From Daytona To Disaster

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Winning the Daytona 500 was supposed to be just what Ward Burton and Bill Davis Racing needed. It was supposed to propel them to the elite status they had chased for so long.

But after the crowning glory of Daytona has come nothing but rough times. Much like Michael Waltrip didn’t do much after winning the Daytona 500 in 2001, Burton has barely been seen on the Winston Cup radar.

He hasn’t come within a gas fume of winning another race and has tumbled down the points standings. He’s all the way down in 25th as the series heads back to Daytona for the Pepsi 400 Saturday night.

Burton is down there with guys like Robby Gordon, Bobby Hamilton and Mike Skinner – drivers who you wouldn’t automatically link to success in 2002.

Yes, it’s been an enormous struggle for Burton, crew chief Tommy Baldwin and the entire team. What’s gone wrong? You name it. It’s been a surprising fall, almost as stunning in its speed as its completeness.

“Winning the Daytona 500 is something that will always be a fond memory, and as time passes, the fonder the memory will get,” Burton said. “Because of the history of the track and being the granddaddy of stock car racing, it was obviously a very special moment for all of us.

“Everything that has happened to our race team since then has definitely not been positive. We’ve just had a lot of problems mechanically, getting the cars to handle, you name it, and we’ve had it happen to us. If we can get to Daytona and stay out of trouble, hopefully we can start the season over again.”

It’s almost like winning the Daytona 500 has been a jinx.

“I told everybody last week, ‘By winning the Daytona 500, if that’s going to cost us the year we’ve had, I’d rather not win that race,’ ” Baldwin said. “It seems like we just can’t get our rhythm since then. It’s a shame, too, because that’s usually something you can build a lot of momentum on. We haven’t been able to capitalize on it. It’s not been any of our own doing really. I hope winning the Daytona 500 didn’t have anything to do with all our bad luck. If it did, then nobody will want to win it next year.”

Perhaps.

“You’ve seen statistics where people win the Daytona 500 and have had problems,” Burton said. “Others, like the 24 car, won the race and went on to win the championship (in 1997, the last time a driver won the title and the 500 the same year). It has no bearing at all on the rest of the season. For whatever reason, we just got behind on the setups, and we’ve had a lot of mechanical problems.”

After Daytona, Burton was 13th at Rockingham and 21st at Las Vegas. But the No. 22 team seemed to bounce back with a seventh-place finish at Atlanta.

Since then, though, Burton hasn’t finished higher than 14th. And in the last six races, well, Burton would rather not even think about it. He won the pole at Richmond but finished 30th. After that, it gets uglier: 42nd at Charlotte, 37th at Dover, 33rd at Pocono, 42nd at Michigan and 40th at Sears Point. The last two races, he dropped out with engine failure.

“Right now, we’re in a slump, and we’ve all lost confidence in each other, and it’s just because of how long we’ve been going through this ride we’ve been going through,” Burton said. “At the same time, it wasn’t but a month ago that we set a track record and should have won the race (at Richmond). I know at any given moment I could be sitting in the car capable of doing it. The problem is we’re just inconsistent. Last year’s notes may as well be thrown away because they don’t mean diddly.

“At Richmond, we had the best race car, and we break like we have every other week, and then the next week we have to take a provisional. We just seem like we have to take that rocky path. Our motor program has got to be helped. We’ve got to figure out where we’re missing it on our setups. Everything we worked toward the last couple of years doesn’t work now. The only thing I know is we’ve got new tires on the car.”

Between blown motors and other mechanical failures, missed setups and the inability to adjust to the tires, frustrations have mounted.

“We’ve broken seven times this year running in the Top 12,” Baldwin said. “We’re not accustomed to breaking. It’s nobody’s fault. Stupid little things are happening. We’ve got to get through this little slump we’re in and move forward. Ward is struggling a little bit with this tire. He hasn’t been able to give us some good feedback. We’re searching, trying to help him. We came a long way at Michigan.”

In the middle of the slump, Burton and Davis have been working on a contract extension. Nothing has been signed yet, and Burton doesn’t sound 100 percent convinced that he even wants to return.

“We should know something real soon (about next season),” Burton said. “It’s basically in Bill’s hands right now. I’ve agreed to everything we’d already negotiated on. … With what has happened, we’ve been able to win some races, and we’ve been able to make a solid program for Caterpillar, but at the same time our performance has been absolutely horrible. That’s something all parties have got to look at and decide if we can make this work here or not.

“That’s some of the discussion we’ve had the past couple of weeks. I wanted to make sure that they feel comfortable that they are going to be able to make it work. I think it can work, but some things are going to be addressed and some things we all are going to have to work on, including myself.”

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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