ON NASCAR: RCR's Jeff Burton poised to jump back into contention

Special to HuntingtonNews.Net
Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton

Jeff Burton has often been regarded as a senior statesman in the garage and his words typically resonate with NASCAR drivers and officials alike. Maybe that's why his frank assessment of his 2011 campaign hit with such emphasis.


"Last year pissed me off and I'm ready to go make something happen," Burton, 44,  said.


The stark first part of his offseason outlook stems from his worst finish in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series in six years -- a 20th-place effort in the final standings and just five top-10 finishes, down from 15 the previous season. Burton enjoyed a slight uptick in performance after crew chief Lucas Lambert replaced Todd Berrier in July, but a third consecutive winless season clearly wore on the 19-year veteran.


"We need to become relevant again," Burton said. "You become relevant by leading races, by winning races and by contending for championships. Last year, I felt like I was an outsider."


To revive Burton's No. 31 team, Richard Childress Racing evaluated all its components but left the key players largely intact, opting to add leadership to a solid team core. To that end, Childress brought in Drew Blickensderfer, an old acquaintance of Burton's from their days together at Roush Fenway Racing, creating a pairing that enchanted both driver and crew chief.


"The first day I talked to him, he was like, 'Man, if I can work with you and Richard, that's something that would be hard to say no to,' " Burton said. "That means a lot to me. I think, number one, he's talented. He has the skill to do it, but he has all the other things, all the intangibles."


Said Blickensderfer: "The thing that really turned me on about Jeff is that he's always optimistic. He looks at tomorrow like the grass is going to be greener tomorrow and the sun's going to be brighter tomorrow, and that's what you want from your racecar driver. . . . The passion he has to win a championship is greater than anything I've ever seen."


Burton also made a conscious effort in the offseason to become more involved in race setups and the mechanical side of the operation, not just with Blickensderfer but with the entire team. As a result, Burton said he has already felt the difference in his equipment at a Wednesday tire test for Goodyear at Texas Motor Speedway, giving an early indication that the pain of 2011 may soon recede.


"You're going to have bad years. That's just sports," Burton said. "I feel like we've done the things to turn it around."


HORNISH ON THE ROAD AGAIN


Sam Hornish Jr. is eager not just to put his career back on track, but his car, too . . . especially after a 2011 season with just 13 NASCAR Nationwide Series starts. He'll get his chance with Penske Racing with a full-time pursuit of the Nationwide crown this season, saying that anything less than a top-three finish in the standings will be a disappointment.


To say the three-time IndyCar champion has had growing pains in NASCAR is an understatement. But the statement he made last fall at Phoenix International Raceway spoke volumes, too. Hornish held off a host of Nationwide stalwarts down the stretch in a spirited drive to his first major stock-car victory, helping to quiet any naysayers and secure his 2012 plans.


"You do care about what other people say about you, especially what the media says about you because you have to read it or listen to it, but I have to live with myself," Hornish said. "The best part about it was being able to put my doubts aside and say 'yeah, I got everything put together' and that was exactly what we needed to do. It was a very emotional win, but it couldn't have come at a better time and helped us be able to cement everything to run fulltime this year."


NO PREDICTIONS FROM THE CHAMP


Tony Stewart exuded confidence in last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, both in his playful war of words with championship rival Carl Edwards and his on-track swagger as he marched to his third Cup title. But when pressed for a preseason prediction for which driver would hoist the trophy at season's end in 2012, Stewart was less sure of himself.


"I think our season last year was proof that you're throwing darts at a dartboard right now if you're trying to predict who's going to win the championship this early," Stewart said. "Eleven races from the end of the year, I was like 'we're wasting our time here,' then all of a sudden we got on a roll."

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