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.
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.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.