Burton Looks To Regain Magic
July 21, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Think about that. Three hundred times the Winston Cup cars circled the 1.058-mile track, and 300 times Burton was out front. Cale Yarborough did that at Nashville back in 1978, but that was before Winston Cup racing became the most competitive series in the world.
But Burton made it look like a Saturday night at the smallest short track in America. He’d like to do the same thing in Sunday’s New England 300.
Sure, many point toward last year’s one-race use of restrictor plates at NHIS as the reason behind Burton’s domination. The plate robbed horsepower from engines and made it more difficult to pass.
Still, it wasn’t like Burton’s plate was bigger than everyone else’s.
“The rules are the same for everybody, and somebody took advantage of it, and it happened to be us,” Burton said. “That happens every week. We happened to get everything lined up, and it all went right for us. The fact that nobody stayed out and led five laps under caution amazes me every time I think about it.
“It’ll be a long, long, long time before anybody leads every lap again because if I’m running 20th and there are 20 cars on the lead lap, I’m gonna stay out and lead five laps. Nobody did that, so that was pretty weird. We did everything we needed to do, though, to lead every lap. We had good pit stops all day and everything came together, so it was pretty cool.”
The restrictor plates were added to the cars in response to two driver deaths at the track last year: Adam Petty in a Busch car in May and Kenny Irwin in a Winston Cup car in July. Teams were barely given a week’s notice to prepare new engines for the race, but Burton’s team took advantage of the new rule better than anyone else.
“I know the restrictor-plate race wasn’t what people considered fun to watch, but that was mainly because we made it not fun to watch,” Burton said. “It wasn’t, in my opinion, because of the restrictor plate. We had a day like Dale Jarrett had at Michigan a few years ago where he made the race boring because he was that much better.
“It all got blamed on the plate, and it wasn’t the plate. If you go back and watch that race, the people that started in the back came to the front. There was passing. It’s always been hard to pass; there there’s nothing new about that.”
It was especially hard to pass Burton that day, even impossible. Once he got around pole winner Bobby Labonte, well, that was it. Late in the race, Burton set his sights on leading every lap.
“Oh, it certainly turned into a goal,” Burton said. “There’s no doubt about it. When we got late in the race, it made it that much bigger to go win it and lead every lap. I’m not a historian in figures and facts. I’m a historian about the sport because I like it so much, but I didn’t remember ever seeing anybody lead the whole race. I respect so much of what went on before I ever got here and I couldn’t remember anybody doing that, so I still think that was pretty cool.”
Labonte and Dale Earnhardt made a late-race charge at Burton, but the race was his.
“Bobby came and made a real good run at me at the end of the race,” Burton said. “I’m thinking, ‘This is gonna stink to lead 295 laps and not win,’ but it was a neat day.”
And that’s even with the dreaded restrictor plate. Drivers universally despise them, but Burton came close to saying he liked them. But he has an interesting reason why.
“I thought the restrictor plate was a good answer because it changes the angle of impact at which you hit the wall,” Burton said. “It moves you farther down the wall, which changes the impact. Obviously, we know from experience that if you have a problem getting in the corner there, that the angle at which you hit the wall is wrong. So, I thought the plate was a good answer because you lifted later.
“If you’re doing something that you know is wrong, changing it is probably not wrong so I didn’t think the plate was a bad answer, and that’s not because we won that race. Before we went up there I was a proponent of the plate. I thought it was a good answer. Some people said, ‘No, it’s not because you’re gonna drive into the corner deeper and you’re just gonna hit the wall harder.’ I never believed that. I believe that you would hit the wall differently.”
There were no hard hits at NHIS in September, but the restrictor plates were removed for the New England 300 this weekend. And no other safety measures have been implemented for this race.
“It’s odd isn’t it? I don’t know why because nothing has changed,” Burton said. “There’s been no new technology with the exception of some in-car stuff. I’m sure people feel better about what they’re doing inside their car, but there has been nothing that’s been made better for the race track.
“I don’t know. They’ve had problems there. I love that race track, but I wish we could have figured out what we needed to do to make things better. There’s just not an easy answer... it’s just one of those things where there’s an answer out there, but you’re not really sure what it is. I go there a little pessimistic because we have had trouble there and we haven’t done anything different this time.”
Burton is only pessimistic about safety issues, however. He’s confident his team can perform well at NHIS, and his 10th qualifying position is a testimony to that.
Burton’s season has been nothing like last September’s race, as he’s 15th in points with only two top-five finishes. Struggles with Goodyear’s new tire has hampered Burton’s performance, but he’s hoping New Hampshire can help change that.
“We certainly go there with optimism,” Burton said. “It’s been a different kind of year for everybody, not just us, so the tire issue is going to be a big issue there, but we do know how to get around the track and know some tidbits about how to win there. We (went) Monday and Tuesday to Indy and then Wednesday to Milwaukee, so we’re doing all we know to do to get ready for New Hampshire, short of going there to test. It’s a track that, for whatever reason, we’ve had some things go our way at times, and we’ve made things go our way at times also. I look forward it for sure.”
But leading all 300 laps again? That may be too much for anyone to ask.
Or is it?