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Caraviello: As 2011 title race ends, another for 2012 begins

November 05, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Three races remain in this Sprint Cup season, and as the weeks dwindle the focus sharpens on those still vying for the championship. Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart compete at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend with just eight points separating them, while a handful of other drivers are hoping to make last-ditch efforts at contention. From the high banks of Fort Worth to the palm groves of South Florida to the neon-lit avenues of Las Vegas, the coming month will be dominated by the title picture and the driver who ultimately emerges clutching that sterling silver cup.

"As silly as it sounds, sometimes running poorly makes the next year better. I know that sounds stupid, but when you're running really well, it's hard to change a lot."

--JEFF BURTON

At the same time, though, another championship campaign is already underway, this one contested by teams and drivers who have no skin in the game -- this year, at least. While Edwards and Stewart and a few select others claw and fight their way through the final stages of this year's Chase, others have already turned their focus toward building for 2012. It can be laborious, overshadowed work, but history tells us that those who make strides in these closing weeks of this season may very well ride that wave of progress into the next. Want to know who the contenders may be for the 2012 Chase? Take a look at those outside the championship picture who are running well right now.

Because all too often, strides at the end of one season translate into improvement during the next. That was certainly the case for Edwards, who snapped a 70-race winless skid late in 2010 by claiming the final two events of that year in Phoenix and Homestead, Fla., victories that propelled him toward a championship-caliber 2011. Two years ago, Denny Hamlin scored top-three finishes in four of his final five starts, including victories at Martinsville and Homestead, and then in 2010 pushed Jimmie Johnson down to the very last race.

Coincidence? Hardly.

"When things aren't clicking, you start to put the pieces of the puzzle together," Jeff Burton said. "You're learning what doesn't work, you're learning what does work, and all that stuff marries into each other. So when you end the year on a strong note, a lot of times you start the next year on a strong note because you've learned. You're on the leading edge of something that's hard for people to catch up on over the winter. No matter what you say, you can build all the theories you want over the winter, but until you get to the race track, you don't know how good that stuff works. So when things are working well, you're able to work on that. You're able to make refinements. When they aren't going well, you're taking big swings at it. And you're always better making refinements than taking big swings."

It can be a backward process -- running poorly can force a team to take major setup gambles on the race car, which may not help them run any better week to week, but perhaps allow them to unearth something they can use in the following season. "As silly as it sounds, sometimes running poorly makes the next year better," Burton said. "I know that sounds stupid, but when you're running really well, it's hard to change a lot. When you're running terrible, you have to change a lot, and sometimes that makes you better, but you don't see it until the end of the year, and that relates into the upcoming year."

Burton should know. His No. 31 team is in the midst of that process right now, trying to right the ship after a disastrous 2011 campaign. Late this year, the program has shown signs of life -- many more finishes in the teens than the 20s, a runner-up two weeks ago at Talladega that was their first top-five of the season, and with a sixth-place effort at Martinsville their first back-to-back top-10s of the year. While it may be too early to pinpoint Burton as one of those making strides toward a 2012 Chase berth, the Richard Childress Racing driver is certainly trending in that direction.

"There are a lot of changes that are going to come around the No. 31, and really all of RCR. Some of those changes are starting to show themselves on the No. 31," Burton said. "But we're working hard to make sure that we have cars that can compete. We're putting ourselves in position to have fast enough race cars, and have the right group assembled. I feel like we're in that process as far as getting back to where we can be competitive, and putting ourselves in position to win races. It doesn't happen overnight. But yeah, I do feel like we're building that."

It's been a long, difficult road for a driver who in 2010 qualified for the Chase for the fourth time in five seasons. In late July, No. 31 team crew chief Todd Berrier -- who has since moved on to a similar role at JTG Daugherty Racing -- was replaced by Luke Lambert, an engineer who had never before called shots from atop the pit box. "This is the first time Luke's ever been a crew chief, period," Burton said. "He's never been a crew chief at Caraway Speedway on a Saturday night. This is his first shot, and you put him in a very difficult situation with an older driver that's impatient and wants to run well, in a situation where we need to run well right now. I think he's done a really nice job."

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When Lambert took over, Burton was 25th in points, and staring at his lowest finish in the final standings since he raced for the Stavola Brothers back in 1995. The issues were everywhere -- the car didn't have speed, the pit crew made mistakes, the driver had trouble on restarts, strategy misfired. "No one just comes in and turns that situation around, because we didn't have one person causing the problem," Burton said. Although his point standing has only moderately improved, and Burton is still in search of his first victory since Charlotte in the fall of 2008, the cars have been more competitive, and the No. 31 has been up among the contenders the past two weeks. While that progress might not be enough to label Burton as a potential contender in 2012, it's certainly a start.

Clouding that picture, though, is the transition ongoing at the Childress team, which is moving from four full-time cars to three with the departure of Clint Bowyer to Michael Waltrip Racing for next year. If RCR does field a fourth car in 2012, it may well be a part-time effort to give Camping World Truck Series points leader [and Childress' grandson] Austin Dillon some seat time at NASCAR's premier level. But in the meantime, pieces are still being shuffled, and Burton was unsure of whether he'd be working with Lambert or another crew chief next season.

"How all that shakes out is yet to be determined," Burton said. "I have a lot of confidence in Luke. I also have a lot of confidence in a lot of people at RCR. So we're not there yet. We have to make some decisions here pretty quickly. But Luke is going to have an opportunity at RCR in one form or fashion or another. The question is, we're going to three teams, what works best for everybody? We want every crew chief to be in the best situation they can be, we want every team to be in the best situation they can be, and that might mean we do some stuff different. Because we're going to three teams, that muddies the water a little bit. We don't have a decision made on that yet, but it will be coming pretty quickly."

Either way, though, Burton seems at least positioning himself as one of those drivers who could use a strong close to one season as a springboard toward the next. He's not alone -- Hamlin has recovered from a miserable Chase start to post three consecutive top-10s, while Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have posted top-10s in four of their past five races as their move to Hendrick Motorsports looms. The Sprint Cup battle centering on Edwards and Stewart still has yet to conclude, but the campaign to unseat that eventual champion has already begun.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch the highs and lows of Burton's 2011 season: