*2012 Ride:* No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
*2012 Main Primary Sponsors:* Caterpillar, Wheaties,
*Smaller 2012 Primary Deals:* BB&T, Odyssey Batteries, Armed Forces Foundation, Rain-X
*2012 Car Owner:* Richard Childress
*2012 Crew Chiefs:* Drew Blicksensderfer (Feb. – Oct.), Shane Wilson (Oct. – Nov.)
*2012 Stats:* 36 races, 0 wins, 2 top 5s, 6 top 10s, 2 DNFs, 19th in Points.
*Best Finish:* 2nd – Daytona, July.
*Average Finish:* 19.6.
*Average Start:* 23.1.
*2012 Team Ranking:* *3rd* of 3. It’s hard to believe this one-time title contender has fallen behind Paul Menard — yes, that Paul Menard — in any type of ranking system. But Burton, whose inconsistency dogged much of his 2012 campaign never came close to putting up a fight for the Chase. In fact, he didn’t put up a fight in most races altogether, while teammate Menard at least had enough top 15s to remain continually on the edges of the conversation. And Kevin Harvick? He was racing in a whole other time zone by comparison.
*High Point:* This year’s Daytona 500. Leave it to the most bizarre race of 2012 as the one where Burton actually showed flashes of brilliance. Leading 24 laps, he ran inside the top 10 for virtually the entire race, putting himself in position to win down the stretch. In the end, the Matt Kenseth / Dale Earnhardt, Jr. battle left the No. 31 Chevy eating dust, but fifth was nothing to sneeze at in a race that could have set this team up for a solid season. Add in a second at Daytona this July, and Burton’s average finish at the track was a spectacular 3.5 — over sixteen positions above his average.
*Low Point:* Where to begin? The 36-race schedule was a semester-long lesson on how _not_ to run a top-tier Cup program. But perhaps the momentum-bursting moment, as early as it was came in the second race of the season at Phoenix. Long one of Burton’s best tracks, the No. 31 Chevy was in position for a second straight top-10 finish to begin the year. Running a comfortable eighth in the closing laps, all was well until the engine expired on the Caterpillar Chevy, blowing up with less than 30 laps to go. With Burton heading to the garage a disappointing 33rd, one of two mechanical DNFs the team would have on the year sucked the life out of a promising start. In hindsight, neither driver nor the team ever recovered.
*Summary:* For Jeff Burton, after a momentum-building finish to 2011 his team went through a questionable personnel switch. Head wrench Luke Lambert, who led the team to four top-10 finishes in the final five races was replaced, moved into the Nationwide Series while veteran Cup crew chief Drew Blickensderfer took the reins. With an engineering background, built through a career with Ford and Roush Fenway Racing the powers that be at RCR thought a resume filled with his knowledge base — along with a Daytona 500 victory — was enough to hit the reset button at the No. 31.
Sure, the team reset alright; it stayed stuck at square one. Burton handled the situation with class, but the chemistry between driver and crew chief was never there from the start in perhaps Sprint Cup’s most disastrous 2012 pairing. Never higher than 12th in points after the season’s second race, this duo put a capital “s” in the word struggle outside of the restrictor plate ovals, where they were four-for-four on top-10 finishes. For Burton, everywhere else simply staying on the lead lap was an accomplishment in itself, finishing no better than 12th at any of the sport’s cookie-cutter intermediates and falling victim to mechanical problems several times. The pit crew often churned out slow stops; ECR engines, once a hallmark for this organization lost their edge as the year wore on. Leading a total of seven laps over the season’s final 34 events, Burton at age 45 looked about ten times more washed up than Mark Martin at age 53. At times, his future employment with RCR was in question before a multi-year extension with sponsor Caterpillar eased those fears. Blick was the one shown the door instead, in late October with a return of Lambert clearly the gamble RCR is looking for to bring back the consistency that was once the hallmark of its veteran leader. Burton, after this type of year called 2013 “make or break…” but after two straight seasons of mediocre results, it’s more like “reconstruct or else.” This driver’s confidence, along with the car’s internal chassis and setups are in some serious need of rebuilding.
*2013 Outlook:* Life should be good with Luke Lambert, right? After all, the duo came together like wildfire towards the tail end of the 2011 season. Regarded as one of the great, up-and-coming head wrenches on the circuit, his willingness to gamble for track position, as well as Burton’s willingness to listen should bode well. Stability should also be a key asset; Harvick’s impending departure from RCR means that Burton, no matter the results should be safe at least through 2014. Could he emerge as a surprise Chase contender? Or will this team stay stuck in the 20s? I wouldn’t be surprised either way.
*2011 Frontstretch.com Grade:* C.
*2012 Grade:* C-.