Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Haven't We Been Here Before?
Jeff Burton has seen a lot in his 15-year career, but some things lately are more familiar than others. In this case, that would be his strong start to the 2008 season. After winning at Bristol and running third last week at Martinsville -- his third and fourth top 10 finishes in a row -- the formidable 40-year-old veteran is atop the Sprint Cup points standings and looking like a strong contender for his first championship.
But can we believe in this start? Last year, despite trailing Jeff Gordon in the standings by 28 points after six races, the first week of April marked Burton's high point for the season. After winning at Texas, his No. 31 team went into a moderate tailspin. After earning six top 10 finishes in the first seven races of the season, he managed just two more in the next nine races. And while his results weren't bad enough to ever drop him out of contention for the Chase, they did render him a non-factor for the rest of the season.
Why the drop off? Several garage insiders told me during preseason testing that Burton and his team at Richard Childress Racing benefited from all the fits other teams had with the Car of Tomorrow in 2007. In other words, Burton wasn't really as awesome as he seemed at times last season so much as other teams were worse. One number in particular seems to bear this logic out: Burton led only 79 laps all of last season (and 51 of those were at Martinsville last October). That's hardly a dominant figure: Tony Stewart, who finished sixth last year, led 980 laps.
This year, I'm curious to see if we can expect another spring-summer swoon from Burton. He's certainly said nothing to dismiss that notion. "I don't think we're running as well right now as we did this point last year," he said on Sunday. "We haven't really been the best car anywhere. So we've got to be better"
But I'm not so sure. There's no question that some teams that struggled early last season (Roush Fenway and Evernham Motorsports, in particular) are indeed better in '08. But I would include RCR in that group, as well. Look no further than its 1-2-3 finish at Bristol on March 16. Last March, Burton was the only RCR driver in serious contention. My hunch is that Burton is capable of competing more consistently over the course of the next 30 races. Only time will tell.
How to Drive ...
Texas Motor Speedway
David Reutimann talks about racing at Texas:
"Texas is fast, very fast. I think outside of the speed what stands out the most is it has a couple of little bumps that can upset your car a little bit, but mostly you just think about how fast it is. Over the years, though, I think that it's really developed into a great place to race. The Texas races last year had some great finishes. In the beginning, you were really only able to run the bottom line but with the more races that are run there, it seems to become a little more forgiving and we are able to run more of the race track. Tracks have personalities just like people do, but Texas has been pretty consistent over the years. This year we are returning with the new car, which has been an adjustment at all these speedways -- like Las Vegas and Atlanta -- that we've gone to for the first time this year. So that will be the biggest adjustment, I think. I guess we can look back a little at Atlanta because the track has some similarities to Texas. We left Atlanta with a top 20 finish and that's the type of run we are looking for this weekend, to hopefully get our team back inside the top 35."
1: Number of combined top 10 finishes for Penske teammates Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman since the two crossed the line in first and second at the season-opening Daytona 500
8: Number of combined times Busch and Newman have finished 12th or worse over the same span
62.7: Driver rating for Newman at Texas, the lowest of any driver among the top 12 of the point standings
A pair of diehards relax through a rain delay during practice for the Food City 500 at Bristol.
April 2, 2000: In just his 12th start, 25-year-old Cup rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads a race-high 106 laps and cruises to his first career victory. At the time, only one other driver had needed fewer races to record his first win (Ron Bouchard won in his 11th start in 1981).