Jeff Burton prepares for Michigan Cup race
May 29, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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Jeff Burton, easing off the throttle of his NASCAR driving career as he prepares to move into the broadcast booth for NBC Sports, found himself back inside a race car this week, testing for Michael Waltrip Racing at Pocono Raceway on Tuesday.
He won't be competing at the 2.5-mile track when the Sprint Cup Series hits to the uniquely shaped three-turn layout next month (the Pocono 400 is scheduled for June 8), but will make his second appearance of the season at Michigan the following week.
"I haven't done any mile-and-a-half testing recently, so coming here is probably the first time I’ve been at a big track since … late February or early March," Burton, 46, said. "So it’s taken me a little while to get up to speed."
The Michigan start, which will be his second Cup start of the season, was penciled in "because we decided to go somewhere that wasn't very fast and I could ease into it," he joked.
The two-mile Michigan International Speedway layout features multiple racing grooves and produces some of the highest speeds seen on a non-restricted NASCAR track. MWR teammate Clint Bowyer hit 217 mph during a Goodyear tire test there in April. Joey Logano (Team Penske) set the MIS track qualifying record last August with a lap of 203.949 mph.
"That's going to be an interesting deal because it's so much throttle and the grip level is so high," Burton said of the Michigan race. "What's hard about those tracks is you have a lot of grip right up until the time that you don't. There's just no margin. But the only way to go fast is just lay it out there and hope it sticks.
"That's going to be a pretty big transition for me. … I'm a little nervous about it. It's so important to understand the car and understand where the limit of the car is, because you have to drive it to the limit. And when you haven't been in the car a lot, it’s hard to know where that limit is. … That's the key.
"When you're in the car all week, all the time, you find that limit quickly. But for me here (at Pocono) it’s taken me four or five runs to get myself to where I was running as hard as I needed to run. That's going to be a transition for me going to Michigan."
When he's not been in the car, either competing or taking part in tests for MWR, Burton, a 21-time winner in Cup, has been getting acclimated to life on the other side of the camera.
"My first live interview was with Clint Bowyer," he said. "That's all that has to be said, really."
Burton ran the entire 36-race schedule in 2013 and will make a handful of starts this year, giving him a solid base of knowledge about the current teams as well as the machinery within the series.
His only 2014 start so far this season came at Las Vegas, where he qualified 19th and finished 17th in the No. 66 MWR Toyota. Other starts beyond the Michigan race are likely, although no schedule has been announced.
"I haven't been long out of the car so I still kind of understand what they deal with and I think that’s a good perspective," he said. "I think it’s good to have people that are recently out of the car – I think that's good for all of us.
"There is going to be a day when there's a whole new group of drivers (in the garage). Staying current with them and staying current with what's going on in the sport, that's the biggest challenge.
"Now I can talk about it pretty well, pretty fluently and understand what I'm talking about. But three years from now, that might not be the case."