Previews, predictions and stats for Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team
If it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, then Jeff Burton should be feeling pretty good. After a dismal 2012 (only six top 10s), the driver and Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 team have several things going for them in 2013 — including a new presence on top of the pit box.
One of the sport’s top up-and-coming crew chiefs, Luke Lambert, retakes the reins for the Caterpillar Chevy after spending a year in the Nationwide Series with Elliott Sadler. His return to the Cup ranks for Burton couldn’t come soon enough. Lambert was first paired with the driver for the final 17 races of the 2011 season in an attempt to jump-start the team’s performance. It took a while for the cagey veteran to adjust to the rookie risk-taker, but when the two finally clicked, the results were notable. Burton posted a 15.4-place average finish with Lambert, including all five of his top-10 runs that season. In the final five races, he led 54 laps and scored four top 10s. Even the one misstep, Texas, saw him up front before running out of gas down the stretch.
Yet for some reason, instead of continuing a partnership that was showing promise, Richard Childress replaced Lambert with Roush Fenway Racing’s Drew Blickensderfer for 2012. While Burton toed the company line, wishing Blick all the best in public once he departed last October, it was clear the two were on completely separate pages. Struggling to a 19th-place points finish, Burton was rarely competitive, posting only 16 lead-lap results for his lowest total in that category since 1996. With Lambert back, the pair will have a chance to rebuild while hoping to prove that what they started in 2011 was only the beginning of what could be a successful partnership.
Digging deeper, 2013 is looking like a transition year for RCR, though what it does in the case of Burton is a bigger question mark than anything else. On one hand, Kevin Harvick’s planned departure from the team at the end of 2013 may have inadvertently bought Burton more time to turn the No. 31 around. Burton announced last fall to reporters that 2013 was a “make or break” year for him, essentially putting himself on the hot seat. And with Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon expected to run Cup full-time in 2014, speculation was that he’d replace Burton. However, Harvick’s departure could very well change that. On the flip side, it’s likely that a lot of the team’s resources will be focused on Dillon’s Nationwide championship effort, as well as on Ty Dillon’s Camping World Truck Series campaign. That, along with the distraction of the mercurial Harvick, could slow down growth within the organization as a whole.
One area where Burton won’t have to worry about turmoil is financial support. Caterpillar will serve as primary sponsor for 24 races, while General Mills returns for a half-dozen more (with Cheerios replacing Wheaties). The rest of the season will most likely feature one-off sponsors to keep the boardroom darling comfortable. It’s that media-friendly attitude, combined with a wealth of knowledge on and off the track, that’s made Burton an elder statesman of the sport.
Burton, though in the twilight of his career at age 45, is still a valuable driver to the organization, and that value could increase as both Dillons move up. After all, drivers don’t stumble upon 21 Cup wins by accident.
That said, Burton hasn’t visited Victory Lane in over four full seasons, so let’s not jump ahead of ourselves and proclaim the Burton/Lambert combo a sure-fire race-winner out of the gate. The key is if the organization can catch back up, both in the engineering department and in the engine room, in time to keep its driver gainfully employed. As a whole, the organization won only once last year, with Harvick at Phoenix — its worst collective performance statistically in three years.
Can the team’s steadiest driver, a proven leader, lead the charge back to relevancy? Burton and Lambert have shown that they can make gains in a relatively short amount of time, and with Harvick having one foot out the door, there should be some additional focus on the No. 31 in hopes of getting that team up to speed.
Climbing back into the Chase will be a process for Burton and Lambert. Can they reach Victory Lane? That’s a tough proposition. But for the first time in three years, Burton will actually have a puncher’s chance.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“I like Jeff, he’s been doing this for a long time, and he brings a lot to the sport,” a rival crew chief says. “But I think he’s frustrated. He’s used to being extremely competitive, and he’s not right now. He’s talented — we’ve seen him win races and do big things — but the sport moves quick and he needs to get with the right group of guys. He needs to change quickly too, and he needs somebody to work with him to make that happen. When he had Scott Miller on the box, they were competitive. Scott did that well, and I’m not sure the guys he’s had on the box since then have been able to do that.”
Another crew chief agrees, but wonders what Burton’s long-term future is with the organization that resurrected his career:
“I think (RCR) is going through a rebuilding cycle and when they get out of that, I think Jeff will show what he’s capable of doing. I don’t know what position RCR is in with sponsorship on the 31, but I have to think Caterpillar and the other partners on that car are pleased with him, or he’d be gone. However, I don’t think it is a mystery that Richard (Childress) is creating some positions for his grandsons — and that’s a good thing. I think in a year or two, when those (Dillon) boys move up, they’re going to be in a couple of Richard’s cars, and somebody is going to have to go somewhere else to find work.”
Looking at Checkers: Let’s not get carried away, although fifth- and second-place runs at Daytona last season were encouraging.
Pretty Solid Pick: Some top-15 runs at Bristol and Richmond over the last three seasons provide a glimmer of hope.
Good Sleeper Pick: “Sleeper” status is in his wheelhouse these days. Think Dover.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Road courses. It’s always been road courses.
Insider Tip: The success of this team’s short-term health lies in the promotion of Luke Lambert. There’s potential, but a lot of work to do.
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