- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Fresh off a whirlwind media blitz of New York City, Jeff Burton heads into the Chase for the Nextel Cup at one of his favorite racetracks. To say New Hampshire International Speedway has been good to the veteran would be putting it mildly.
Eighth in the reset standings, Burton enters the race just 35 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. And he'll try to cut into that slim deficit at a track where he has four wins, seven top-fives and 10 top-10 finishes in 23 Cup starts.
Burton has found all sorts of ways to win at New Hampshire, from leading just two laps in July 1999 to leading all 300 laps in September 2000, a race different from all the others at the track because the cars used restrictor plates.
Making the Chase is one thing; emerging with the title is something else. And although Burton had had a solid season, with four top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, he knows staying at that level probably won't lead to a title.
"We need to step it up a bit," he said. "This is a really strong team, and I am very proud of everyone and the job they have done to this point. [But] from the way we have been running, I think we need to improve a little bit. We're close, but we have to find a way to get just a touch better."
Burton said he thinks the cars crew chief Scott Miller has earmarked for the next 10 races can help the team reach that next level.
"We have a lot of new equipment sitting in our shop and think it's better than what we have been running," Burton said. "With that, we think we can step it up just a little bit and we'll be right there. There are a lot of good teams who didn't make it into the Chase, so that makes me appreciate even more the fact that we are in."
Burton wasn't assured of a spot until the checkered flag fell at Richmond, so the team didn't have the luxury of taking it easy in August or September. The past two years, a few of the teams in that position have struggled with the intensity of the Chase.
The goal for Burton is to hit the track running well and build momentum in a hurry.
"Instead of going into the Chase and sputtering through it, I want to go in and be a force, so that is what we are trying to do," Burton said. "You have to run well in the Chase in order to compete for the championship. You can't 15th your way into the title. You can't win the thing in the first few races, but I believe you can lose it if you have a few bad runs right off the bat"
As the all-time leading race winner at New Hampshire, Burton obviously is excited about this weekend's race. He's equally excited about races at Martinsville and Phoenix, two more fairly flat tracks that suit his style.
Burton's 17th and most recent Cup win came at Phoenix in 2001, and the driver obviously hopes to have made another trip to Victory Lane by the time the series visits there in November. Burton also is feeling better than he had been about races at places like Kansas, Lowe's Motor Speedway, Atlanta, Texas and Homestead.
"[We] ran really well at Atlanta in the spring and we have stepped up our intermediate program a tremendous amount this season, so I feel really good about the Chase tracks," he said.
In fact, Burton's feeling a whole lot better about his stature in the sport in general. He was a serious championship contender for several seasons with Roush Racing, but things started slipping away in 2001.
Finally, in August 2004, Burton said he felt both sides could benefit from a change and announced he'd be signing with Richard Childress Racing for 2005. Anxious to see what Carl Edwards could do in a Cup car, Roush allowed Burton to join RCR shortly after the announcement -- a move that has been a boon for all concerned.
The on-track struggles weren't eliminated overnight, though, and Burton was bothered that he wasn't near the top.
"I've run like crap three years in a row [before this season], and it's been embarrassing, to be quite honest," he said. "I care a great deal what my peers think about me, from a competition standpoint and from a personal standpoint. It's kind of hard to walk through the garage when you're running 20th and look Jeff Gordon in the eye and expect him to respect you for what you can do on the racetrack.
"Over the last three years, I haven't been able to get it done, and that's not felt very good. This year, we've been able to step it up, certainly from where we've been over the last three years. It feels good. I went to RCR; a lot of people thought I was crazy when I went to RCR. I went there not because I was trying to finish my career but because I was trying to start it over again. Hopefully, we've been able to do that."
Gordon, though, said respecting Burton was never an issue, although it was impossible not to notice that the Virginia native was no longer battling for wins or a spot in the top 10 in points.
"They had some members of their team sort of shuffle around, and all of a sudden the performance wasn't there. ... " Gordon said of Burton's last years at Roush Racing. "I always thought he was one of the top drivers. It just seemed like it was there and they were just right on the edge of winning the championship and then it was gone and then you didn't even hear about him."
Now, though, Burton appears to be back. And Gordon's glad to see it, even if his goal is to leave Burton in his tire tracks the next 10 races.
"I think it's a bold move on his part to make the move to RCR, and obviously that's paid off," Gordon said. "I never had a lack of respect for Jeff because I've battled too hard with him over the years, so I know what kind of a competitor he is. I think it's refreshing to see a guy go through those types of times and be able to come back the way he has."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
Jeff Burton is in the Chase and back at a track where he has had success. He also feels he can look his fellow drivers in the eye again, writes Mark Ashenfelter.