Burton Baldwin Create Contending Team

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Sitting in fourth place in the Winston Cup point standings with 20 races to go, Ward Burton could be ecstatic.

After all, he's never finished higher than ninth in the points, and most figured he wouldn't be a serious title contender until 2001. This was the year the team was supposed to join the ranks of the true contenders, not battle them to the wire for the title.

But Burton and crew chief Tommy Baldwin are getting things done in a hurry. The Virginia driver notched his second career win at Darlington in March and has been among the front-runners almost every time out, although he finished 27th at Pocono on Sunday.

Even when things go bad by Burton's standards, they're not really horrible. The team’s luck has held out thus far, which is why he trails just Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett. Heading to Sears Point, he knows the championship is within his grasp if things go well.

Still, that's not enough. Burton knows he can do even better, and will have to for his Bill Davis Racing team to have the best seat in the house at the Waldorf Astoria come December.

"We've been consistent, that's the main thing were after each and every week," he said. "We've gotten into Victory Circle, probably the most satisfying victory I've ever had because we had come so close last year and the guys have worked so hard.

"Some of the guys (in the points race) have had some trouble and we haven't. We've got a pretty good average finish. (But) we have to keep the top 10s and try to get a few more top fives and a few more bonus points. We need a few more days like Darlington."

Last summer, though, it was hard to imagine Burton even being in this position come 2000. He and Baldwin were developing the type of bond necessary to join the sport's elite, and people were noticing -- people with bigger checkbooks than the one possessed by Davis.

Not surprisingly, the team with one of the biggest checkbooks of all -- Hendrick Motorsports -- was knocking on Baldwin's door. At the time, Ray Evernham was recruiting Baldwin to be his right-hand man when he assumed an upper-management role with the team.

That was before Dodge made Evernham an offer he couldn't refuse. Once Evernham left, people again suspected Baldwin would be the choice to take over as Jeff Gordon's crew chief.

But Baldwin stayed put. And driver and crew chief agree that the loyalty they have developed with Davis has been the key to this year's success.

"It's important. I feel like if a team is ever going to reach their potential, they have to keep their key people together," Burton said. "That goes down from the top of the totem pole to the bottom of the totem pole. When you start losing members of your race team, you can replace them, but you can't replace that personality. The more you can keep your team together the better. We see some loyalty in the sport now, but at some times, we see dollar signs draw people away, also.

"It's a tough deal for crew members, drivers and car owners to stay together. But when you find a happy home it's nice to stay in the same home or same team or what have you. I believe if we keep this team together long enough that we're going to reach the potential we can reach."

Baldwin is also thankful that all of the key personnel have stayed in place.

"It's a pretty important part of a team being so strong," Baldwin said. "Between myself and Ward staying together and then the rest of the guys staying together over the winter has really propelled this team to the level where we need to be of fighting for the championship."

The team has gotten to this level the old-fashioned way, through trial and error. Baldwin joined the team late in the 1998 season and had an instant impact. Still, that didn't translate into a smooth ride at times last year.

Mistakes were made, but the key was that they learned from each one. Instead of making the same mistakes repeatedly, Baldwin and Burton built a solid foundation at each track, giving them notes to go on this year. That approach has paid off, and Burton sees his team getting better on a weekly basis.

"Mistakes that we had made in 1999 from lack of experience in different areas, now we have some experience, from the changes that we make on the race car at the track, or the way we hang the body or build a car at the shop," Burton explained. "They've learned from working with me long enough what I like in a car. We've learned from going to the same tracks in 1999 what worked, what didn't work, probably where the track is heading with the way the car is going to be handling."

While there's more pressure that comes with running for a title, Burton says his approach is the same no matter what: to finish the race without encountering any trouble.

"We have to be focused on finishing the races and being consistent," he said. "If you do what you are capable of -- and I know this is the case with my Caterpillar team -- if we do what we're capable of, we'll be happy with ourselves at the end of the season, and wherever the points fall, they'll fall."

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