Can Burton Bounce Back?

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Ward Burton won the Daytona 500 … and has finished 40th or worse five times.

Burton also won the New England 300 … and has finished higher than 20th only once since.

The only thing consistent about his season has been his inconsistency.

But years from now, when Burton is old and gray, there’s little doubt what he’ll remember about the 2002 season.

“This will be the year the 22 CAT team won the Daytona 500,” Burton said with a wide smile.

That doesn’t mean he’s been happy lately. On the contrary. Burton and team owner Bill Davis have been more confused than anything, because it simply doesn’t make sense to be so good some weeks and so bad the next.

You might expect that from an inexperienced team. But Burton and crew chief Tommy Baldwin have been together for almost four years. What gives?

“We’re either battling for the win or we’re trying to stay on the lead lap this season,” Burton said. “There’s no in between. I have not been able to give the proper input about the cars on some of the bigger race tracks. The team has not been able to have a baseline as to where to start at, and that gets us too far off.

“Short tracks, we can see what we need to do and a lot of times make good adjustments. Tommy Baldwin and I and all the engineers and the chassis guys and the motors guys, it’s every one of them. Tommy and I have got to figure out how to get back to a baseline. If we’re a 20th-place car, then we need to be a 20th-place car and not turn into a 40th-place car. I think in some areas we need some help to figure it out.”

Burton also blamed 11 mechanical failures for some of the poor finishes, too. That has contributed to a confusing season, even to the guy paying the bills.

“I don’t know how you can go week to week and be so radically different and so inconsistent,” Davis said. “Mechanical deals have been the craziest things because we’ve never had problems there. It hasn’t been car preparation. Stuff hasn’t fallen off the car. We’ve just had goofy stuff break. We’re keep breaking drive shafts, crank shafts and transmissions.

“We were driving off at Richmond in great shape, certainly with a car that could have been in position to win the race. Then we broke a drive shaft. It’s been a pretty goofy deal, and I don’t have an explanation. I wish I did. I wish there was an easy fix for it.”

In NASCAR, though, there is no such thing as an easy fix. But Burton’s team has tried to go that route for some races this season.

“We’ve tried a lot of stuff from week to week,” Burton said. “A lot of stuff has worked and a lot of stuff hasn’t worked. I think we’ve been pitiful at some places and we’ve gotten off the baseline. It used to be we could be horrible the first of the race and make adjustments and come back and run in the top five and have a shot at winning. Very rarely can we do that now. I don’t have any answers to it right now.

“We just need to find some consistency somewhere. In ‘99 we were the most consistent we’ve ever been, and we’ve steadily gone down consistently since then. We know how to win now. We’ve just got to get back to running consistent now.”

He could find some of that Sunday, when he races in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The 1.366-mile track has been kind to Burton, as he’s won twice in the last three years – including last year’s Southern 500.

“I don’t know how good I am at Darlington,” Burton said. “I’ve been lucky to have good race cars there. We’ve been able to capitalize on two of the events, but there’s been at least three others where I felt like we had the car to win the race.”

One of those was in March when Burton was in fifth when he got swept up in an accident. But of course, there are no guarantees at a place like Darlington, which is among the most difficult tracks on the Winston Cup schedule.

“I think you’ve got to like Darlington,” Burton said. “I might not get there and be able to run there in the first 300 miles, and it’s hard to sit there and visually see, but when I get in that groove and get my car where it’s working, my line changes. Even if it’s only a couple of feet in each corner, that couple of feet adds to a lot of mph to me, but I’ve got to have a car to allow me to do that. I can’t go into detail what it is, and it would be hard for me to explain it. I know I’m in the zone when I’m there, and it definitely makes a difference.”

That zone has been elusive for Burton this season, but he has been in it at least twice. And maybe Sunday at Darlington, he’ll be in it again.

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