- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Burton was already excited about his prospects heading into the 2005 season before a second-place finish in the second qualifying race for the Daytona 500.
So it's safe to say that he's as enthusiastic as he's been in a long time. While he made a new start last August when he moved to Richard Childress Racing, there was no way to salvage a great finish in the point standings.
Now, with Sunday's opener nearly at hand, Burton's truly embracing his fresh start. Though the good finish on Thursday isn't truly the reason why.
Burton's had strong runs in qualifying race in seasons past, only to struggle during the 500. It's not how he finished that excites him as much as how well the car ran.
"I'm tickled to death at how good my car drives. I don't have to lift, I can run wide open every lap," Burton said. "I can run on the bottom, I can run on the middle, I can run on the top.
"That's going to be huge on Sunday. If this track gets worse and worse and worse as the week goes on, then it will be worse Sunday than it is today. And the setup that worked today won't work on Sunday. It won't handle good enough. I heard there were a lot of cars not handling well and ours was."
Over the course of a two-week spectacle such as Speed Weeks, the track can get slicker with warmer temperatures and due to blown engines that leave a slight residue that slowly builds on the track.
With that in mind, Burton stressed to his Richard Childress Racing crew that he'd be just fine come the 500 if he has a car that handles well. Now that he's got it, the sky's the limit.
"I know that it's 500 miles and a lot of things can happen," Burton said. "There are pit stops, cautions, there are all kinds of things that can happen. But I feel good about it. We've got to find a little bit of speed.
"We could be just a little faster than we were today. But I think that we've got that. I pulled the speed out of it a little bit [during Wednesday's practice] and I think we can put that back in. [Crew chief] Kevin Hamlin's got some great ideas and we're going to work really hard Friday and Saturday and I think we'll be in good shape."
Burton, naturally, hopes to be in good shape for the season ahead as well. For that to happen, though, RCR has to get back to the top of its game.
The team's last Cup championship was back in 1994 when Dale Earnhardt was still leading the way for the operation. The team's struggles have become well known and a determined Childress said earlier this week that his team will win again.
The owner has varied business interests besides his racing operation, but says he'll be focusing on the cars and letting others worry about his vineyard in North Carolina and his other operations.
If so, that might be what it takes to get the team back as a true contender. Burton knows the potential is there; it's just a matter of realizing it.
"I know we have areas where we need to improve in. We aren't at the top of our game in every department. I'm not standing here telling you that I am," Burton said during preseason testing. "We are a Top 10 capable team, but we can't go back in any area. We have to be better in some specific areas. If we made those better, we will be better than just a 10th-place team. If we made them worse, we could be a 20th-place team. That's the reality of it.
"I've done this long enough to know -- and I've watched great drivers for a long time -- you don't know what you've got until you get into it. With the rule changes we've got, with the short spoilers and new tires, I don't care who you are; Ray Evernham doesn't know what's coming. I don't know what's coming. Mark Martin doesn't know what's coming. Jeff Gordon doesn't know what's coming. We based our opinion on theories and hypothesis. That's what we do."
Tests at California and Las Vegas have provided additional direction, but the true test of how good Burton will be this year will come after races at those two facilities, where downforce is the key. If his cars are fast, and handle well at those tracks, he could again be a contender as he often was with Roush Racing.
Now, it's Burton's former team that is at the forefront of the sport, Roush having won the last two championships. Burton was once recruited by Earnhardt to be his eventual successor in the famed No. 3 Chevrolet, but that changed four years ago when Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500.
RCR has struggled for much of the time since that tragic afternoon and Burton hopes to help change that.
"I've taken a tremendous amount of personal interest in getting Richard Childress Racing back to where it used to be," he said. "And that's because I have a lot of respect for where it was and what Richard's done and what Earnhardt did, and for what I think Richard can do.
"I know some people think that Richard Childress Racing is up in the middle of nowhere and it's a bunch of country guys trying to run a race team the way they did 20 years ago. That's a false premonition. It's one of my goals to help get Richard Childress Racing back to the place where every employee wants to work there and every sponsor wants to be there and where all the media wants to come talk to Richard and hopefully, me.
"That's the highest goal. If you look at our goals we've set for the next so many years, that's where it is. I think the resources are there and the commitment is there. We've got to use the resources better and I think we've got to be more committed to doing it together. We can't do it as individual teams."
Burton believes that himself, Dave Blaney and Kevin Harvick all have points to prove and that Childress will reap the rewards of a resurgence.
And that resurgence, he said, will be even sweeter due to the roller coaster ride the organization's taken.
"When you're really, really good and you go downhill and then you come back uphill, you have a greater appreciation," he said. "When you've lost it and you get it back, then you understand what you've lost. Many times, when you have it you don't know that you have it. I can speak to that from personal experience."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.