Jeff Burton seldom shies from offering his opinion. Straightforward and honest in assessing everything from NASCAR rule changes to the caliber of his own team, Burton refuses to soften his characterization of his 2011 Sprint Cup season.
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It was a year in which the Richard Childress Racing driver not only went winless, but fell to 20th in the standings — his worst career performance since his sophomore 1995 season. It was the kind of performance that can upset and unbalance a team — but one that Burton is intent to make sure doesn’t happen again.
So he enters the 2012 season with a new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer — interim Luke Lambert has moved to Elliott Sadler’s championship-contending Nationwide Series effort at RCR — and a renewed diligence when it comes to being up on everything happening within his own team.
Last year, he dismisses as simply unrepeatable.
“If anybody around me thinks last year was acceptable, they need to go somewhere else," Burton said, "because last year, it was embarrassing, to be quite honest. “We can’t run like that.
"You’re going to have years that are bad years; that’s just sports. But when you’re in the midst of it, it’s not acceptable. And I feel like we’ve done the things necessary to turn it around. I really do.”
As Burton himself has often said about other competitors, he didn’t just forget how to drive. Clearly, a lot of factors were at play in the struggles of 2011. They were clearly a deviation from his normal level of performance. Burton has eight career top-10 points finishes, the most recent in 2008. He has 21 career wins and has 242 top-10 finishes, 130 of them top fives, in the Cup series.
In 2000, when he finished third in the standings driving for Roush Fenway Racing, he was looked to as a driver ready to break out and challenge for the title in the coming season. When his Roush Fenway team lost sponsorship and the organization suffered a drop-off overall in performance in 2004, Burton made a late-season move to RCR. That team was also in the midst of struggles, but Burton helped buoy the effort. Soon, the group was putting three drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Teammate Kevin Harvick has finished third in the standings in each of the past two seasons.
Burton, meanwhile, led the standings in 2010 before setbacks pushed him to 12th overall. Last year, his team reached a new level of struggle, though, as it earned only five top-10 finishes, two of them top fives.
This year, Burton is focused on changing that.
His intensity and competitive fire have not dimmed over the years, not at all.
“Jeff’s desire and ability is as high as it’s ever been,” Blickensderfer said.
So is his ability to build a team. Burton twice has helped build struggling organizations back to prominence. Can he do so again with his own team this year?
Blickensderfer sees all the passion the driver brings, the work ethic and his willingness to dig in and continue to learn about the car — and has faith that this team can quickly turn things around.
“The thing that really turned me on about Jeff was he’s always optimistic,” he said. “He looks at tomorrow as the grass is going to be greener tomorrow and the sun’s going to be brighter tomorrow, and that’s what you want from your race-car driver. I mean, there’s going to be days when your race cars don’t handle very well, and I want him to go home on Friday night, have confidence in us and our team that it’s going to be better tomorrow. And that’s what I see in Jeff.
“He’s definitely going to be optimistic. He wants to do good, and the passion he has to win a championship is greater than anything I’ve ever seen from any other driver. He really, really wants to perform at this high level.”
So much so that Burton is going back to the basics. He’s going back to racing the way that has always worked best for him.
He recognizes how far his team has slipped in recent years. And while he plays an active role in all aspects of his group, he plans to get more involved this year.
Burton, always more of a hands-on racer than some, plans to dig back in and learn everything he can about his car this year. He doesn’t cast blame for the setbacks of the past — but plans to help rebuild things this time.
“It’s not fair to (my crew chief) or me, to say, ‘OK I’m a good driver, you’ve just got to make it so I can drive it.’ That’s not fair to either one of us,” Burton said. “I’ve got to be part of that. Now to do that, I’ve got to be more involved, I’ve got to understand more about what’s going on, I’m going to have to get more technical, but that’s OK. I’ve done a lot of things this winter to understand more about what’s going on, and that’s how I want it. I want to be part of it.
“If we don’t run well Sunday, I want to go home, not mad because other people around me aren’t smart enough, I want to go home mad because I was part of not being smart enough. I’m better off doing that.”
All of those are steps he sees as necessary as he tries to get back on track, to once more become a weekly factor in the races. Burton clearly was not only displeased with the setbacks of 2011 but is doing everything he can to make sure those don’t happen again.
He’s not willing to sit back and just watch the team make changes — such as adding Blickensderfer — and hope those will turn things around. He is diligently working to make himself part of the solution.
And that could pay off for everyone in the group.
“We need to win races,” Burton said. “It still bothers me how many races we didn’t win the year before last. I’ve never before in my career had so many chances to win races and not win them, and that’s something I always took pride in. There’s people that have won more races than me, but if you go back and look at the races I won, when I got in position to win them, I won most of them. There’s some I lost, but most positions I got in, I won. In 2010, was just, I’m still mad about it. . . .
"I want to win a championship. I want to win in the worst way. If you can’t win championships, then you at least want to be winning races. But I want to do both.
“We need to become relevant again. You become relevant by leading races, by winning races and by contending for championships. Last year, I felt like I was an outsider. You walk up, there’s a group of drivers talking and you don’t even stop. You go well, ‘They’re talking about something I can’t talk about right now.’ And I don’t like that feeling.”