduced as the car's driver before the 2001 season and was set to run the car in seven races that season. That all changed with Dale Earnhardt's death, as Harvick took over behind the wheel of that car. Jeff Green drove the car until May 2003, when Steve Park took over.
Childress talked to Burton about joining RCR this past winter, but Burton stayed with Roush hoping a sponsor could be found for his team. Johnny Sauter was picked for the No. 30 team, but the rookie struggled and was replaced by Dave Blaney, who now turns the wheel over to Burton.
And according to Childress, Burton's long been a driver he's wanted to add to his operation.
"This is something that we've been looking forward to for a long time. We go back to the day that Dale Earnhardt even started talking about retiring, maybe '98 or '99, not so much about retiring but who was going to get in the 3 car. This guy's name kept coming up," Childress said. "I know he kept wearing them out there for a while. To have him in an RCR car today means a whole lot to me personally. I'm looking forward to the things we can do. He's a championship-caliber driver. We're going to give him the stuff it takes.
"This thing ain't going to turn around over night. It's something we're going to work at. By being able to start out this year with it, it's going to give us a huge advantage to be able to be ready to go next year."
After months of uncertainty as to whether or not Roush Racing would continue to fund an unsponsored team -- and Burton made it clear he's grateful to owner Jack Roush for running the team in a first-class fashion out of his own pocket -- the move to RCR was a load off Burton's mind.
"It was a feeling of gratification. It was a feeling of excitement. It was a feeling of being scared," Burton said. "You have these conflicting emotions. If I didn't have these conflicting emotions I'd wonder about myself. How do you put eight or nine years into something without feeling good about it? If I didn't feel good about it I should have left a long time ago. If you're as callous and cold as that and say to hell with everybody and I don't care about anybody else, then I think you've got problems.
"It was an emotional rollercoaster. Like I said, it was a huge excitement, a huge relief and also like I said about being scared. When you work somewhere for a long time, I don't care what it is or what your job is, you begin to only think that what goes on at your place only goes on at your place. You kind of forget other teams are out there trying to do the same thing you are. It was a lot of emotions but at the end of the day the final emotion right now is relief, excitement, anticipation and anxiousness as well. I'm anxious to get going and get started so we can start building something."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.