Burton Joins The Road Crew

There usually aren’t many surprises when the NASCAR Winston Cup cars take to a road course. You can count on Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and a road-racing specialist or two. And after Sunday’s Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Sears Point Raceway, you can likely count on Tony Stewart, too.

Those are the names you rattle off when you talk about Winston Cup road racers. And, sure, you’d mention Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and Steve Park, too.

But what about Ward Burton?

Oh, sure, go ahead and chuckle. Yes, Burton has driven as slow as he talks on the road courses before, but he was sixth Sunday. Sixth. That was better than Elliott, Martin and road racers Scott Pruett and Boris Said.

Ward Burton, Road Course Expert. Well, OK, maybe not yet, but still. Sixth is sixth.

“We were pretty close,” said Burton, whose previous best finish at Sears Point was 10th. “There were times we’d run laps close to the leader. I need to get better, and I need to help the team get the car better.”

Burton said he has learned to like the road courses, and that is often half the battle. Plus, Burton has taken his affinity a step further, hiring a driving coach. Said actually hooked up Burton with Peter Cunningham, who helped Burton last year at Watkins Glen.

“He helped me a whole lot, and I wish he could have been here this weekend,” Burton said. “I’ll have my road course consultant with me at Watkins Glen, and he’ll help me out there. I really couldn’t talk to him for this race. He’s getting married, and I really couldn’t talk to him about the track because it’s changed since he’s been here.”

“He’s got a good background in road course racing and helped me a lot, but we’ve got our cars a lot better. I’ve got better, and our race cars have gotten better on the road courses the past few years.”

The numbers don’t prove Burton right, not until this year. He qualified in the Top 15 and finished 10th at Sears Point two straight years, but that was back in 1996-97. Since then, he hasn’t qualified higher than 18th (he started seventh at Watkins Glen last year, but the field was set by points) nor finished higher than 21st.

That was until Sunday, of course. Burton was solid in his Bill Davis Racing Dodge all weekend, qualifying fifth. He slipped back to 10th during the race, but solid pit work, a good car and good driving moved him up to sixth by race’s end. Burton was never a threat to win, but his performance was eye-opening.

“We didn’t back into anything today,” Burton said. “We ran in the Top 5 and Top 10 most of the day and made some competitive passes. We improved in areas where we needed to improve a little bit.”

The biggest area of improvement was simply finishing well. After winning at Darlington and finishing 10th in the points in 2000, this season has been a struggle since the team switched to Dodge.

A fifth at Bristol and ninth at Charlotte are the only top-10 finishes Burton has had in 2001. But good runs at Daytona and California were ruined by accidents.

“I’ve got to … hope people stop running over my back bumper,” Burton said. “I’ve had it happen at Daytona. Mark (Martin) hit me at Dover and California. I got run over last week at Pocono. If people will stop running over me, I’ll be fine.

“There have been some times this season we’ve had to regroup to catch up to the new car and the new tire. Now, we’ve finally done that. It’s a little bit late, but in the big picture, we’ve got to develop this Dodge and we’ve got to develop this team to be a force for next year. That’s what we’re really focusing on.”

If Sunday’s race is any indication, Burton will be a force in 2002. That’s a long way off, however, and Burton’s confidence isn’t as high as it need to be, either.

Late in the race at Sears Point, Burton’s mind started to wander.

“I was glad to see the race end today,” Burton said. “We’ve had so much bad stuff happen to us lately. With about 12 laps to go, I started wondering what was going to happen. I just blocked it out, but we’ve had so many times that we haven’t been able to capitalize on because of a caution or wreck or whatever.

“I need to improve as a road course racer, but we saw at times today when we could run with the 24. I’ve just got to learn to give the team better information and get the car a little better from the beginning. This is a tough track. It’s been a few years since we’ve had a top-10 here, and this is our best finish ever.”

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