Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Under the Spotlight: Burton earns season-best finish against all odds

Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
Jeff Burton took home an unexpected second-place finish for his No. 31 Wheaties Chevrolet team in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 presented by Coca-Cola. This was only Burton’s second top-five finish of the season – his first came in the season-opening Daytona 500 during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ last visit to Daytona International Speedway.

Burton made three saves and avoided several wrecks before crossing the finish line in the best finish of 2012 for the Richard Childress Racing driver. Known within the sport as “The Mayor” Burton started the 160-lap race in 21st and immediately dropped to the back of the pack with teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard in order to prevent engine temperatures from rising, according a team press release.

On lap 92 Burton made his first serious offensive move of the night by avoiding a wreck that nearly sent the No. 47 spinning into Burton’s No. 31 machine. After the team’s final pit stop of the night with just 30 laps to go, Burton restarted the race in 18th and eventually made his way into the top 10 by lap 152.

With just six laps to go, Burton was confronted with the second close call of the night and narrowly escaped “the big one,” but that wasn’t the end of the excitement. Burton restarted in the top five and found himself paired with teammate Harvick in a two-car tandem draft to the finish, or so he thought.

During the white-flag lap, Burton made contact with another car, but managed to keep his composure. Burton’s closest call of the race came during the final lap in which the driver somehow managed to navigate his No. 31 Chevy around yet another wreck and crossed the finish line behind race winner Tony Stewart.

“We’ve had a miserable year, and to get out of Daytona with a second-place finish, we ought to be happy,” Burton said. “Hopefully, it’s something that’ll kick-start our year a little bit. It’s been a difficult year, and hopefully we can build on this.”

A series of five finishes of 22nd or worse earlier this season did not help Burton’s position in the point standings; however, his successful finish this past weekend helped him gain two positions and he now sits 18th (tied with Marcos Ambrose) heading into next weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. His 470 driver’s points puts him ahead of drivers like Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya

With not a single win since October 2008 at Charlotte, New Hampshire is a good place for Burton to seek his next victory – he took home wins at the track in 1997,1998,1999, and 2000. During the 2000 event, Burton led every lap of the race, marking the last time a Sprint Cup Series driver led all of the laps completed. Last year’s summer and fall events at the track earned Burton a 16th-place and 13th-place finish respectively.

“Momentum is created by running well,” Burton said. “Momentum doesn’t create good runs; good runs create momentum. So we’ve got to go to New Hampshire and perform.”

Now at the halfway point of the season, a few other “underdogs” built some momentum of their own with solid finishes in Saturday’s race at Daytona.

Joey Logano, who started the night with his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota in 19th, managed to pick up a fourth-place finish after several struggles throughout the 2.5-mile race. Logano complained of a very loose car during the first pit stop and said the car felt “out of the track.” The driver restarted the race in 21st and worked his way into the top-10 in just six laps. On lap 125 Logano got caught up in the first multicar wreck of the night, which resulted in several stops to make repairs. With just under 20 laps to go, Logano’s No. 20 Chevy was running hot due to a radiator fan that quit during his earlier wreck. The team opted to make an additional stop to switch fans which caused Logano to fall a quarter of a lap down; however, this helped the driver avoid another multicar wreck and restart the race in 11th when the green flag eventually waved. During the final wreck of the night, Logano’s spotter Rocky Ryan helped the driver avoid the entire mess and earn his seventh top-five finish of the season.

The finish helped Logano move up two positions in the point standings and moved him into the second Wild Card position behind teammate Kyle Busch. New Hampshire is a track that Logano looks forward to visiting, because it is considered his “home track” and it is the place where he earned his first career victory, making him the youngest ever Sprint Cup Series winner. Logano has one pole, two top fives and two top-10 finishes in three career races at the track.

Other surprising finishes at Daytona were Michael Waltrip in ninth, Bobby Labonte in 10th, David Reutimann in 11th, Travis Kvapil in 16th, Casey Mears in 18th, and Terry Labonte in 20th.


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