NASCAR Illustrated: Jeff Burton primed for life outside the cockpit
August 14, 2014, Kris Johnson, NASCAR Illustrated
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It was Sunday of the 2014 Daytona 500 and the promise of a new year brimmed amidst the pageantry of NASCAR's biggest race. Jeff Burton had been at the center of that charged atmosphere for the past two decades, so it was a little disconcerting to be stuck in an airport as it all unfolded again.
"I was sitting in the Orlando airport waiting for my flight that was delayed," Burton said. "And it was just an odd feeling, a really, really odd feeling, a very strange, weird feeling."
Burton was en route to NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, where he would make his "NASCAR America" television debut after the race that day. His transition into retirement and TV had started in earnest. There was no farewell tour, no formal closure to a career that produced 21 wins at the Sprint Cup Series level.
He'll serve in a part-time role at Michael Waltrip Racing this year, mostly as a test driver and in select races, but Burton's driving career is over for all intents and purposes. At press time, he was eight starts shy of joining an elite group of 15 drivers that have made 700 career Cup starts. Burton doesn't anticipate reaching that milestone, nor is he concerned about it.
"I don't care to look back on my career 20 years from now and say I ran 700 starts and the last five I shouldn't have," he said. "There's no sense in doing that. I don't see any scenario unless something happens that nobody wants to happen -- an injury or something -- where I would race eight races this year. I don't see that happening and I can tell you I don't want that to happen."
Burton made two starts this season, in March at Las Vegas and in July at New Hampshire. He didn't know what would come afterward and said his plans will hinge on what Toyota has in mind regarding potential rule changes for engines next year.
"I don't wanna race just for the sake of racing," the 47-year-old said. "We need to race for a purpose. My role is to help make the other two teams better, I'm not there to race. When I'm racing, it's because I'm doing something that's part of a plan to either help all of the Toyota teams or the MWR teams. And when we can accomplish what we need to accomplish by testing, we're gonna test rather than race because we can get more done."
If it sounds as if Burton has come to terms with retirement, it's probably because he has. Every competitor must eventually confront ending his or her career. The difficulty some encounter in leaving fame, fortune and fan adulation behind can be considerable. But the inherent competitive urge doesn't go away over night. It's something Dale Jarrett, a former Cup champion and recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, experienced after moving to the ESPN broadcast booth upon his retirement in 2008.
"It's a huge adjustment," Jarrett said. "You go from a mindset of competing week in and week out. That's all you've known for a long period of time. In my case, driving a race car, it was 31 years. To try to make the adjustment into what people call a normal life, whenever you make that change and have to step aside, there's nowhere to channel that. It's not like you lose that competitive desire.
"There was a lot of time of depression. 'What am I gonna do with myself? Is the challenge of a new job in TV enough for me?' I went through some difficult times."
Burton, who has conferred with Jarrett for advice on his TV role, parted ways amicably with Richard Childress Racing last year after full funding for his No. 31 could not be secured. From the time that news became public in September until deals were announced with MWR and NBC in December, Burton was in a professional limbo as he finished out the season with RCR. He seemed more concerned about the effect on his family -- wife Kim, daughter Paige and son Harrison.
"Oddly enough, it's probably been a bigger transition for them than it has for me," Burton said. "For me, I was ready. I didn't know I was ready. I was ready to take the next step and when all of it went down, everything kind of just fell into place like it was meant to be. I was going through that and they were going through their emotional thing that they had to go through and it (was) hard on them."
Kim acknowledged the difficulty of seeing her husband's career come to an abrupt end.
"The way things happened was definitely not in a perfect world," she said. "I would have liked for him to be able to run what he was supposed to run this year. But life is not always fair and not always easy and you have to roll with what's handed to you. You make the best of it. I enjoy watching him compete as much as he enjoyed competing. It was obviously his passion. When you've done it long enough and you know the sport the way I do, it was hard for me not being out there."
For Harrison, 13, much of what he's known in his young life is being at the track. Raised on racing and growing up around the garage, he is now following in his father's footsteps. Harrison has three victories in late model competition driving for the team his dad owns. Burton's retirement from full-time driving has allowed them to spend quality time together and fill the void of not being at a NASCAR track each weekend.
"My dad has always loved racing with all his heart and to see him not racing, kind of just makes you feel sorry for him because he's not able to do what he loves as often as he used to," Harrison said. "But you know he's doing broadcasting with NBC and all this stuff, and he's having a fun time doing something different as well. You always miss going and seeing your friends at the motorhome lot."
The two will spend about every other weekend together on the late model circuit, according to Burton.
"That's a good average," he said. "We race more races than that because we start racing in January going into December, but we're gonna end up racing about 30-34 races this year. It's spread out longer than the Cup Series."
Given that schedule, along with his occasional work for MWR and regular TV gig, Burton has not gone gently into that great night of retirement. Looking as fit as he did as a full-time driver, Burton emphasized that he'd been plenty active in his first year away from the traveling circus. You wonder then if that's allowed for any quiet moments to reflect back on his competitive career.
"Oh, hell yeah," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that I wish I could have accomplished more. I'm lucky to be able to say that because most drivers look at what I've done and say, 'Wow.' The only ones that accomplished more are the people that are considered to be great to be perfectly honest with you. I'm completely at peace with that."
Burton is nothing if not cerebral. He'd long been one of the best interviews in the garage and renowned for answers that were both well thought-out and candid. Those attributes will undoubtedly serve him well on the media side.
"I don't consider not winning a championship a regret," Burton said. "I'm disappointed I didn't win a championship but I put everything into it. I will say the last two or three years, I can't say that I put everything into it because I was having trouble adjusting to what that meant. What does it mean to put everything into it as a driver with my skill set?"
Burton thrived on being a part of his race car. That was part of his advantage and the continued evolution of engineering chipped away at that over the span of his career. He never considered himself the best driver but believed he was as smart as anybody when it came to the race car. Burton intimated that if he'd come into the sport two years sooner and perhaps exited two years sooner, his career probably would have been the better for it.
"The more people that got involved and were smart about the race car, the more it made what I was good at not important," he said. "Ten years ago, it was real clear to me what that meant. But in the age of Dr. Eric Warren, director of competition (at RCR), who I'm a big fan of, we didn't have (that back in the day). The only doctors we had were the ones that came when you were hurt. When that started happening, I just didn't know what my role was. Those last couple years I can't say that I really put 100 percent of my effort in because I didn't know how, if that makes any sense.
"It was very frustrating. Everybody around me is working their ass off. I never ever questioned the people around me, the crew chiefs, director of competition, aero people, engine people, everybody's working their ass off and I didn't know how to help and that was very frustrating."
While his frustrations were evident, he never lost his competitive desire and that streak runs through the entire Burton clan. Harrison will continue to carry the family gene into his racing career. Paige, 18, is involved with a different type of horsepower as a rising equestrian.
"He's definitely a big inspiration for my competitiveness," she said. "It's all him. He says, 'You gotta stay competitive, you gotta keep wanting it, you gotta keep going for it, you can't give up.' He's taught me that throughout the years. He's always been there to support me, but he always wants to see you win no matter what you're doing. If you don't win it, he won't be disappointed. But if you don't want it, he's not gonna support it."
One of the biggest benefits of retirement lies in the fact that Burton can support his children's efforts by being there.
"He didn't get to watch Harrison race much at all because he was always working," Kim said. "Sometimes he'd watch him on the online feed but he didn't get to watch Paige's horse shows much. He never got to see her off at prom and missed most father-daughter dances. He's having a wonderful year this year with Paige in her senior year of high school as far as being able to see her do those things.
"He actually gave the commencement speech at her high school and he did an amazing job with it."
On a recent day at home, Burton caught himself looking at a photograph from years ago and had what can be best described as a "that was then, this is now" moment.
"There was a picture of me and my children in victory lane and they were both pretty young," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.' It's been clear to them since the day they were born that racing was really important, and I was going to do whatever I needed to do to be successful. That's just what they've grown up with. It's been a transition.
"They see that I'm happy and they're happy too. We're able to do things and spend time together that we couldn't before."