Jeff Burton is one of three drivers at Richard Childress Racing who has benefited from the company's turnaround compared to last season. The organization failed to win a race in 2009 or get any of its drivers in the Chase for the Championship.
RCR now has all three of its drivers ranked among the top five - Kevin Harvick in first, Clint Bowyer in second and Burton in fifth. Burton talked about the resurgence at RCR last week at Fontana, Calif. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: How important is it to get off to a good start?
Burton: I've had good starts and I've had not good starts. When you have a good start, it enables you to just relax a little bit. You're going to have mistakes along the year and you're afforded a certain amount of them and everybody is going to have some, but when you have them early that means you can't have them later. There's a whole lot later coming up ahead. It's real nerve-wracking when you get off and the first three or four races don't go well and you're trying to play catch up and you're trying to make up what you lost and you can't make up what you lost -- what's done is done. It's a lot of pressure and the people that have gotten off to a bad start, there's two different ways to do it. Mark Martin last year, they got off to a slow start, but they were running well. When you're running well, you can kind of rest on that and say that things are going to turn for us, just keep doing what we're doing and we'll be okay. If you get off to a slow start because you're running poorly, that's when panic sets in. That's what happened to us last year and it's not a good place to be.
Question: Has the engine shop been responsible for the turnaround?
Burton: That was one of the most disappointing things about last year was that the engines were so good. They were some of the best engines that I've ever been a part of in my racing career - great power, great reliability. They really got things figured out, but the cars weren't very good so we couldn't take advantage of it. They've done a lot of work and it's been methodical work. There's never just a magic button that you can push. There's been a lot of changes, a lot of long nights and those guys have just done a really, really good job making power - night races, short tracks. Our short track stuff a year ago or so, we didn't accelerate like other people did and we would really get beat up on the straights. It would show up on the short tracks and you would think that engine doesn't matter there, but really that's where you see a lot because it's so hard to pass. They just went to work and got better and made everything better.
Question: Are you just as anxious this year as you were a year ago?
Burton: I'm a lot more confident today than I was sitting here last year. I was concerned going into last year because I knew we had worked, but we didn't finish the year strong and I just didn't feel like we had done the stuff that. I knew we worked hard, but I just didn't feel right about it. We had gone and done a tire test in January and we were pretty far off on speed, I was really sick and not feeling good and I kept saying that I am still fast when I'm sick so it's not that. Then it showed itself pretty quickly that we weren't very good. The tire test that we did this winter and the way we ended last year and the things we've done this winter, I'm not saying that we're going to win the race -- I don't know what's going to happen Sunday, but I feel like we come here with a much, much better shot at doing well than we did last year.
Question: What's the next challenge for RCR?
Burton: Spoilers. We got to start working on spoilers. That's going to be a big change. You know, everybody has what they have for the next two weeks. When the spoiler comes, you better be ready. Like Kevin (Harvick) said, if we get behind, you won't catch back up anytime soon. We did that all last year. So that's where I think the whole garage is working right now.
Question: How much teamwork really goes on at the shop and at the racetrack?
Burton: I've been teammates for a long time with a lot of different people and you're destined to have your heart broke. You're destined to get disappointed because you think that the world revolves around you and when you turn left, your teammate should turn left. The reality of it is that your teammate has to do what he has to do to make sure that he gets the best finish that he can get. When you go into a race at Daytona and Talladega and you're expecting more than you are perhaps willing to give then you're going to be disappointed. I've learned over the years that I cannot trust anyone, my brother, my mother, my sister in-laws, that when I make a left that they are going to make a left because they got to do what they got to do what's best for them.
Question: Were you just as puzzled how Jimmie Johnson could take the lead - and the eventual victory - at the Auto Club Speedway last Sunday while making a pit stop? You were the race leader on the track. Could you have done anything different?
Burton: There in the end, you know, when the caution came out, I slowed down. The 48 (Johnson) beat us out. Then they got a break there, but they did a really good job of making their car good when it needed to be good. They definitely got a break, but they executed on it. That's what they do so well. I knew people were on pit road. There's a fine line between slowing down and not slowing down. I don't know where that line is. I came around as quick as I thought I could without NASCAR getting upset at me. If I'd have come around probably two-tenths of a second quicker, we would have had him a lap down. Nonetheless, I did what I thought was right. You know, I didn't just stop. I carried speed around. They ask you to slow down. You can't run down there wide open or they'll get you for that. You know, I don't know. I don't know what the right thing to do there is. I'll go back and spend some time with them and ask them their opinion. If I could carry more speed the next time, I certainly will.
Question: Did you expect the turnaround to come so soon this year?
Burton: We felt good about what happened in the fall, over the winter. Until you start racing, you don't know where you are honestly. You feel good about it. I had quite a bit of confidence coming in. But until everybody gets out here and they're going to give somebody a trophy, you don't really know where you stand. I expected to run well.