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July 18, 2013

Jeff Burton confident and motivated in latter of Cup career

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 Jeff Burton enjoys racing. He doesn’t enjoy losing, but he willingly accepts the challenge of getting better to become a serious Chase for the Sprint Cup contender.

So far, the enjoyment of the challenge keeps him motivated as he tries to show that he won’t end his career with 21 Cup victories—that instead more wins are in his future.  Burton sits 17th in the Sprint Cup standings, a year after back-to-back seasons where he finished 20th and 19th. The 46-year-old hasn’t won a race since October of 2008 in Charlotte, a drought of 168 races.

He knows other drivers knock on the door of Richard Childress Racing wondering if his seat is available.

But he has no plans on stepping aside with a contract many believe goes through 2014—a contract that Burton characterizes as “long-term” when asked.

“I got on an airplane last night excited to be here,” Burton said in his race hauler last week. “If you’re not excited about being here and looking forward the challenge, it truly is time to let somebody do it that is. This isn’t a right. This is a privilege to be here.

“I’m one of 500 people at RCR. And I have to pull my share of the load. If I can’t pull my share of the load and I don’t bring an amount of enthusiasm and willingness, then how the hell could I ask anybody else to?”

There’s no doubt that Burton has incredible respect within the garage and from the public. He is considered a driver authority on safety and can explain complex NASCAR issues with ease for the public to understand.

With new television contracts going into effect in 2015 and Burton’s ability to talk effectively about racing, it would almost be a natural move if Burton goes from behind the wheel to behind the camera—especially if a new network (NBC) ends up with some coverage of Cup races.

Burton spent time in the ESPN booth earlier this year during a Nationwide telecast, from which he had good reviews on social media.

But he’s not ready for such a move. He believes that his Luke Lambert-led crew is improving. And the record shows that.

Lambert is in his first full season as a Cup crew chief and more than half the team is new to working together at the Cup level. RCR has also established new processes when it comes to building cars and race preparation under new competition director Eric Warren.

“I’ve enjoyed the process and enjoyed the new energy and new excitement,” Burton said. “It’s a fine line between pushing too hard and being too patient. You can’t just be making changes all the time, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing the last three years.

“You have no cohesiveness. You have no rhythm. At some point, things have got to just settle down. This group of people is capable, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

The progress is evident. He started the year with two top-10s and six finishes of 20th or worse in the first 11 races. Over the last eight, he has two top-10s and just one finish worse than 20th.

“We certainly aren’t where we want to be,” Burton said. “We’ve had a lot of issues struggling finishing races because of wrecks. That’s really put us in a big hole.

“What’s been difficult about those is I’m the one that is responsible for making sure the car doesn’t get wrecked. … A lot of those wrecks, I don’t know how we’d miss.”

The biggest improvement has come on the intermediate tracks. Burton was 19th at Kentucky after some late damage to one of the fenders.

He sees potential to have more top-five finishes as he did Sunday at New Hampshire (third)—his first top-three finish at a non-restrictor-plate track since September 2010 at Dover.

“I’ve never gotten to the point where I’ve said I’m done with the fight, I’m done with the journey,” Burton said. “That is part of it.

“Although that is not the enjoyable part of it, that is part of it—going through those struggles and how you come out of them and getting your (butt) knocked on the ground and picking it back up.”

At some point, though, he’ll get back up. But the top rides will go to other drivers who are younger, better or full of more potential.

What then? Is the television booth an option? Burton said he doesn’t want to leave the sport and wouldn’t mind trying to explain what is going on in the haulers, in the garage and on the racetrack.

But Burton does not envision such a transition as an easy one, and he doesn’t assume network producers even want him.

“I have to be willing to take on that responsibility of understanding what’s going on and doing a good job of explaining what’s going on and making sure I’m educated about it,” Burton said. “If I do it, I want to do it right. I don’t want to do it (halfway).

“I don’t know if people are interested in me or not. If people are interested in me doing it, then I’d like to sit down and talk to them but I don’t know if people want me to do it or not. I have a lot of fans tell me they want me to do it, but they’re not the ones making the decisions.”

For now, he’s happy in the racecar.

“Don’t get me wrong, when we take a seventh-place car and finish 19th with it (like Kentucky), I’m pissed,” Burton said. “I ain’t happy. It isn’t all fun. But I’m damn sure the opposite of miserable."

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