The Mayor of the NASCAR garage has elected to step down graciously from the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevy at the end of the season.
Jeff Burton told his team Wednesday morning that he and team owner Richard Childress discussed the move back in December to make way for a younger driver in the interest of the organization.
The 46-year-old questioned whether he was holding the team back and told his crew that maybe a new, younger driver — such as Ryan Newman — could offer the No. 31 a better opportunity to thrive.
While Burton has been an admirable ambassador for Caterpillar since 2009, his results over the past few years have been inconsistent. Burton, who has 21 career Cup wins, has not been to Victory Lane since the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2008.
And Burton hasn’t qualified for the Chase to the Sprint Cup since 2010.
But it was clear during Burton’s teleconference Tuesday that the decision was financially motivated from several angles. Currently, the sponsorship simply does not exist at Richard Childress Racing to support four full-time Cup teams at this time. That could change next season when several top-caliber drivers become available.
When sizing up Richard Childress Racing’s three current teams, however, even the veteran felt like he was the weakest link. Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard are the other two drivers for RCR.
“What’s been difficult for me is why is it that the 29 (Harvick) can run the way they run and we haven’t been able to keep step? That’s been difficult for not only me but the whole RCR company,” Burton said. “Because over the last two years they’ve been the only team that’s made the Chase. They’ve been the team that’s been the cornerstone of our company, and that’s been frustrating.”
If Burton needed further evidence that he has lost a step, Harvick’s comments about Kurt Busch’s contributions through RCR’s technical alliance with Furniture Row Racing made it abundantly clear. Harvick hasn’t had a teammate capable of pushing him to his limit since Clint Bowyer left in 2011.
With Harvick leaving RCR at the end of the year and Austin Dillon expected to join the roster, it would put tremendous pressure on the 23-year-old to qualify for the Chase in his rookie season. In 11 Cup starts, Dillon’s top finish was 11th at Michigan in June.
Menard has made tremendous gains since moving to RCR in 2011. He signed a three-year extension in May and brings full sponsorship to the table for the No. 27 Chevy. But the 33-year-old’s best career result in the point standings is 16th. He is currently 17th with 11 races remaining in the season.
RCR can’t afford to have a devastating run, as was the case in 2004 and 2005 — or as recently as 2009, when none of its cars made the Chase. There has to be at least one driver who is a weekly contender to keep both the sponsors and manufacturers happy.
Plus, the return on investment from what Childress was paying Burton compared to Newman’s current market value makes the decision a no-brainer. This is just the latest correction in overinflated veteran drivers’ salaries.
Newman has posted at least one win every season over the past four years — including most recently the Brickyard 400 in August. While Newman hasn’t been in the Chase hunt, at least he’s finished in the top 15 in the point standings for the past five seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing.
At 36, Newman can also provide veteran leadership — if he’s willing to make the commitment to the organization. With not only Austin Dillon but his younger brother Ty in the RCR pipeline, Newman can be a valuable resource to the organization.
So could Burton, if he elects to stay on at RCR as driver coach. His name has also been mentioned as a candidate for NBC when the network returns to NASCAR in 2015.
However, Burton intimated that he’s not ready to walk away. It’s the only profession Burton has known since he was seven.
“I still want to win a championship,” Burton said. “That’s been the thing that’s been my drive. As I’ve won races but didn’t win championships and the championships became more important to me. Obviously, I haven’t been able to accomplish that.”
Yes, Burton loves racing. He still has a passion for it. And although the phone is already ringing, he understands the reality of the future driver landscape. It may be difficult to find a team of the quality to which he’s become accustomed.
“I’m just going to have to see what comes in front of me,” Burton said. “I don’t anticipate doing something that I don’t think will be competitive. I don’t mind building something. Actually, I enjoy that. But at 46, that’s probably not something I look forward to.
“So I’d like to be in a situation that can be successful, and I don’t mind building something, but it can’t be from the bottom. It’s got to be close there. So I don’t know. Just got to see what comes up.”
And who knows, maybe the Mayor will find a new office that’s better suited for him after he rides out this current term.