Streeter Lecka | Getty Images
Streeter Lecka | Getty Images

Crossroads year: Jeb Burton finds full-time fit with Kaulig Racing for 2021

How to measure the value of hard work: Clearing roads, sawing downed trees plus overseeing controlled burns equals sweat, aches and the rewarding feeling of managing nearly 10,000 acres through your outdoors foundation.

Then even recreation turns into something of a project. Hunting and other outdoor activities in the Virginia countryside become a prime facet of a streaming TV series, putting another aspect of your life on a to-do list.

“We’re always doing something,” Jeb Burton says, boiling his multi-pronged family life down to a simple declarative phrase.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

How, then, to measure hard work in stock-car racing? When a driver loses the power steering and has to muscle a heavy vehicle through high-load, high-banked turns, that’s an easy litmus test. Less quantifiable is the work of a NASCAR grinder, one who has scrapped for part-time rides and tried to maximize all of them, one who has picked himself up when sponsors reneged and hustled to attract new ones, and one who has fought to stay relevant in a business where cast-offs are quickly forgotten.

“It all goes back to breaks,” says Chris Rice, “getting something where you get a chance to show your talents.”

Rice should know. As president of Kaulig Racing, a rising Xfinity Series organization with eyes on Cup Series expansion, Rice presented the 28-year-old Burton with his biggest break to date: his first full ride in six years as the newly tapped driver of the team’s No. 10 Chevrolet for the 2021 season — one south-central Virginian to another.

“All this racing and success is about timing, anywhere you go on a team,” Burton said. “I feel like I’m going to Kaulig and hitting my stride when I’m hitting their stride at the same time.”

The timing of that stride is the culmination of a life immersed in the outdoors and stock-car racing, with both pursuits forged by the value of a solid day’s work.

A family’s foundation

Jeb Burton was 9 years old when his father, Ward, won the Daytona 500. That was 2002, and the victory represented the largest of his father’s five Cup Series triumphs. Jeb’s memories include watching the frantic final laps in their motorcoach, his mother Tabitha’s jubilance after the checkered flag and the golf cart ride to Victory Lane.

Ward says he remembers taking an extra lap to compose himself before pulling his No. 22 car to a halt. His family was there to greet him, and many newspapers printed the Associated Press’ group photo showing young Jeb signaling No. 1 beside the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Capturing the Great American Race meant making the talk show rounds in the days that followed, and The New York Times caught up with him in the green room of “Live with Regis and Kelly.” The Burtons’ daughter, Sarah, said “absolutely not” when asked if racing was in her plans. Instead, she offered: “But my brother Jeb — he’s 9 — he likes to live on the edge, like daddy. He’s not afraid of anything.”

By then, Ward had already been teaching Sarah to drive a tractor on the family’s farm. Grade-school Jeb was driving a truck — his dad working the pedals while the youngster sat on his lap and grasped the wheel. “We’ve had a few close calls, just missed falling into a few ditches,” Burton told The Times, “but he’s got what it takes.”

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So while the racing life wasn’t for all of Ward and Tabitha Burton’s children, Jeb took to it, eventually finding his way to the same South Boston Speedway that launched careers for both his father and his uncle, Jeff. While he was drawn to the thrill-seeking aspects of racing, he maintained a strong connection to quieter adventure, exploring the still of the Virginia woods like his father did growing up.

“When I was being brought up, there was nothing else but the outdoors, you know,” Ward Burton said. “Our parents gave us a lot of freedom. By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, my mom wasn’t even concerned about me if I didn’t come home, just so I got home an hour after dark. My generation was a little bit more protective of children, but I didn’t move to Charlotte and all that because I wanted to bring my kids up in the rural culture that I was brought up in.”

Chris Graythen
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Growing up Burton also meant go-karts and motocross and eventually a Limited Late Model debut at South Boston shortly after his 16th birthday. After more seasoning in the Late Model ranks, his national-tour debut came in 2012. His first full season the next year with Turner Scott Motorsports produced seven pole positions, an emotional first win at Texas Motor Speedway and a fifth-place finish in the overall Camping World Truck Series standings.

Then Burton’s career turned nomadic. After a prime sponsor defaulted on payment to Turner Scott late in the 2013-14 offseason, the next-generation driver hopped rides and series, briefly bumping up to the Cup Series for the 2015 campaign with underfunded BK Racing. The years that followed were made up of part-time duty with rides in the Xfinity Series and trucks, never competing in more than half the races in a given season.

With the family still trying to attract business partners for their efforts, the scrutiny sharpened on Jeb Burton each time out. With limited seat time to impress prospective sponsors and team owners, both father and son felt the strain.

“Look, man, when you’ve only got five, six, seven races and you’ve brought all the partners to the team like Jeb has been doing over the last couple years, it’s a ton of damn pressure,” Ward Burton says. “It’s a ton of pressure to perform for your companies that are supporting you, your family, yourself, and it’s tough no matter what you’re doing when somebody’s doing it every single week and you’re not. And racing just adds a steroid to that.”

The most productive of those part-time seats proved to be a springboard. Jeb Burton landed seven races with JR Motorsports in 2019, finishing among the top 10 in all but one start. That led to last year’s 11-race slate, which yielded three top fives and a runner-up finish to JRM teammate Justin Allgaier in September.

“Didn’t put any pressure on anybody but me,” Jeb Burton says. “I just had a lot that I needed to prove, and last year I feel like we did that. Should’ve won a couple races, looking back on it. … I think we showed we can lead laps and contend for wins, and me racing every week this year will make me better so I can win those races when I have the opportunity to do it. So there was a lot of pressure last year, but I feel like a lot of that got off my shoulders once I went and ran inside the top three and continued to do it and showing that I can do it given the opportunity.”

Opportunity arises

On Oct. 14, the Burtons met at Kaulig Racing for a conference with Kaulig’s Chris Rice and representatives for sponsor Nutrien Ag Solutions, a Colorado-based agricultural company. Rice admits now to ramping up some of the drama by initially casting doubt on whether an agreement could be achieved, but the actual reveal — captured on camera — prompted both father and son to well up.

Not another part-time ride, but a full one. Rice saying “33 races” almost didn’t register right away.

“It’s just, those things don’t happen. And they haven’t happened,” Jeb Burton said. “Every time something did happen for me, it kind of blew up in my face. Either somebody defaulted on a payment or didn’t do what they said they were going to do on a contract, so it’s been a struggle. … It’s just been a tough road and that’s where all of that emotion came from.”

The news was announced nearly a month later on Nov. 16. The No. 10 Chevrolet that Ross Chastain drove to a series-best 27 top 10s in 2020 would now have Jeb Burton’s name above the driver’s door.

Burton’s connection to Rice extends beyond the Kaulig relationship, rooted in their shared upbringing in Halifax County, Virginia, Rice’s father and uncle built racing chassis under the banner of A&E Race Cars and fielded Late Models for Jeff Burton in a collaborative effort between their families. And Cathy Rice, Chris’ mother, still serves as general manager of South Boston Speedway, her involvement with the operations of the grassroots track spanning 33 years.

So that fit seems natural for Burton, and so does his blending in with his two full-time teammates in veteran AJ Allmendinger and returning 21-year-old ace Justin Haley. The connection with Nutrien Ag Solutions is an even greater bit of synergy. The company was an existing partner of Kaulig’s, but its background in sustainability, conservation and farming aligned with the Burtons’ off-track pursuits. “It really is everything that we stand for,” Jeb Burton says.

Harold Hinson
Harold Hinson/HHP | Kaulig Racing

On track, Burton’s fit may require a slight adjustment period, Rice says, as he prepares for his first full-time campaign in six years.

“He’s going to fall right in here,” Rice said, “and I think he’ll have some learning curve early on because no driving full-time in an Xfinity car and then having to drive it every week’s a little different. I think he’ll have a little learning curve, but I think he’ll be ready to go by race five or six, and you won’t see him miss a beat.”

The ever-important timing that Burton mentioned is something Kaulig has focused on as well. The organization has expanded to three full-season Xfinity Series teams for 2021, and the group is wading into Cup Series waters with a part-time effort expected to grow into a full-fledged ride at NASCAR’s top level.

Burton has a measure of Cup Series experience, but so do Allmendinger and Haley, who have registered premier series wins. The team also has Kaz Grala in its system, and the 22-year-old will attempt the Daytona 500 and other Cup Series starts this season.

“I think every driver we have, we say can go further along with us,” Rice said when asked about Burton’s prospects for a return to Cup. “We don’t look at any of them that this is a one-year deal or this is just for this year. We look at them that we would love for them to grow with us and continue to make Kaulig Racing better and where we want it to be, and I think Jeb’s one of them.”

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All the while, Burton has remained true to his identity both as a racer and an avid outdoorsman. Both interests are now documented in a MyOutdoorTV series called “Crossroads with the Burtons,” a show that focuses on Jeb, his wife Brandi and father Ward. And the family’s works with the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation continue with land management and its programs that connect with military veterans and educational outreach.

Crossroads is an apt title for where Jeb Burton is now on both fronts. In recent years, his father had placed some of his personal pursuits on the back burner to nurture partnerships for his son’s racing efforts. Ward Burton is now able to dial back those engagements as his son’s new opportunity approaches; as Rice says, now he’s ours — the reward for years of grinding and putting in a solid day’s work.

“It’s still emotional. It’s been a long ride, man,” Ward Burton says, making a nod to their tearful reaction to last fall’s career move. “We’ve exhausted just about every resource. I took off almost two years and made this career Jeb wanted a priority in my life, and everything else just came second. I finally just had to step away a little bit because it was going to kill me. Those emotions were real and they still are now.”