Jeff Burton has long been considered a voice of reason in NASCAR’s garage, a respected driver destined for the TV booth or even politics.
Some of those future plans might get a look a bit earlier than expected.
Without committed sponsorship in place, and a desire to scale back his schedule in two years, Burton and team owner Richard Childress made the decision to cut ties following this season. The 46-year-old Burton, winless since 2008, faces an uncertain future after ending a relationship with RCR that dates to the 2005 season.
"It’s not necessarily the best thing for me in the world," Burton said Wednesday, "but I figured it out."
RCR said a driver for the No. 31 Chevrolet will be announced at a later date. Brickyard winner Ryan Newman, out of a job at Stewart-Haas Racing, could land in the No. 31 Chevrolet if a sponsorship deal comes through.
RCR also fields teams for Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick, who is leaving after this season to join SHR. Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, is lined up to replace Harvick.
Burton told Childress that he wanted to step back after 2014 and race a part-time schedule, not unlike fellow veteran Mark Martin. But with Newman suddenly available and Burton unable to secure major corporate dollars for the 36-race reason, it seemed to be the right time to accelerate RCR’s makeover.
"They can put the funding in place with a really good driver that can go out and be successful," said Burton, who added that he has not talked to any teams and has no plans for 2014.
Burton said the No. 31 is on the verge of breaking through into Victory Lane, even though the results haven’t really showed that’s likely. He’s buried in 22nd in the standings and well out of the Chase picture. He has two top-five finishes this year, hasn’t made the Chase since 2010 and is far removed from his days as a regular threat to contend for championships driving for Jack Roush. He finished 20th (2011) and 19th the last two seasons.
Burton has only four of his 21 career Cup victories with RCR.
Childress thanked Burton for his integral role in the organization.
"Jeff has been nothing but a professional driver, an asset to RCR and a great person for our organization since coming on board in 2005," he said. "We intend to finish out 2013 in a strong way and I look forward to the possibility of Jeff still being part of RCR in the near future, just not driving the No. 31 car. I have been watching his son, Harrison, and the success he’s having. Hopefully, we can have another Burton in one of our cars someday."
Caterpillar will continue to sponsor the No. 31 Chevrolet.
At Roush Racing in the late 1990s, Burton established himself as one of NASCAR’s elite drivers. He won six times in 1999 and had four more wins in 2000. But he never really recaptured the early magic, and failed to find it when the company man bolted Roush.
Burton clearly was one of the drivers most affected by Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. Burton was a champion of improved safety measures long before Earnhardt’s fatal accident, and there’s always been speculation that he lost a little bit of his nerve after the crash.
Earnhardt’s death forced a lot of drivers to face their own mortality, and as the father of young children, Burton was probably one of the many suddenly weighing the risks versus the rewards.
"There is a place for me in this sport," Burton said. "I want to be part of it and contributing to this sport means a great deal to me. I’d like to believe that me being here has made it better from a safety standpoint, and I’d like to think I’ve done some things on the track and off the track that have made the sport better, and I want to continue to do that."
But Burton’s failures may also have been the product of a stale environment within his team at Roush. So he packed up and headed to RCR.
While Burton foundered, Harvick emerged as the dominant face of RCR and a legitimate championship contender. He’s in third place this season, and has set the standard at RCR that Burton has failed to match.
"What’s been difficult for me is why is it that the 29 can run the way they run and we haven’t been able to keep step?" Burton said. "That’s been difficult for not only me but the whole RCR company. 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, because, why? Why?"
It’s not his problem anymore. With Harvick and Burton out, RCR gets a fresh start in 2014, still pining for the championship driver it hasn’t had since Earnhardt.
Burton gets one, too, whether he likes it or not.
"It’s an interesting time for me. It’s not all good," he said. "It’s not all good at RCR."
Burton could make the transition to the broadcast booth, calling the action instead of becoming part of it.
"I know everybody has me appointed as the next TV guy or whatever, but I don’t know if that opportunity is going to present itself," he said.