Third Good Enough For Burton

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Most every driver wants to be in the lead. That’s where they’re taught to be from the first time the shine of a trophy twinkles in their eye.

And on a restrictor-plate track, the lead is even more important. When it takes people behind you to help you pass, you’re dependent on others. But if you’re in the lead, the race is in your hands.

But Jeff Burton didn’t really want to be in the lead late in the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday. He would have been a sitting duck, he said.

“We made a move late in the race and got ourselves in pretty good position, but we weren’t fast enough to be leading,” said Burton, who eventually wound up in third place. “We weren’t a car that needed to be leading the pack, and Little Earnhardt pushed me and pushed me and pushed me and got me to that point, but I really didn’t want to be there, because I knew we weren’t fast enough.”

So, after Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped him get to the front, Burton got kicked backwards.

“The line came on the outside and we ended going back to about 10th and then we fought our way back up to about fourth, and then that deal happened there,” Burton said.

“That deal” was a multi-car crash on the final lap. By then, Burton had learned his lesson. Had he been in the lead and someone made a move on him, Burton wouldn’t have been able to hold him off. And the “him” would have turned to “them,” and Burton would have wound up back in the pack – and probably would have ruined a race car in the process.

“The difference is, when you lead a pack, you’ve got to be fast,” Burton said.

And Burton didn’t think he was fast enough. His reason? His Ford isn’t as aerodynamically equal to the Chevy Monte Carlo and the Dodge Intrepid, which are newer models.

“They just have less drag than we do, so they’re just faster down the straightaway and through the corners,” Burton said. “I could battle with my car – as long as somebody stayed behind me I was OK, but I wasn’t going to win this race unless something odd happened and I got myself three-wide and came off Turn 4 on the last lap with something weird happening.

“We’re just not fast enough. I didn’t see anybody – nobody at Roush was fast enough to win – and I don’t even think the Yates cars were fast enough to win. We just have too much drag with this package. The cars drive OK, but they’re just slow. They’re slow in qualifying, they’re slow in racing. We can hang in there, we can battle, and put ourselves to get good finishes, but you won’t do what Little Earnhardt has done at Daytona or here (at Talladega) with what we got right now.”

That’s why Burton was content to ride behind whomever he could get behind and wait for other drivers to make mistakes and slide backwards out of the draft.

“Like when I was behind Earnhardt, I wasn’t not trying to pass him,” Burton said. “I couldn’t pass him anyway. I had the field behind me and I could not pass him.”

On the final lap, the mistake happened. Bobby Labonte slid up the track in Turn 2 to block Bobby Hamilton, and when Hamilton went down to pass, the two got together. Labonte ended up on his roof, and at least 17 cars got collected in the crash.

That situation left Burton with another decision. Follow Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart, who were racing side-by-side for the victory.

“I guess the only thing you can do, really, is worry about yourself,” Burton said. “That’s what racing’s all about. It’s a self-serving sport, and I went with the guy that I thought gave me the best chance to finish the best I possibly could, because I thought he had the fastest car on top of everything else.

“Again, if I was going to push somebody, I wanted to give myself the best chance to finish in second, and in addition to that, I was going to push the guy – provided it wouldn’t hurt me – that helped me during the race.”

That was Earnhardt Jr.

“I guess I owe about half of this million dollars to Jeff Burton,” said Earnhardt Jr., who won Winston’s No Bull 5 bonus of $1 million. “I appreciate the help he gave me.”

Stewart ended up getting by Burton at the checkered flag, but Burton didn’t seem to mind too much.

Third place isn’t first place, but it sure beats a wrecked car.

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