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Burton's career defined by stint with RCR

October 19, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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As Burton's Richard Childress Racing career comes to a close, veteran aiming for wins

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TALLADEGA, Ala. -- It was six years ago this week when Jeff Burton went to Martinsville Speedway with a seemingly comfortable lead halfway through NASCAR's playoff, a 45-point advantage bolstered by a knack for staying out of trouble. "The new Iceman," as Dale Earnhardt Jr. had referred to him after the previous race, seemed on the verge of delivering overdue championships both to himself and Richard Childress Racing.

It never happened.

Burton went to his home track in south Virginia and blew an engine, plummeted to fifth in the standings, and was never a serious threat again. How often does he think about that weekend, and what might have been had it unfolded differently?

"Daily," the veteran racer said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Such thoughts might come more naturally these days, as Burton nears end of a tenure with RCR that in large part has come to define his career. After the final five races of this season, Burton is parting with the organization to make room for Ryan Newman, who will take over the No. 31 car beginning in 2014. Hopes of keeping Burton in the Childress fold in a fourth car were scuttled after sponsorship for the vehicle failed to materialize.

So this season will bring the end of a stint with RCR that, while not as productive as his tenure at Roush Fenway Racing, was perhaps even more significant. Burton has spent eight and a half seasons at RCR, one longer than his time at Roush. And while only four of his 21 career victories came in the Childress stable, it was at RCR where Burton emerged as the conscience of his race team, as a spokesman for his sport, and enjoyed his best shot at winning a title -- that 2006 campaign where his hopes went up in smoke at Martinsville.

I thought I had a lot of chances at Roush to win championships, and to be perfectly blunt about it we just didn’t have everything together," Burton said. "One year we would have pit stops that couldn’t get it done, the next year we would have too many engine failures. Kind of like Mark (Martin's) career, too, where he had a lot of chances to win championships and it just wasn’t all together at the right time. We had the speed to win championships, but didn’t have necessarily everything else."

That's what made 2006 stand out. Burton won just one race that year, but it was the second event of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Dover, and it established him as the driver to beat over the opening half of the playoff. He emerged from a wreck-strewn Charlotte event with a 45-point lead under the previous system, but remained cautious. "Five races is a long time," Burton said that night. Five races later, he was in seventh place.

"They are never over until they are over, and watching this championship everybody keeps saying it’s a two- or three-car race. No, not yet," he said, referring to a Chase in which Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have built some separation from the rest of the field. "But that year honestly, I really thought we had everything in place that year to get it done -- pit crew, crew chief, driver, everybody was in sync, and it just didn’t work out.”

That 2006 campaign was the high-water mark of Burton's tenure at RCR, an organization he's ridden through some down times, including when he first joined the team in the middle of 2004. But Burton helped return it competitive viability, making the Chase four times, most recently in 2010. His most recent race victory was at Charlotte in the fall of 2008. Kevin Harvick may be RCR's flagship driver, but over much of the last decade Burton has become as synonymous with the team as anyone else.

Next year, they'll both have moved on -- Harvick to Stewart-Haas Racing, Burton to a destination yet to be announced. As his run with Childress nears its end, Burton wished he'd achieved a little more.

"I don’t think neither one of us are real happy with the total amount of success that we had, but at the same time we both know we gave 100 percent and did everything we could together. I’m disappointed that we didn’t have more success. I think when I went there it was a bit of a gamble, but it felt right to me. It was a team that kind of needed to get rebuilt," said Burton, who will start second in Sunday's race by virtue of his opening practice speed, since qualifying was rained out.

"I think we did a really good job with helping rebuild that and get it to where it is. It was probably one of the best places to be. Then it got to where it wasn’t. We did a lot of stuff. We made the Chase three years in a row with all three teams. I took a lot of pride in being part of that. Ultimately with the No. 31, we just didn’t have the success that either one of us really wanted to have. That disappointed both of us, but there are no hard feelings about it. We both know we worked hard at it."

Saturday, Burton was unable to shed any more light on his situation for next season -- "I’m really comfortable with where I am and what I am going to be doing. I’m just not in position to talk about it," he said -- but he was certain about how he wanted to finish his run in the No. 31. He's won before at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, three of the four events remaining after this weekend. He believes he has another victory left in him.

I want to win, so the next five races are about that," he said. "It’s really not very complicated. There are only a few chances left, so it means those races are more important, but at the same time they are putting the same amount of effort into it. There hasn’t been any let down in effort. We are trying real hard to finish up strong. We will see what we can get. I do feel like we’ve been building. There are days we run really well and there are days we run not so well. ... I feel like we’ve got a lot of really good tracks coming up, and hopefully we can do something good.”

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