- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The great roll-bar padding debate will undoubtedly continue at Texas Motor Speedway, but Jeff Burton knows that whatever happened at Atlanta is in the past.
He certainly hoped NASCAR would take steps to deter drivers from throwing something on the track to necessitate a caution in the future -- and it seems NASCAR did with the fine and points they saddled Robby Gordon with -- but any points Burton may have lost at Atlanta due to a caution that left him two laps down are gone.
The focus now is on making up the 84 points that separate him from leader Matt Kenseth with just three races left in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. With Jimmie Johnson (26 points back), Denny Hamlin (65 back) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (84 back) also in the thick of things, Burton said the task at hand won't be easy.
What he does know is that he'll approach each race the same way he always has. When he was leading the points for four weeks during the Chase, Burton never changed.
He doesn't plan to change now, either.
"Coming into this Chase, I understood, believed that there would be moments of excitement, hoped there would be moments of excitement, and understood there would certainly be moments of disappointment," said the 39-year-old native of South Boston, Va. "I haven't gotten caught up in, 'We're leading the points, we're fifth in points.'
"I haven't gotten caught up in that because, to begin with, I thought with two to three races to go, you start to get into it a little bit, but as we got with three to go, now we're the pursuer. How that affects us, I don't know. We're still going to go out and do our best job, but I don't feel like I've been on a roller coaster."
Burton said that if you look at virtually any driver over a 10-week stretch you're undoubtedly going to see a bad race or two in the mix. If a driver can rebound from those setbacks by staying calm in April or May, the same approach should do the trick come November.
Sure, there's a lot more focus on the "playoffs," but Burton is shrugging it off.
"We got to Richmond [where the Chase field was set after the 26th race], and I feel like when I look back on the year, I don't feel like we've been racing for eight or nine months I feel it has gone fairly quickly," Burton said. "And I think that's because I'm a race-to-race kind of guy. I get over the last race pretty quick and I'm on to the next one pretty quick."
Still, he'll always wonder how his run at Atlanta would have turned out if not for the caution for debris that turned out to be roll-bar padding from Gordon's car.
And he also knows that he contributed to his 13th-place finish by getting into the wall and knocking the fender in on his tire. So while it would be easy simply to blame the debris caution for his run, he won't take the easy way out.
"I don't have hard feelings about it. I'm not mad about it. It happened," Burton said. "I put it on my own shoulders. I'm the one that got a tire down. I'm the one that caused that problem. I'm the root of the problem. I allowed a half a second lapse of thinking [to] put us in the position for something bad to happen.
"And by the way, it happened. That's how close this championship is. You just can't afford any mistakes. I did it. It's my fault. I put us in the position."
Burton's approach might be catching on, at least with Johnson, who has come close in the past. There's long been talk that Johnson and his team let the pressure build too high during the championship battle, but he's close to the lead and said he's more relaxed than ever.
"I don't care where we are. We're just going to keep racing and if we're leading after this event, great," Johnson said. "And if not, no big deal. We're going to keep working and trying to keep scoring points.
"I really haven't been worrying about things that worried me before. The last few years the things that made me lose sleep at night aren't there. I have a smile on my face. Last night I had a great dream about being a champion and everything I have going on right now is positive. That's the first time for me in my championship battles."
Johnson said he hasn't had such sweet dreams in the past. And while he can't swear this dream was about clinching the Nextel Cup crown, that's where he hopes the dream was leading.
"Every thought I have about [the Chase] fills me up with excitement and happiness, where in the past, I almost had nightmares," Johnson said. "When I would think of the championship laying there before I'd go to sleep at night, I'd [think] 'Oh man, the 20 [of Tony Stewart] is running well and there's this or that and this track or that,' and everything was kind of fear-based.
"This year, everything as I doze off and go to sleep, I'm smiling and I'm like, 'Man, I can't wait to get to Texas and Phoenix and Homestead and race for this thing.' So it's a totally different mind-set this year than other years."
It's a mind-set that's worked for Burton for years. He's not worrying about the standings or how Kenseth, Johnson, Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. are running on a given weekend. He's focusing on getting the most out of his car at Texas and nothing else.
If this were the last race and he were 84 points back, Burton might change his approach. For now, though, it's steady as she goes.
"To us, it's in the fourth quarter with six minutes to go. We're down by seven, and it's fourth down," Burton said. "We're going to go for it or punt. Well, right now I'm still punting. Right now I'm still relying on our defense. I'm relying on us as a team to be able to pull this thing off.
"If we go into next week still 90 points down or 100 points down, I'm going to have to think about going for it on fourth down. The situation we're in today, again, we're still relying on ourselves. We're relying that the [bad] luck we've had, other people will have that as well; we just need to go out and do a good job. We're not in a position to try to force something to happen."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
The roll-bar padding debate in Atlanta doesn't mean much to Jeff Burton, who takes responsibility for his own faults as the Chase winds down, writes Mark Ashenfelter.