Burton Meets Tough Challenge

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Jeff Burton is the envy of many who race at Darlington Raceway, that oddly-shaped devil of an old race track.

Burton’s record at the 1.366-mile track in South Carolina is so impeccable that Darlington may want to change its nickname to “Track to Tough to Tame… Except for Jeff Burton.”

Sure, Burton had a bit of a slip in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington earlier this year, finishing a lap down in 18th, but he was in the midst of a maddening slump, one he’s seemed to work through as the year has progressed.

Before this year, though, not even a slump could slow Burton at Darlington. From 1997 to 2000, he finished in the Top 5 every race. No other driver could make that claim, though Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon came close. Jarrett had seven Top 5s, and Gordon had six.

And in this weekend’s Southern 500, the granddaddy of all stock-car races, Burton is going for five consecutive top-TWO finishes. Yep, he has not finished lower than second in the sport’s oldest race since 1996. Second to Gordon in 1997 and 1998, winner in 1999 and second to Bobby Labonte last year.

Burton’s 1999 season was especially sweet as he swept both Darlington races. Yes, No. 99 was good in 1999. And it’s been good at Darlington almost every year.

“We were able to win both races at Darlington in the same year, and that’s amazing to me that we were able to do that,” Burton said. “We had some good luck, and we had great race cars. We’d gone there for like four years and led the most laps and never got a win, and then we ended up winning two races in the rain. It was kind of almost like a payback, but it’s just a great track to me. I look forward to this weekend every year.”

While many drivers see Darlington as an antiquated piece of asphalt, Burton sees it like a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. Sure, it’s old – Darlington’s first race was in 1950 – but it’s got character.

“I have so much respect for all the things that happened before I was in Winston Cup racing and the things that Bobby Allison did to make the sport better and the things that guys did that I never got a chance to meet,” Burton said. “Darlington is what that’s all about.”

Darlington is about Johnny Mantz, the first Southern 500 winner. Darlington is about Herb Thomas, who won three of the next five Southern 500s. Darlington is about David Pearson, who won 10 races – the all-time record – in a 12-year span. Darlington is about Dale Earnhardt, who is second to Pearson with nine victories.

And, yes, Darlington is about Jeff Burton. Respect the “Lady in Black” and she just might respect you back. Make fun of her and her egg shape – created when a property owner didn’t want to move a pond outside what is now Turn 4 – and she’ll bite you.

Darlington is NASCAR… or at least used to be.

“The fact that they built the race track and it’s shaped the way it’s shaped because they couldn’t move the pond, I mean, that’s cool stuff,” Burton said. “Today if you couldn’t move the pond, your group of investors would go out and build it somewhere else. But the guy that owned the farm didn’t want to move his pond, well that’s cool stuff, and that kind of takes you back to what this sport is all about.

“That’s grassroots racing. It’s just about racing, and all the money that’s gotten into the sport and all the suites and all that stuff has kind of taken away from that. But the bottom line is it ought to be just about racing, and that’s the way Darlington is.”

That kind of respect has served Burton well since he joined the Winston Cup circuit full time in 1994. He was amazed that the then 38-car field could fit on Darlington’s tight circuit.

“The first time I went to Darlington, I thought, ‘There is no way that we’re gonna put 38 cars on this race track at the same time. It isn’t gonna happen,’ ” Burton said.

But it did happen. And Burton was amazed.

“The first time I went there I loved it,” Burton said. “I thought, ‘This is my kind of race track.’ To me, Darlington is what racing is all about. It’s old fashioned, it’s slippery, it’s hot – it’s all those things. It’s not about a lot of money, it’s just about going out and performing on a really difficult race track. From the first day I went there that’s what I remember, and that’s still what I remember today.”

At a track where some drivers have psyched themselves out before they drive through the tunnel, Burton heads to Darlington with optimism. And why not? Eight of the past nine times he’s showed up there, he’s finished fifth or better. Chances are pretty good you’ll see Burton’s No. 99 up front again this weekend.

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