NHIS A Tonic For Burton

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No matter what kind of season Jeff Burton is having – and 2002 has not been a typical year for Burton and the No. 99 CITGO team – there’s one thing you can always count on: Burton WILL be a factor at New Hampshire International Speedway.

All Burton has done at “The Magic Mile” is race to four career victories, including the fall of 2000 when he led all 300 laps to win the New Hampshire 300. He made his Winston Cup debut at NHIS in 1993, and finished a respectable sixth, so he’s been good there from the word “go.”

And New Hampshire may be just what Burton and the CITGO Ford team needs. He comes into this weekend’s New England 300 16th in the Winston Cup points standings. Burton hasn’t finished better than 20th in the last four races and has finished 29th or worse in the last three.

“Historically, we’ve run well on tracks that get slippery and where handling is a premium, and it seems like, for whatever reason, we’ve run well on flat tracks, too,” Burton said. “New Hampshire falls into all of those categories. We haven’t run well up there the last couple of years, as Goodyear came out with a better tire that made a lot more grip and lasted longer.

“When we go to Loudon (New Hampshire), we concentrate 100 percent on corner speed. I’m real picky about the way my car handles. I work real hard and try to demand a lot out of the car, and try not to settle and be happy with something that just isn’t perfect. We keep working and working, and that seems to get us our best results, when we get real picky about the car and we don’t accept anything other than it being perfect. That’s the way it’s been at New Hampshire.”

Burton won three consecutive summer races at NHIS, from 1997-1999. In 2000, his car indeed was “perfect,” and it made for a perfect race in which Burton led every lap of the fall event.

“I really didn’t think about the fact that we had led all the laps until really late, and then I’m going, ‘You know what? I think we’ve led all the laps here so far,’ ” Burton said. “That made it more special. To do that in today’s era, it’s unheard of.

“To do it and dominate like that and have the fortune of no one not pitting and leading a lap, that was odd. But, we were fast. We had good pit stops. We started second, started outside pole, and were able to get around Bobby (Labonte) on the first lap, and everything went our way.”

Not much has gone Burton’s way this season. It’s been difficult, to say the least, for him to watch his Roush Racing teammates taste success this season. Burton is the only one of the four Roush drivers who hasn’t won a race this year, and he’s the only Roush driver that is not in the Top 10 in the points standings.

Mark Martin is currently second in the points (one victory), Kurt Busch (one victory) is ninth, and Matt Kenseth (three victories) is 10th.

“Right now, we’re kind of teetering on the fence of running well and not running well,” Burton said. “The last two months, we’ve run well. The last four races, our finishes haven’t been any good – but not because we weren’t running well. We had problems in all of those races.

“We’ve climbed our way up to being a top-10 competing team, but you can’t give finishes away, and we did that at Daytona, Sears Point and Michigan. We never got a chance to show that we were going to be competitive at Michigan because we got into a wreck right off the bat, not of our doing. At Sears, we had mechanical problems and we also had a pit-road penalty that got us a lap down and we never made up our lap.

“At Daytona, we ran in the top-10 all night and got in a wreck with 30 to go. So, those races were bad finishes, but we ran well and were going to run well. That’s disappointing. We can’t let that happen. You have to capitalize on every opportunity that’s there for you.”

Burton came into the 2001 season as a legitimate championship contender. A tough first half of the season doomed him, but he wound up finishing 10th in the points with two victories after a strong second half.

Burton is counting on a strong second half this season to lift him and his team out of their current doldrums.

“The people on our team can see improvement,” Burton said. “If you’re sitting on the outside looking it, you may not see it, mainly because all you’re looking at is the finishes. But being a part of this team, you understand where we’re headed and what we’ve been doing and why we’ve had our problems. I think everybody feels good about where we’re headed. But at the end of the day, you judge yourself on your results. You can’t keep saying, ‘Well, we have a good effort and we’ve run well’ and all that. Eventually, you’ve got to put it down into results, and we haven’t done that.”

Perhaps New Hampshire will be where Burton and the CITGO start doing that.

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