LOUDON, N.H. — 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 has 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-fastest 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 is 18th in the Sprint Cup Series standings with a pair of top-five finishes in 18 races. As recently as two years ago, Burton made the Chase and was ranked as high as 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 a race from start to finish, all 300 laps.
A time of tragedy
Burton’s perfect race came during imperfect times in NASCAR.
Twice during the 2000 season, NASCAR drivers had been killed at New Hampshire. Adam Petty died in May during an accident during practice in what was then the Busch Series. Kenny Irwin died a month later in a wreck during a Cup series practice.
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 Loudon that September.
Burton was among the drivers advocating NASCAR make changes.
“We’ve got to build better walls,” Burton said then. “… We have to use the fatalities that 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 during the Daytona 500 only five months later, was the most critical of the decision to use the plates, which likely would keep the field of cars packed closer together and running similar speeds. He said then-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 started second in the race, with Bobby Labonte the fastest qualifier. Burton quickly made his way around Labonte.
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 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, (I) 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 might unfold.
“I slipped up on a restart and Bobby Labonte got underneath me and my spotter (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 every lap and became the first Cup driver to accomplish that feat since Cale Yarborough led all 420 laps in the June 3, 1978, race at the old Nashville (Tenn.) Fairgrounds.
And no driver has 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 Kevin Harvick, Burton’s teammate.
“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.”
“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 2000 and twice in 2001.
Since then, however, the road to Victory Lane has become one less traveled. Burton has 21 Cup wins, but just four have come since the 2001 season, and he hasn’t won since 2008.
Changes in personnel were made to his team during the offseason after he finished 20th in points last year. Yet so far, he has 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 has entered occasional races with his own Late Model team 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 (in the Cup series) right now.”
The struggles have led to rampant speculation Burton might lose his job at RCR next season, although he has at least two more years left on his contract.
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 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.”