Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Jeff Burton on How to Save a Struggling Season

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For Jeff Burton, the 2012 season up to now has been a year to forget. Entering Daytona, he was 20th in points with a grand total of three top-10 finishes. Two of those results had occurred in restrictor-plate races, the type of “Russian Roulette” competition that can often mask a team’s faults at other tracks.

The team had generally been out to lunch at the bread-and-butter ovals in the series, killing any real hopes of achieving their original goal to make the Chase.

Burton sat down with our own Phil Allaway this past weekend in Daytona to discuss his frustrating season to date, thoughts on the current restrictor-plate package and his goals for the rest of 2012.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: Let’s start with the rules at Daytona. We’ve been through some changes this season, in an effort to bring back pack drafting … but which style of competition do you prefer more? Pack racing or tandems?

Burton: The tandems. I’ve been coming to Daytona for over 20 years and I’ve seen firsthand the results of pack racing. I thought that the tandem drafting gave us the best of both worlds. It gave us great races for the finish, but it separated the packs so that if somebody made a mistake, when it happened, they didn’t take a bunch of people with them. We had less innocent bystanders in those wrecks, so that part of it I liked.

I didn’t like part of it also. I didn’t like being the guy that was pushing and you couldn’t see. I didn’t like the fact that you were getting pushed by a guy who couldn’t see. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about it, but I thought the positives outweighed the negatives.

Allaway: Entering Saturday’s race, you’re 20th in points with one top five (fifth in the Daytona 500) and three top-10 finishes. How do you evaluate your season up to this point?

Burton: It hasn’t been good. It’s been less than anyone on this team had thought we would do. Our mile and a half/2-mile program has not been good at all. We’ve got a lot of ground to make up.

I always look at this race as the beginning of the second half of the year. And we go to New Hampshire, then we get a little break. We gotta catch our breath and start over, if that makes any sense. Hopefully, we can have much better results.

I feel like we’ve learned some stuff, and that we’ve started to turn some stuff around and get a little better. We ran better at Charlotte, ran better at Pocono, ran better at Dover. But then, we followed that up with two bad runs at Kentucky and Michigan. So, we gotta right the ship. I feel like I know what we did wrong at Michigan, but Kentucky confused us from the moment we unloaded.

Allaway: Was it just because of the bumpiness, or just a lack of handling?

Burton: If we knew what the problem was, it wouldn’t be a problem.

Allaway: What did it feel like?

Burton: The car didn’t have any speed. It didn’t drive good enough and we didn’t have any speed.

Allaway: Going into this season, what kind of goals did you set for the year?

Burton: Realistically, we thought we would make the Chase and contend for a championship. We did some offseason testing that went really well. We were fast in the mile-and-a-half testing that we did. Just didn’t pan out when the races started. So, we came into the year very optimistic.

We went into the 500 and finished fifth. Then we went to Phoenix and had a really good run going and broke an engine, which set us back. We’ve had more mechanical failures than we’re accustomed to on this team.

We’ve had three engine failures and another part failure throughout the races that we’ve run, so we’ve had four mechanical issues. This is a lot more than RCR typically has. And then, on top of that, not running as well as we need to run and that’s why we’re 20th in points.

Quite honestly, I’m a little surprised we’re 20th in points. When you run the way we have on the mile-and-a-halfs and you break four times, and I wrecked us at Richmond. That was completely my fault. We’ve had five races that had a wreck and four mechanicals, so I don’t know how we’re 20th, to be honest.

Allaway: Your team had a number of changes over the offseason, including the addition of Drew Blickensderfer as your new crew chief. How is the working relationship between the two of you?

Burton: It’s been hard because we haven’t had success. But, I know that he is capable. We obviously wanted to start off better than we did on the mile-and-a-halfs. We did start off at the beginning of the year with speed the first two races of the year. Fifth in Daytona and we were going to finish from sixth to eighth at Phoenix until we broke.

We were off to a reasonable start, then the mile-and-a-halfs started coming up and we started running bad. That’s been disappointing, but I know Drew is capable. The reason he’s here is because I wanted him to be here. And he wanted to be here, too. He and I collectively have to do a better job. The way we’re running doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders and it doesn’t rest solely on mine. We share it.

The result[s] haven’t been there, but it’s not for a lack of effort. It’s not because [Drew] doesn’t know what he’s doing or because I forgot how to drive. It’s just been a combination that we’ve been trying to make work, we have to make it work. And we will. We will make it work. We’re working very hard at it and eventually, we’ll get it.

Allaway: As of now, there are 19 races left in the season. What would be considered legitimate goals for the rest of the year?

Burton: Honestly, we gotta get our mile-and-a-half/2-mile program where we can even compete. Where we can go and challenge for top 10s. That’s the primary goal to get where we can compete and we can be disappointed when we finish 14th. We can say “Wow, we had all these things go wrong, and we didn’t do this well.”

Right now, we’re so far off on the mile-and-a-half/two-mile tracks that it’s hard to build on anything. What we’ve gotta do is find a way to get close enough so that we can build on something. If we can do that, then I think we have a much better chance of starting off the year the way we need to start it off.

Hard to believe we’re talking about next year already, but we’re far enough off now that its very, very nerve-wracking going into the offseason running like this. Our goals are to get more competitive, get our mile-and-a-half program where we feel like we’ve made a lot of gains on it.

We’ve got a new car coming for next year, [and] that’s going to be a whole ‘nother ballgame. Some new rules are coming in relation to suspension setups and stuff, so our goal is get a foothold so we have something to build on.

On Saturday night, Burton’s performance more or less mirrored his success at the other plate races he’s run this season. According to NASCAR, he managed to be one of only eight drivers from the field of 43 to not get caught up in a wreck. Six of those drivers failed to complete 125 miles in the race (only JJ Yeley, who had multiple mechanical issues, did not start-and-park). The other driver who avoided all the wrecks? Tony Stewart.

Despite his wistfulness towards restrictor-plate racing, Stewart waltzed out of Daytona with the trophy. Burton came out of Daytona with a second-place finish, only his second top-five finish of the season. However, even then, the race was not completely ideal.

“We were just too hot. We can’t run a whole race racing the way we really want to race,” Burton said in his post-race press conference. “We had to get out of the pack or we run too much oil temperature and too much water temperature … that we can do without having an engine failure. It’s not one thing wrong, it’s just I think we have a package issue that’s just not working with this combination.”

Because of the temperature issues, Burton, along with RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard had to drop to the rear of the field early in the race in order to preserve their power plants. Yes, it allowed them to be around at the finish (and in Harvick and Menard’s cases, to get caught up in late-race wrecks), but they couldn’t legitimately race for 400 miles.

Burton’s second-place finish moved him up two places to 18th in points, 102 out of tenth. Additional positions could be gained in the coming weeks if the team can improve their overall form.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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