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Ward Burton rides emotional tide with son Jeb

February 10, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Ward Burton: 'Jeb's character is intact'

Ward Burton has cried. He's been angry. He's looked back on all he and his family have done to try and build son Jeb Burton's racing career, and wondered -- have we done something wrong?

"I know we haven’t. We've always treated all our relationships, and anyone for that matter, in an honest and ethical manner," the 2002 Daytona 500 champion told NASCAR.com. "I think sometimes, it's an eye-opener that that's not the way everybody views the world, or business relationships."

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That much was certainly brought home in recent weeks, after the younger Burton lost what shaped up as a championship-caliber ride in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series because the sponsor of his Turner Scott Motorsports team defaulted on a payment. The picture brightened considerably this past Friday, when ThorSport Racing announced it would field vehicles for Burton in both the ARCA and Truck openers at Daytona, and left open the possibility of more races with the 21-year-old should funding be found.

Ward Burton has ridden every trough and crest of this emotional wave with his son. The Burtons received the first inkling of potential sponsorship instability at Turner Scott during preseason testing at Daytona, where Jeb was fastest. Just over a week later, the word was official -- Arrowhead had defaulted, leading Turner Scott to shut down its No. 4 team and lay off a number of employees. A disconsolate Jeb faced the possibility of a lost season, on the heels of one victory and seven poles recorded in his rookie campaign the year before.

"Jeb's character is intact," said Ward, a five-time race winner in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "He handled it probably better than myself and the rest of my family. It's been obviously devastating. He didn’t have to deal with some of the details of possible litigation and other things I was having to deal with, but he's held up remarkably well. I'm real proud of him."

How did dad handle it? Well, that's another story. Ward went through plenty of ups and downs in his NASCAR career, but said the period between learning of the sponsor loss and ThorSport's call was "the only time in my life that I have not been able to find a positive. Normally when you have something going on, you can find some light at the end of the tunnel, or you can make a positive out of a negative. But these actions of Arrowhead, Jeb's sponsor, have been just so devastating. We're just very thankful. There was just so much turmoil in our lives."

In that light, the telephone call from ThorSport general manager David Pepper was a welcome relief. The deal came together "in a matter of a couple of days," Ward said. But with nothing guaranteed beyond Daytona, Ward continues to work the phones on his son's behalf, trying to line up other potential partnerships, or distribution opportunities for the Carolina Nut Company brand -- which is also operated by ThorSport owner Duke Thorson -- that will back Jeb's truck at Speedweeks. 

Whether Jeb will be in the season's second Truck Series race, March 29 at Martinsville, remains unknown. "It's still too early to say," Ward said. "All I say is, we're just working feverishly …. As devastating as this has been for Jeb and his race team and his family, we're going to make a positive out of this thing where he's going to be in a better situation than he was. We've just got to keep working hard and make it happen."

For a parent, though, the emotional toll of it all can be a heavy one. Ward watched his son go through the motions of a normal preseason, from photo shoots to planning for trade show appearances, all of it while operating under the belief that his team had an ironclad sponsor contract in place for 2014. "Then the rug gets pulled out from under us," Ward said. But perhaps nothing wounded Ward Burton more deeply than something Jeb asked him shortly after the entire saga began to unfold.

"Dad," Jeb asked, "why doesn't somebody want to sponsor me?"

The question cut his father to the bone.

"That question hurt me tremendously," Ward said. "There's a 21-year-old kid there that's a young man, and he's asking a question, seeing others that do have sponsors and others that don't, knowing that what he did last year was about just as much as any rookie has done. … All I could do at that moment was give him a hug and say, 'Son, it's right around the corner. We keep working hard, and you keep doing what you do on the track, and handle yourself properly off the track, and with plenty of hard work, hopefully somebody will come on board.' "

It all made his own sponsorship issues back in the day seem simple by comparison. After all -- this was his son.

"Never been through anything remotely similar to it," Ward said, "and hope like hell we never do again."

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