News & Media

Burton made a game of it, but came up short

November 06, 2011, Dave Rodman,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jeff Burton had two previous victories at Texas Motor Speedway, but this season he's got only one top-five finish and he's led only seven races -- and only twice for more than eight laps.

So a gamble late in the AAA Texas 500 to stretch his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet's last tank of fuel 94.5 miles was probably reasonable. As it turned out, the last load of fuel was probably less than a tank-full.

"We knew we were gambling, and sometimes when you're gambling, you're gonna lose. ... That's kind of the way our year's gone."


So the gamble failed when Burton had to come to pit road holding a 5.078-second lead over eventual race winner Tony Stewart on Burton's 329th lap in the 334-lap race.

* Final Laps: Burton stays out, but runs out

After changing clothes Burton came out of his hauler saying, "It was worth a try. We thought we could save that much. I don't know if we weren't quite full that time, if we got a false [fuel mileage] reading the time before, or something; but we weren't even close.

"We saved a lot of fuel, and to be that far off -- we were a lap-and-a-half off of our calculations. So something didn't add up. We thought we had to save six laps and if we'd have saved six laps it would have been close.

"But it ended up we had to save a lot more than that."

Burton said all the discussions about the disappointing season and putting themselves in position to win and the role gambling might play in that scenario had been held, so the shortfall "was OK."

Stewart dominated, ultimately leading 173 laps. Stewart and Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Carl Edwards were swapping the lead when Burton took two tires on his last pit stop, at Lap 271. Burton cycled into the lead at Lap 302, hotly pursued by Ryan Newman, who passed him once for four laps.

Burton re-took the lead at Lap 324, when Newman pitted, but euphoria only lasted five laps, when Burton barked into his radio, "I'm out, I'm out." He came to pit road and in the transition, fell to 27th in the final rundown, two laps behind Stewart.

"That didn't feel good," Burton said. "But we knew we were gambling, and sometimes when you're gambling, you're gonna lose."

Edwards, who lost five of his eight-point advantage over Stewart coming into the race, was one who wished Burton, his former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, had won.

"Yeah, I never cheered so hard for Jeff Burton in my life," Edwards said, smiling. "If I could have loaned him some fuel, I would have. That's what they had to do. I thought that was a good move.

"I'm sure Bob [Osborne, crew chief] thought about us doing it, but as early as [Burton] ran out, I'm glad we didn't. I think he did the right thing to stay out there."

Luke Lambert, Burton's young crew chief who's only 15 races into the role, was in position to potentially win for the second time in the past three races. And even though the circumstances were different than at Talladega, where Burton finished second, he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on strategy.

"We knew we were in a situation there and we had an opportunity to try to make it happen," Lambert said. "Pretty much, it boiled down to we had to keep a little more pace than we felt like we originally thought we might need to, to stay in front of [Stewart]. We pretty much threw caution to the wind and ran the pace we knew we needed to do to stay out in front of [Stewart] and it wasn't enough to save fuel.

"I think we had a race-winning car, but we got ourselves in the position where we had to play strategy. In the beginning of the race we had a problem with our front duct work that caused us to lose some downforce on our car. It completely changed our car, from probably a top-five car to a 30th-place car.

"Basically, we hung on until we got the opportunity to fix it, and once we fixed it the car was really good again and we drove up through the field. But we weren't able to fix it soon enough that we would have been able to win it outright -- because the race was about to be over."

And that led to the strategy call.

"We ran good [Sunday] -- we drove up to sixth or seventh," Burton said. "The way our year's gone, that put us in position to try something we probably shouldn't have tried [laughing]. That's kind of the way our year's gone."

Jeff Burton

2011 statistics
Top-5 Fin.1
Top-10 Fin.3
Fin. 21/worse14
Lead Lap Fin.21
Laps Led/Ran 90/9,878
Avg. Start20.6
Avg. Finish18.9
Points Rank23

"We had a window to try to gamble and do that fuel thing and that's what we tried to pull," Lambert said. "It was the last straw we had."

Burton said he used every fuel-saving trick he knew and he might have invented a couple, but physics, and the light fuel load, ruled in the end.

"They were coming fast enough where we had to go faster than I wanted to go," Burton said. "Because if you don't, they're gonna catch you and then the gamble's not worth it. It ain't worth it riding around there to finish 15th.

"That was always a concern, because I knew they were gonna pit early enough -- but what the hell, we got nothing to lose [laughing]."

Burton specifically said he wasn't blaming anyone or anything for the shortage. Lambert and Danny Lawrence, trackside manager for Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines, were in on the call to stretch the run and fully supported it -- as well as explained it.

"The situation they were in, all day long they were between a 21st- and a 27th-place car," Lawrence said. "They looked at it and said, 'If we run out of gas we're probably gonna finish 31st, or wherever.' They [calculated] they were five laps short and told Jeff to save some fuel."

Lawrence said if a caution had come out, Burton's car would have still had good track position, and the possible benefits' price was a victory. That equaled a no-brainer for Burton's brain trust.

"If you were to get it full and he were to save enough and you just barely make it, it's one of those deals where the situation they're in, they just rolled the dice," Lawrence said. "It's hard to save five laps [worth of fuel]."

"I think we might've been a little bit short there, because [the last pit stop] was a two-tire stop," Lambert said. "It wasn't anybody in particular's fault. That just happens on right-side-only stops. You can get an air pocket in the fuel cell and there's nothing the gasman or anybody can do about it. I think that's probably what happened and it's really hard to predict how big [that pocket and resulting fuel shortage] really is."

"The bad thing about the whole situation is you really never know, without having the catch-can man, exactly how full it is," Lawrence said. "Sometimes if you get an air pocket it'll be a half-gallon short.

"Really they were about a gallon off. So it's one of them deals where they got Caterpillar some track time out there, leading the race and they had nothing to lose, because who remembers who finishes 20th? They were going for it."

Watch highlights of Burton's season: