Countdown To New York: No 3

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The past two years have produced first-time NASCAR Winston Cup champions in Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte. In 2001, Jeff Burton’s theme song might very well be, “It’s My Turn.”

Many believed it was only a matter of time before Jarrett and Labonte tasted the spoils of a championship, and many believe the same thing is in store for the 33-year-old Burton.

While nobody mounted a very serious charge at Labonte in the late stages of the season, the 2000 campaign saw Burton put himself on the threshold of Winston Cup’s highest honor.

Burton finished third in the points standings with four victories, 15 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes. A disappointing outing in the season finale NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway dropped him a position behind Dale Earnhardt in the final rankings.

“It was a good year for us,” Burton says. “I’m disappointed the last two races we didn’t end up as strong as we had been running, but that’s the way racing is. You run well or you don’t run well. It’s not always easy to run up front.”

That’s exactly where Burton was found most of the time, however. While he didn’t match his career-best total in victories (he won six races in 1999), he did gain a bit more consistency this season and wound up with only a pair of DNFs. It was Burton’s highest finish in the points during his seven-year Winston Cup career.

It wasn’t until the last four or five races that Labonte was able to pull away from Burton and Earnhardt and secure the championship.

“Jeff, (crew chief) Frankie Stoddard and that team really gave it a go this year and I’m proud of the things they were able to accomplish,” says team owner Jack Roush. “They were a championship contender for quite a while there, but they just had a couple of bad races along the way and Bobby (Labonte) didn’t really have any.

“The team matured this year to the point where it made itself a contender for the championship, and you can bet anything that they’ll be right there next year in the thick of things. Hopefully along the way they’ll win more races, but as has been proven the past couple of years, consistency is what wins championships.”

Burton had six finishes of 25th or worse this season, while Labonte’s lowest finish was 21st.

Burton’s year certainly wasn’t without its turmoil and anxious moments. Exide Batteries, the primary sponsor of Burton’s No. 99 Ford since he joined Roush Racing in 1996, announced it would not return for the 2001 season and actually pulled out of the series six races before the end of the 2000 season.

Fortunately for Burton and the team, Roush had a few tricks up his sleeve and had already signed Citgo Supergard to a deal to take over the sponsorship role for the car.

“We were pretty astonished when Exide told us what they were going to do,” Burton says. “We thought they’d at least finish out the season, but then that’s just the way this business goes. We didn’t let it disrupt what we were doing on the track, and we’re grateful for Citgo coming in and taking over. We’re looking forward to a long and healthy relationship with them.”

But then the good moments more than outweighed the bad for Burton in 2000. He started off the season with a second-place effort to Jarrett in the Daytona 500. He then outdueled teammate Mark Martin to win the CarsDirect.com 400 at Las Vegas two weeks later.

The next few weeks saw Burton stay steady, but it wasn’t until the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July that Burton saw victory lane again. Seven top-10s in the next eight races saw Burton remain in the championship hunt, and then came perhaps his most brilliant moment of the season.

On Sept. 17, Burton started the Dura Lube 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway from the second position. On the first lap he passed Labonte, and he never gave up the point. Burton led all 300 laps on the way to his third victory of the season.

“That’s something you don’t see very often, so we’re awfully proud of Jeff and the team,” Stoddard said after the race. “Jeff ran a great race, but the team was able to get him out of the pits in great shape. It was a total team effort.”

For good measure, Burton threw in a fourth triumph in the Dura Lube 500 at Phoenix in early November.

And, for the first time since 1996, Burton won a Bud Pole. He did so at Richmond in September, and in the process, qualified for the Bud Shootout in Daytona for the first time since 1997.

All of which has Burton more than pumped up for 2001.

“We’re ready,” Burton says. “We’ve won races and now we know what it’s like to run for a championship. Maybe it’s our turn next year. We’d certainly like to give Jack (Roush) his first Winston Cup title. That would be awesome.”

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