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Hard Feelings
Mark Beech
October 20, 2008
While other drivers cried over bent metal from the race before, Jeff Burton calmly put himself in Cup contention
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October 20, 2008

Hard Feelings

While other drivers cried over bent metal from the race before, Jeff Burton calmly put himself in Cup contention

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IN A SPORT replete with facile, fence-straddling pitchmen, Jeff Burton stands alone in the Cup garage, a no-spin arbiter of right and wrong, true and false. He calls it as he sees it, his delivery as blunt as his crewcut. So after his Bank of America 500 victory last Saturday night in Charlotte, the fifth race of the Chase, it was no surprise when Burton declined to offer any hype or false cheerleading. "We're not going to get caught up in the whole points thing," he said. "We're just laying it out there, having a good time. Whatever happens, we all know we put a lot of effort into it. If we don't win the championship, our year's not a failure."

Though the win at Lowe's Motor Speedway vaulted the 41-year-old Burton into second place in the Cup standings, 69 points behind Jimmie Johnson (who finished sixth in the race), it's hard to see the result as a harbinger of better things to come. Burton led 58 laps in Charlotte; in the previous 30 races he'd led a total of only 82. Johnson, on the other hand, has turned 1,369 laps in the lead this season, and has five victories to Burton's two. "We're just not as fast as he is," says Burton. Halfway through the Chase, it's clear that Johnson won't be overtaken unless he suffers some disaster. Little wonder that Burton and his crew have adopted such an even-tempered approach to their jobs.

This mind-set may stem from Burton's history in the Chase. In 2006, the last time he ranked so high this late in the season, he left Charlotte with a 45-point lead in the standings. But he blew an engine at Martinsville the following week and never recovered, finishing no better than 10th in the next four races and ending the year in seventh place. "We may have gotten a little too tight," he says. "Everybody always wants to give somebody a trophy right now. Just hold on. Anything can happen."

Such an approach might someday benefit Carl Edwards, who spent much of his time at Charlotte trapped in a shame spiral of his own making. At Talladega the previous Sunday he'd caused a 12-car smashup late in the race that took out several Chase contenders, including teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Afterward Kevin Harvick, another of the Chasers caught up in the wreck, called Edwards "a pansy" on live television, prompting Edwards to leave a sarcastic note on Harvick's plane. Unable to let it go at that, Edwards confronted Harvick in the Nationwide garage last Thursday, and the two had to be separated. Edwards, visibly embarrassed, attempted to downplay the incident. But Harvick—a scapegrace of some renown in the Cup garage—reveled in twisting the knife. Smirking from behind his sunglasses on Friday, he announced to reporters, "I could give two s---- about Carl Edwards."

On Saturday a beleaguered Edwards finished 33rd after suffering early ignition problems. The result knocked him from second to fourth in the standings and all but eliminated him from Cup contention—he trails Johnson by 168 points.

As Edwards's season crumbled, the unflappable Burton made his strongest competitive statement yet. Still, as he'll be the first to tell you, it might not be enough to win a championship.

Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.