Jeff Burton is hoping his birthday brings a happier ending at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday than his race did last weekend at Sonoma, where he got an on-track surprise hit from Tony Stewart.
Burton was on pace to score his fifth consecutive finish of 12 or better at Sonoma before Stewart nailed him in the carousel stretch of the track with 20 laps remaining in the race. Burton was running eighth at the time but finished 31st.
Burton’s disappointment was compounded not only by the fact that he had gained four positions in the standings over the previous four races, but also that he was taken out by a three-time Cup champion.
“You get your feelings hurt more when it’s with people you have a lot of respect for — and have respect for you,” Burton said. “I feel like I just got wrecked. And there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. We were just doing our job. We got ourselves the track position that we needed and got it taken away from us.
“I know it wasn’t on purpose, but it still was done and you can’t get it back. I feel I work really well with Tony and he works well with me, too. It just hurts your feelings more with someone like that.”
Stewart realized he erred immediately after the accident. He radioed to the crew, “that was (freaking) stupid” before he finished 28th. When Stewart arrived in the garage after the race, Burton was waiting for him.
“He didn’t mean to, he just made a mistake,” Burton said. “He just got into the corner too deep. We didn’t talk in great detail. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk. He just told me he messed up. I don’t think he did it on purpose. We just came up on the short end of the stick."
As a result, Burton dropped to 20th in the standings. He’s currently 50 points south of the top 10, the group that will lock in to the Chase for the Sprint Cup after the season’s 26th race.
On Friday, Burton qualified 14th — his second-best effort of the season and a solid launching spot for the Quaker State 400. Rather than dwelling on what he can’t control — including “all the wrecks” Burton has been unable to avoid this season — the veteran, who turns 46 on Saturday, is committed to turning the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team around.
“I felt a little bit like a victim, on the other hand it’s our responsibility to miss those wrecks but there’ve been a lot we weren’t able to miss,” Burton said. “We’ve been working hard and smart and getting better and making improvements and feel good about what we’ve been doing as a team and what we’ve been doing to move in the right direction.
“I feel like we’re moving in the right direction — I don’t feel there’s any doubt about it. Whether it’s too late (to make the Chase), I don’t know. All along I said it wasn’t too late and I started to prove it to everybody. If we had come out of Sonoma finishing as good as we ran, we would have run between seventh and 12th, but that didn’t happen, so all we can do is look at the next race.”
Ryan Newman’s needs are simple.
“I just want to race some place where I’m wanted,” Newman said. “Where people are happy I’m there.”
Newman received a one-year reprieve on his contract with Stewart-Haas Racing, where he is currently 18th in the standings. For most of the season, Newman has been outrunning his bossman Tony Stewart.
While Newman’s resume isn’t as extensive as Stewart’s, it’s respectable with 16 Sprint Cup victories and six finishes of 10th or better in the standings. The 35-year-old South Bend, Ind., native ranks third among active drivers in pole positions with 49.
Not surprisingly, team owner Richard Childress said last week that Newman tops his list of potential candidates for the No. 29 Chevy which is being vacated by Kevin Harvick at season’s end.
“There are only so many guys that don’t have contracts for next year,” Newman said. “At this point, I would entertain any possible opportunity. I don’t think anyone in my position wouldn’t do anything otherwise.
“Of all the opportunities that there are out there, he’s got one of the best opportunities — as far as the 29 being vacated. But I don’t know what the family tree is going to look like over there.”
WAITING HIS TURN
What took Truck series journeyman Matt Crafton so long to make his Nationwide Series debut?
Crafton, 37, was just waiting for the right car.
“I guess I was picky,” Crafton said with a laugh. “I’ve had the opportunity to go run Nationwide cars, and you’re going to run 15th at best. I would rather go Truck racing and know that I can win — win races and win championships. “That means a lot more to me. At the end of the day, to run 15th to 40th in a Nationwide race — that doesn’t matter to me.
“I wanted to drive something good, and it came down to Menard’s making this happen.”
He finally got the opportunity at Kentucky Speedway on Friday night to drive the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevy. With support from the Menard family — and his friend Paul Menard, who Crafton was a spotter for in Late Models — he finished third with veteran Ernie Cope calling the shots.
“Ernie and these guys brought a really, really good car,” Crafton said. “We rolled the car off the trailer and I think the second or third lap we were the fastest car out there. It’s all the hard work at the race shop. I’m just getting to enjoy driving it.”
This is the first of three races Crafton will run with Menards’. He is in his 13th full season in the Truck series and is currently leading the points. Crafton has three victories and finished a career-high second in the standings in 2009.