2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier
Years with current team: 8
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 3rd (2000)
Hometown: South Boston, Va.
Born: June 29, 1967
If 2010 was a season of “almosts” for Jeff Burton, will 2011 be “now or never”? For Burton, time is running short for a championship, and he has a lot of teams to climb over to get there. The 43-year-old is in the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing, a make-or-break season in a sport where 40-somethings find the unemployment line in record numbers.
Most frustrating for the garage’s unofficial driver spokesman is a troubling inability to find Victory Lane, an ugly zero during a season when RCR put all three of its cars in the Chase. Burton’s 539 laps led were the highest total for him in four years, but an inability to close the deal headlines a 77-race winless drought, a number that needs to change for him to be considered a serious contender. There was the flat tire at Martinsville in March, running over the air hose at Darlington in May and bad pit calls at Loudon not once, but twice. All these incidents went against Burton’s longtime career philosophy of putting himself in position for victories. Instead, self-inflicted wounds bulldozed the Caterpillar Chevrolet.
“We have to have better pit stops,” he said unequivocally in November. “I have to do a better job at making decisions on the race track. Todd (crew chief Berrier) has got to do a better job at making decisions on the pit box. I really think that we can go fast enough to win the championship next year, but ...”
A trail of “what ifs” haunts a man who once seemed primed and ready to assume the role now filled by Jimmie Johnson. Still, the leader of the RCR organization will once again enjoy a prime opportunity for success. He’ll carry Caterpillar, a longtime NASCAR sponsor whose contract is also up after 2011, on the sides once again. Berrier, in his second season with the No. 31, along with the core crew of mechanics and engineers will also return. If Berrier has a fault, it’s the tendency to tune out a driver’s wishes, but that hasn’t been as big of an issue with the veteran Burton.
The duo also has an organization behind them that knows how to win. Childress backed six championship teams with Dale Earnhardt and has 94 victories over 37 years in the sport as an owner. He remains as committed as ever, and his teams retain the best horsepower in the business with Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines.
Such stability combined with a veteran’s experience usually pays off on-track, where Burton is often given the benefit of the doubt in situations that would have the competition hot under the collar. A Mark Martin-like driver, he’s earned that label from a career of knowing when to use a bumper and when to back off, both literally and figuratively, in his dealings with NASCAR and the competition. In the end, that means consistency, perhaps his greatest asset: Burton has registered four DNFs or fewer in all but two of his last 15 seasons in Sprint Cup. Still “old school,” he drives in a conservative yet effective way that, until five years ago, still worked.
In 2011, though, Burton will need more than a methodical approach to take that final step. With parity among top teams at an all-time high, he’s up against 20 others that can run off a string of victories. No Chase champion has taken the title with fewer than three, a number Burton has never posted during his seven previous years with RCR. It seems a change of philosophy is needed. Burton needs to be more willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means making the competition angry. As proven by Jeff Gordon, zero victories and a slew of top-5 finishes aren’t enough to automatically attract the sponsorship and long-term commitments needed to stay in the sport.
Perhaps we got a preview last October that such a change was in order. A scuffle with Gordon at Texas highlighted a Chase in which Burton refused to go down quietly. It was a reminder to anyone watching that he still has the fire and the will to win, and he’ll need that in 2011, because the competition will be stiffer than ever.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Burton is the closest thing NASCAR has to a voice of reason. “He’s one of the drivers I respect the most in the business,” says a crew chief. “Here’s a guy who was struggling and getting up in years, and he rejuvenated his career. Burton’s as mentally tough as they come. RCR has really come back. They’ve got great horsepower, great cars, but I’d be willing to bet some of that improvement came about from having Burton around.”
Another says, “Burton has a great knack for holding things together. He’s a guy who’s been around and really uses all that knowledge, that experience, he’s picked up along the way.”
A third crew chief says, “I don’t think Burton gets enough credit for his driving ability. Most of what you read is about his personality, but he’s as competitive as it gets. He’s definitely one of those drivers who gets the best out of his car.”
Looking at Checkers: A pair of runner-up showings in Dover last season was encouraging.
Pretty Solid Pick: JB has averaged an 11.4-place finish in 28 trips to Darlington. That’s impressive.
Good Sleeper Pick: Could make some early season noise in Sin City. He’s done so twice before.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: One top-5 finish in 17 Infineon starts? No thanks.
Insider Tip: His consistency is unquestioned, but he won’t deliver a ton of wins. A return to 2006-08 form would be nice.
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 15
Laps Led: 539
Laps Completed: 10,556
Lead Lap Finishes: 30
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 16.6
Average Finish: 15.1
After First 26 Races: 8th
Final Points Standing: 12th
Driver Rating: 96.2 (6th)