Jeff Burton bound for NBC broadcast booth
December 03, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
LAS VEGAS -- When NBC last televised NASCAR races between 2001 and 2006, executive producer Sam Flood knew there was one driver he could turn to for an opinion on whatever issue was most prominent in the sport at the time. So when NBC regained NASCAR broadcast rights beginning with the 2015 season, Flood knew he wanted that same driver in his broadcast booth.
Jeff Burton was announced Tuesday as the first member of an NBC booth that will begin calling NASCAR races in the summer of 2015. The 21-time race winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will trade his steering wheel for a microphone, but Flood wants Burton to retain the same honest, outspoken style that's long made him a favorite of the media he will join next season.
"If any story was going on, there's one guy we'd go to for an interview. And it was Jeff, because he had an opinion, and he wasn't afraid to say strong things and make strong comments about anything or anyone on the race track," Flood said at the NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum, which kicked off Champion's Week. "And when we started thinking about getting back into NASCAR, I knew the first phone call for an analyst up in the booth was going to be to this guy."
NBC and NASCAR came to terms in July on an agreement that will see the network return as a broadcast partner beginning in 2015, and Flood said two days later he placed his first phone call to Burton. The timing worked out for both parties, given that Burton was approaching a career crossroads from a driving standpoint with Richard Childress Racing, the organization he parted ways with after this past season.
"It took me a while to really get myself in a place to say, I'm not going to drive in '15," Burton said. "That to me was the big step; was I willing to commit to that. Internally, that was my battle. And I came to that conclusion early this year, May or June. I didn't publicly say it, but I told Richard that I was not going to drive in '15. I had come to that conclusion. And, of course, that led to all the things that happened later. But it took me a while to get to that point."
Ryan Newman will take over Burton's former No. 31 car at RCR beginning next season. Monday, Michael Waltrip Racing announced that Burton would test for the organization and drive in a limited number of Sprint Cup events in 2014. Burton said Tuesday his schedule would probably be between six and 14 races. His deal with MWR is for one year, while he characterized his agreement with NBC as long term.
Although he may continue to test or even compete occasionally beyond next season, Burton said once the NBC broadcast season begins, he's committed to the booth.
"I am 100 percent committed to being in the booth and doing my job for NBC. ... It would be unfair for me to treat this as a part-time gig," Burton said. "... It's a job, and it's going to take effort and it's going to take work. And you can't do that as effectively as you need to if you have too many other things going on. You just can't do it. The job deserves more effort than that."
Burton will begin to appear on NBC's networks in 2014, as a regular guest on a daily NASCAR program on NBC Sports Network. NBC on Monday named Jeff Behnke its vice president of NASCAR production, and will base the former Turner Sports producer out of Charlotte, N.C. Flood said more talent announcements are still to come, with one anticipated as early as Wednesday.
The network has not yet revealed whether it will use a two- or three-person booth during races.
NASCAR and NBC Sports Group reached an agreement in July that grants NBC Universal exclusive rights to the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, final 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series events, select NASCAR Regional and Touring Series events and other live content beginning in 2015. Of NBC Sports Group's 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events, seven will be carried on NBC annually, with 13 airing on NBC Sports Network. Four of NBC Sports Group's 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series races will air on NBC, with 15 airing on NBC Sports Network. A central figure in all that will now be Burton, who pledges to remain as candid as always.
"I think you've just got to tell the truth," he said. "What I've learned throughout the years is, you can say almost anything you want to say, it's just how you say it. You have to say it correctly, and you have to be educated about it. Make sure you understand what you're talking about before you talk about it. And if you don't know, say you don't know. It's OK to tell the truth. I've thought a lot about it. What if Matt Kenseth, who's a friend of mine, spins somebody out? What am I going to say? Well, I'm going to say, 'Matt Kenseth spun him out.'
"I'm used to having to be a little more diplomatic than that, because when you're racing against people, you essentially live with them. ... You've got to make sure you can get along, and I think that's still got to continue. But at the same time, you've got to call it the way you see it."
Added Flood: "He's not going to get along with everyone on race day. He's going to have disagreements on strategy and what's happening down on pit road, and that's all part of it -- seeing all different sides of the race day and the race experience."
And yet, from the vantage point of the broadcast booth, Burton would rather tell the story than be a part of it.
"I'm not looking to create a Watergate moment," he said. "What I want to do, I want to tell the story of what's going on. I don't want to create the story. It's there. There's 43 teams. There are more than just six or seven, there's 43. And all of those 43 have something going on. ... There's something always going on, we've just got to do a good job of understanding what that is."