Richard Childress Racing
Burton re-energized by return to Late Model
April 25, 2012
For the first time in his Sprint Cup career, NASCAR veteran Jeff Burton will join former Chesterfield resident Denny Hamlin in his Short Track Showdown charity race at Richmond International Raceway. And though Burton donated his time to the event, it was he who is getting an unexpected payoff from the experience.
Thursday night will mark the first time in over two decades that Burton has competed in a Late Model race. During testing at RIR last Wednesday, the environment reminded Burton of his past and the hard work it took to get where he is now at.
“I haven’t run a Late Model in over 20 years and I wanted to race with these guys because it’s what I grew up doing,” Burton said. “I know how hard I worked and the people around me worked and that’s how hard they’re working.”
But the South Boston native was also reminded that with the hard labor also comes a more relaxed Late Model atmosphere. “No matter what anybody says, it is very high pressure in that (Cup) garage,” Burton said. “A lot of people have been run out of that garage because they weren’t tough enough. It isn’t as relaxed as the Nationwide garage is and the Nationwide garage isn’t as relaxed as that (Late Model) garage.”
Burton recalled his first Late Model race in Richmond at what was then the Fairgrounds track. “I came here, led a lot of the race and had a big wreck on the front straightaway with like 10 to go, got in it and didn’t win,” he said.
Burton and his father came to Richmond with lofty hopes and a brand new engine in their car, but it was another driver who made the day memorable for Jeff. “I didn’t have any experience and my dad said (to Jay Headstock) ‘Would you mind driving it because my son doesn’t know what he’s talking about’.”
Headstock took the car out onto the track and the engine blew on the back straightaway. “Brand new car, total loss,” Burton could now laugh about the incident.
Burton admits that he never had high expectations during those early years. “I honestly never had a desire to be Cup driver,” he said. “I wanted to race against Tommy Ellis. I wanted to race against Jack Ingram. I wanted to race again Sonny Hutchins. That’s what I wanted to do. It was cool. I was a bit in awe. I worked really hard not to piss anybody off.
“For a while you tip-toe around them because you didn’t want to make a person mad that you looked up to,” Burton said.
Decades have passed and now it is Burton who is the one looked up to. During testing he handed out track advice to the younger drivers- ‘Be careful on the gradient transition between track and pits. Watch out for Turn 2’- among other tidbits.
“It’s what people did for me,” Burton said. “I can remember coming here for the first time in a Late Model car… People would help you.”
Burton demonstrated that thinking process later in the afternoon by helping Mechanicsville’s Doug Godsey as he assisted another driver in pulling an engine. “That’s just the way it is in NASCAR with the Good Old Guys,” Godsey said.
Even though the race is for charity, Burton’s decision to return to Late Model was not done on the spur of the moment. “I don’t do anything on a lark,” he said. “This was well thought out. There’s a method to my madness though it doesn’t always look like it.”
The motivation for Burton’s return stems from you 12-year-old son Harrison, who is already making his mark in racing. -A fact that stunned Godsey when he got a good look at the Late Model #31 Caterpillar Chevy. “I didn’t realize he had a son 12 years old and he built this Late Model for his son,” Godsey said. “I looked at the model and it’s a state of the art Late Model. It’s a brand new Hedgecock car, got the best of everything on it and he built it for a 12-year-old kid who he’s going to start running in the UARA and other stuff from what I understand.”
Like any father, Burton wanted to get a better understanding of what his son would face. “He’s eventually going to be behind the wheel of one of these cars and I wanted to get back into it and understand what he’s going to be dealing with,” Burton said.
But the experience has also changed Burton’s outlook when it comes to Cup racing. “I got a little detached from the technical side of things on the races,” he said. “It’s kind of helped me in my recommitment about being re-involved in the car,” Burton added. “It’s kind of helped me with that too, even though these cars are nothing like the Cup cars. It’s still a race car and vehicle dynamics- on a million dollar car or a $50,000 car, it’s still vehicle dynamics. It helps me wake my mind up a little bit. I hope.”
Likewise, Burton knows the Short Track Showdown will not be a walk in the park just because he drives in the Sprint Cup Series. “We’re going to have to work hard to do it,” he said. “It means something to win it because you’re racing against really, really good drivers.”
The overall experience has reminded Burton of things he missed out on when he was younger. “I didn’t have as much fun as I should have had,” he said. “I’ve always been real serious about this and didn’t enjoy it as much. Didn’t appreciate the opportunity, as my desire made when we didn’t run well it wasn’t fun for me.”
Such will not be the case this week. “It’s fun to come here,” Burton said. “It’s my own car. It’s the first time I’ve owned a car in a long time. We built it. We’ll sink or sail our way.”
Indications are that Burton will do more sailing than sinking with his Late Model car. “He was super fast,” Godsey said of Burton during testing. “He was one of the better cars there. He was who we were clocking and judging off of.”
But most of all, Burton was just happy to be back in Richmond. “There’s been a lot that’s happened to me here and it’s fun to come back at this level,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m stepping back. I’m just doing something that I did when I started.”