BROOKLYN, Mich. — A typical first impression of Jeff Burton is that he’s got more sense than most race-car drivers.
It isn’t to say that racers aren’t intelligent, witty and likable. They are. Burton, however, is thoughtful, reasonable and tactful. Those are the qualities that set him apart.
At 43, Burton is the younger of South Boston, Va., racing brothers. Ward Burton won five Sprint Cup races in a career that ran from 1994 through 2007, highlighted by the 2002 Daytona 500. Jeff Burton has won 21 times at NASCAR’s highest level.
Perhaps a rivalry among brothers is an excellent breeding ground for tact.
Jeff Burton is one of six drivers in the current top 12 — i.e., Chase for the Sprint Cup position with three regular-season races left — without a victory thus far in 2010. Nonetheless, he ranks seventh in the point standings with four top-five finishes and 12 top 10s. A year ago, none of Richard Childress Racing’s three drivers made the Chase. This year all three are in position to do so, and Kevin Harvick is the point leader.
"We’ve had to fight to climb back up the hill," Burton said.
"What we have to work on is not getting back down. This is a competitive sport. You’re not always going to be as good as you can be. ... You’ve just got to go to work and not accept failure."
As far as the Chase is concerned, he said, "No. 1, you still have to make it. There’s still a lot of racing left to go. No. 2, I just believe that this Chase will be like most Chases: You’ve got to run in the front. You have to avoid the bad races."
With the Chase just three races away, Burton said, "Some people are trying to protect positions. Some people are trying to go get bonus points. Some people are trying to earn their way in. The guys that are in 14th, 15th, they don’t believe they are out of it. They still have a shot."
Anyone who makes the Chase, of course, has "a shot" at the Sprint Cup championship. A championship would crown Burton’s entire career. He has finished third, fourth, fifth (twice), sixth, seventh and eighth in the Cup standings at various points in his career.
"I hope that we can come down to Homestead," said Burton, referring to the season finale. "I hope we can be in the midst of it, and it comes down to late in the race. That’s what we do."
Dutton has covered motorsports for the Gaston Gazette in North Carolina since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog, http://nascar.rbma.com, features his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Dutton at firstname.lastname@example.org.