Recent strength and close points standings give No. 31 team hope
LOUDON, N.H. -- Jeff Burton is 17th in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series points standings and winless in 2013.
He is, in fact, winless since 2008, a span of 168 races.
That doesn’t mean that he and his Richard Childress Racing team think they’re out of this year’s playoff picture, the 10-race Chase For The Sprint Cup that begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Six drivers and a deficit of 25 points stand between the 45-year-old Burton and 10th place in the standings, the initial cutoff for the Chase field.
Two of those drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Tony Stewart, each have one Sprint Cup victory this year, putting them in the driver’s seat for the two Wild Card positions that will round out the 12-team Chase lineup.
Burton’s been around, with more than two decades in Cup, so he knows just how difficult the task ahead will be. He’s a realist. But he also knows what his team can achieve.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we are the class of the field, but we are definitely making progress..."
-- Jeff Burton
Sunday’s third-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway vaulted Burton four points positions, from the periphery of the Chase picture into something a bit more legitimate.
Burton said he thinks the Chase is more than a possibility, but even he uses the term “long shot.”
“We have been running a lot better the last two months,” said Burton, after he gained 11 spots on the track during the final 70 or so laps at NHMS.
“Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we are the class of the field, but we are definitely making progress and we feel like we are starting to build on something -- and we understand what we're looking for now.”
Others may scoff the mentions of Burton and Chase contention, but Burton’s a believer. Sometimes long shots pay off.
“We don't think we are out of the Chase. I know everybody else in the world does, but we don't,” he said. “We feel like we can still do it.
“There’s a lot of stuff that's going to happen between now and Richmond (the final regular-season race). It's so competitive, so tight. Today is a good example: Everybody is racing each other that's racing for those spots, and if we can knock off some -- get on one of those streaks that I used to get on, we can make it and we intend to.”
Given the ebb and flow of the points picture this year, it could happen. A week ago, Kurt Busch gained five spots and Tony Stewart six to find themselves in the top 10.
On Sunday, Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne were the ones on the move, dispatching Busch and Stewart. While no positions in the top eight changed, there was movement at eight of the 10 spots between 11th and 20th.
And Burton says his team has the potential to continue to improve. A four-race stretch from Charlotte through Michigan saw the South Boston, Va., native finish 12th or better, due in part to changes that were “completely different than we had done going into any other race.”
“And from then on, we've been (on) go,” he said. “I won't go into specifics about what we did, but it taught us what we could do to be better and since then we have been pretty good.
“Now, again, we have not been the best car but we have been a solid top‑10 car.”
The team, headed up by crew chief Luke Lambert, is young and unproven. Lambert had only 17 races under his belt at the Cup level before the start of the season. And the team engineers, for the most part, are no more experienced.
That newness, combined with a sluggish start to the year, had the group playing catch-up early on.
“And if there was a wreck on the race track, I was in it,” Burton said. “I couldn’t miss a wreck to save my life.”
But now, he said, “we are starting to learn each other.”
“We have a lot of things going on; it's not one thing, but I think the main thing is just having time together and understanding each other.”