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Despite troubles, Jeff Burton isn't going to quit

Saturday, Jul. 14, 2012

Jeff Burton isn't going to quit.

If he goes down – and that's a big 'if' – it will be swinging, perhaps flailing away.

Once again this weekend, Burton and his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team have struggled as they prepare for Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It's become an all-too common refrain the past year and a half.

"The season's been hard. There is no fun coming to the race track and not being able to run in the front pack," Burton, 45, said Friday after qualifying 25th for Sunday's race. "If you only looked at the end result, there would be many years I'd want to quit...

"You can fold up and quit or you lace the gloves up tighter and keep swinging. I choose to lace the gloves up tighter. I believe in myself."

He's 18th in the Sprint Cup Series standings with a pair of top-five finishes in the first 18 races. As recently as two years ago Burton made the Chase and was ranked third in points. It was 12 years ago, at this New Hampshire track, that Burton did something no driver had done 22 years prior and hasn't done since.

He led the race from start to finish, all 300 laps.

A time of tragedy Burton's perfect race came during imperfect times in NASCAR.

Twice already in the 2000 season, NASCAR drivers had been killed at New Hampshire. Adam Petty died in May during an accident in practice in what was then the Busch Series. Kenny Irwin died a month later in a wreck during a Cup series practice session.

With no changes made to the track, NASCAR elected instead to place horsepower-reducing restrictor-plates on the engines when the Cup series returned to New Hampshire in September.

Burton was among the drivers at the time advocating NASCAR make changes.

"We've got to build better walls," Burton said then. "... We have to use the fatalities what we had here as a wake-up call... Motorsports is inherently dangerous, but it doesn't have to be any more dangerous than it has to be."

Dale Earnhardt, who died in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500 only five months later, was the most critical of the decision at the time to use the plates, which would likely keep the field of cars packed closer together and running similar speeds. He said Winston Cup drivers were an elite group and shouldn't be slowed to drive like "bunch of late-model stock car guys."

"I don't remember years that much but what I do remember in 2000 was we were in a big debate about safety and I was advocating for doing something different (at New Hampshire)," Burton said.

"So we came here with plates and Earnhardt was furious. I took that as directed at me. He and I had many disagreements on why people were being killed."

Burton qualified second in the race, with Bobby Labonte starting on the pole. Burton quickly made his way around Labonte to lead the first lap.

Burton dominated the race. During each caution every lead-lap car elected to pit and Burton was first off pit road each time to remain the race leader.

He even tangled with Earnhardt during the race as Burton tried to put him a lap down.

"No. 1, I was lapping Dale Earnhardt, which he didn't take kindly to and No. 2, the little red-headed smartass that knew more than him was glad to do it," Burton said. "That was an eventful few laps trying to get by him."

It wasn't until late in the race, however, that Burton got an inkling of what may unfold.

"I slipped up on a restart and Bobby Labonte got underneath me and my spotter (then Bobby Hutchens) called 'Inside,' but he said it in a way like his mother had just died," Burton explained.

"The tone of his voice was such that I could tell he was upset and it dawned on me that we had led every lap up until that point. He didn't want to see me lose it.

"Then it became like a pitcher going for a no-hitter. I didn't want to jinx it."

He didn't. Burton went on to win, leading all 300 laps and became the first driver to accomplish that feat in the Cup series since Cale Yarborough led all 420 laps in the June 3, 1978 race at the old Nashville (Tenn.) Fairgrounds.

And no driver had done it since.

Much like Jimmie Johnson's streak of five consecutive Cup titles, many in NASCAR are skeptical they will witness a repeat of that type of dominance.

"I think as you look at sports it will happen again at some point, it just might not be in our lifetime. All records at some point are going to be at least matched or broken," said Burton's RCR teammate, Kevin Harvick.

"Especially in today's day and age it would be very difficult with the (double-file) restarts and the way the strategies play out at a lot of these tracks to do that. It's definitely a record that's a pretty good one and obviously you're not going to break it."

Johnson agrees.

"I think it gets more difficult as time goes on. But it is possible," he said. "And I want to believe those things are possible because I'd love to win seven championships."

Racing for better days Burton would win once more during the 2000 season and twice in 2001.

Since then, however, the road to Victory Lane has become one less traveled. Burton has 21 career Cup wins but just four have come since the 2001 season and he hasn't won a race since 2008.

Changes in personnel were made to his No. 31 Chevrolet team in the offseason after he finished 20th in points in 2011. Yet so far this season, he's seen little change in results or fortune.

"We have had more trouble than Kevin has had and in some cases Paul (Menard) has had in getting the cars to drive the way I want them to drive. There is no denying that," Burton said.

"There is a part of that I have to take ownership in. There just is. I can't be blind and say it's not my fault. Part of it is my fault."

In fact, Burton has even taken to a form of self-diagnosis. He's entered occasional races with his own Late Model team in order to gauge his competitiveness in a different environment.

"Everywhere I go, I'm fast. I haven't forgotten how to go fast," he said. "Having said that, though, we're not doing it here (in the Cup series) right now."

The struggling performance has led to rampant speculation Burton may lose his job at RCR next season, although he has at least two more years left on his current contract.

Team owner Richard Childress has two talented grandsons – Austin and Ty Dillon – waiting in the wings, which only feeds the speculations.

"I have no intentions of quitting. I have no intentions of backing off. I have no intentions of starting to give up. I have no intentions of not driving hard," Burton said.

"I have always believed tomorrow is going to be a better day. I just do. I believe the struggles we have had here today are building the puzzle that by Sunday we will be where we need to be.

"The day I don't have that optimism is the day I'll be ready to leave."

This season, particularly, Burton has been bothered by comments that he should retire or that he has lost his competitive edge.

"People who say that about me are probably people I shouldn't care what they think anyway, but hell, I'm a human being. I want people to respect me and like me and think of me as a good competitor," he said.

"This team, including me, we need to do a better job. We won't if we don't try and we won't if we give up on each other and we won't if we're not committed to do whatever it takes.

"We are where we are. It sucks and it's not a fun place to be. You better have enough intestinal fortitude, enough guts to deal with the bad times. You're going to have them. I promise you."

Perfect races

Since the creation of what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series in 1949, a driver has won a series race by leading every lap 92 times in 2,336 races. Some highlights:

Most recent recent winner: Jeff Burton, Sept. 17, 2000, New Hampshire 300 laps
Most times a driver has led every lap: 10 by driver Tim Flock
Most laps led in single race: 500, Cale Yarborough, March 25, 1973, Bristol, Tenn.
Fewest laps led by a winner leading every lap: 35, Jack Smith, Aug. 2, 1958, Bridgehampton, N.Y.
First driver to lead every lap: Curtis Turner, July 2, 1950, Monroe Country Fairgrounds, Rochester, N.Y.
Track with most perfect race: Bowman-Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., 10 times

-Jim Utter

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