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Veteran stops his career's slide

By The Associated Press
Thursday, August 10, 2006

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If Richard Childress can put two cars in the Chase for the championship, he's convinced one will win the Nextel Cup title.
Either one of them.

Kevin Harvick no longer is the one-man show at RCR, a team on a comeback after several sluggish seasons. With it has come the emergence of rookie Clint Bowyer and the resurgence of veteran Jeff Burton.

"If we get in the Chase, we will win a championship," Childress said. "Jeff or Kevin can do it. If they're in, they'll be serious championship contenders."

It's been a long time since anyone called Burton a contender. But now that he's enjoying his best season in years, Burton finally might win the title he was predicted to get so many years ago.

He was a star back in 2000, when he won four races and finished third in the final standings behind champion Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt. Burton opened the next season as a championship favorite, but instead of taking the next step forward in his career, he went backward.

The 2001 season was overshadowed by Earnhardt's death, and Burton was one of the leading voices for improved safety measures. Although he scored two wins and finished 10th in the standings, many believed he was consumed by his safety agendas and suffered on the track for it.

The next three years were a steady decline for Burton, who seemed to be in neutral while his Roush Racing teammates were reeling off wins and championships. Frustrated and unable to turn it around, Burton got out of the No. 99 Ford late in the 2004 season.

It didn't help that Carl Edwards climbed in and took off -- winning four times and finishing third in his first full season in the No. 99 -- while Burton was stuck in RCR's slow rebuild.

But now that Childress finally has things back on track, so does Burton.

"I didn't go join Richard Childress Racing because I was trying to wrap up my career -- I went to Richard Childress Racing because I was trying to restart my career," Burton said. "A lot of athletes, late in their careers they make a move, and that's the end of it.

"That wasn't my intention. My intention was to get it stepped back up."

He's done so with a vengeance. Burton is currently third in the standings, needing nothing short of a total collapse to keep him out of the Chase. He sat on the pole last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, giving him three poles this year after winning just two others in the previous 12 seasons.

And although he has yet to score a Nextel Cup win this season -- his last victory was in 2001 -- Burton has won twice in the Busch Series this year to prove he still knows the way.

Putting it all back together was simple, once Burton figured out what the problem was: He needed to get in a car that he could drive.

"I believe that at this level, Bobby Labonte hasn't forgotten how to drive," Burton said. "You give him a car that will go around the racetrack fast, and he'll go around the racetrack fast in it. I believe the same thing about myself. I believe the same thing about Mark Martin and the same thing about Kasey Kahne and many others.

"The reality of it is, a driver can't put it up on his shoulders anymore. He can certainly have an impact. But the equipment is so important."

But there were times when Burton needed a little help getting his spirits up. He'd head into his personal trophy room to reminisce about the days of winning, glancing at the 37 trophies from his trips to Cup and Busch victory lanes.

It was all the proof he needed that he would someday be back.

"I will tell you that even though we were not running well, I never lost confidence in my ability to drive," Burton said. "Because I've seen it happen to everybody. I saw Dale Earnhardt get where he couldn't run well. I watch enough sports and I've paid enough attention to the things around me to know that not everything is always going to go your way.

"And when it doesn't, you've got to go to work and try to make it better."

Now that it's better, Burton finds himself with his first real chance to win a title in six years. Although he's currently 375 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, the field will be reset in five weeks, and Burton will begin the Chase with a clean slate and a solid chance to get it done.

If he does, he'll have a cheering section at Roush made up of his former teammates.

"If we couldn't win it, I'd love to see him win it," said Matt Kenseth, currently second in the points. "He's been running great all year, and it's cool to see him back in that form again."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

I have been a Jeff Burton fan for years and even though Nascar isn't Steelers football, it is a close second.