Preseason Rank: 14
There might not be any other driver more ready for 2012 to kick off than Jeff Burton. After suffering through his worst points season in 16 years, Burton knows that, at 44, his remaining chances to make another Chase, let alone win an elusive Cup title, can be counted on one hand.
The ending to his 2011 nightmare came with a bit of good news: Burton wrapped up the season as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, with four top 10s in the final five races leading to a “hard-fought” 20th in the final standings. The not-so-good news is just how badly the rest of the year went. His five top-10 finishes overall rank as his lowest total since ’95, Burton’s sophomore Cup season when some five-time champ named Jimmie Johnson was still a teenager. The carnage wrecked his relationship with crew chief Todd Berrier, too, as the 17-year Richard Childress Racing employee was packing his bags by the middle of last summer.
What happened? The driver who’s the veteran leader at RCR appeared to be the victim of the operation’s second four-car expansion venture. A previous version didn’t work in 2009, and the 2011 season was a repeat of that failed experiment when only one of the four teams, Kevin Harvick’s No. 29, made the Chase.
The good news is that RCR didn’t try to force the ugliness for another year, dropping back to three cars, and that alone could make a major difference. Following that ’09 season, when RCR didn’t place a single car in the title Chase, all three teams made the cut in 2010. Now, the team is looking to bring back that magic, and it’s Burton who needs it the most.
To that end, there were some major shakeups in the RCR stable before the cars even cooled from last season. The biggest change at the No. 31 will be the addition of crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who has been successful for several years at Roush Fenway Racing in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. Blickensderfer replaces interim chief Luke Lambert, whose risky strategies helped turn the No. 31 red-hot in the closing stages of last season. But Childress is hoping that Blick’s experience, when coupled with Burton’s, has the potential to right the ship over the long term. Blickensderfer most recently won at Daytona last July with David Ragan and has a Daytona 500 win (2009) with Matt Kenseth. Bringing in some new blood to the organization could be a good idea, as most of RCR’s crew chief appointments have been promotions from within.
One thing that shouldn’t be a question mark is the equipment. Keep in mind that as an organization — and despite its struggles last year — RCR won six times, tied for most wins among all teams. Burton was the only one shut out of Victory Lane, but that goose egg didn’t matter in the boardroom. A multi-year contract extension for both Burton and sponsor Caterpillar leaves the future of the No. 31 secure. General Mills’ Wheaties brand, which first sponsored Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 in the ’90s and adorned Childress’ No. 33 ride the last three seasons promoting Cheerios, has stepped up as a co-primary entering 2012.
So with money and personnel funneled his way, the pieces are in place for Burton to succeed once again. Now, it’s up to the veteran to, as he says, “put himself in position to win.”
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
After three straight seasons of top-10 finishes from 2006-08, Burton has been winless and finished outside the top 10 in points the past three years.
“Burton had an awful 2011 but still seems to have the drive to compete,” an industry insider says. “If 2012 doesn’t shape up well for him, I don’t know what will.”
After that uncharacteristically bad season, Burton heads into this year with a new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, and a refocused three-car organization at Richard Childress Racing. “The Mayor will rebound in 2012,” says one competitor, “but he’ll never win a championship. He’s about a 10th-place driver.”
Still, he’s good for RCR as a whole: “There’s no one better within a team,” a rival crew chief says. “He’s the glue that holds RCR together.”
Top 5s: 2
Top 10s: 5
Laps Led: 94
Laps Completed: 10,457
Lead Lap Finishes: 23
Bonus Points: 9
Races Led: 9
Average Start: 20.7
Average Finish: 18.3
After First 26 Races: 24th
Final Points Standing: 20th
Driver Rating: 78.7 (19th)
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