Originally created 07/10/98

Burton ready to defend title at Loudon



LOUDON, N.H. -- Mention great expectations, and Charles Dickens never enters the conversation.

No, the first two words out of Jeff Burton's mouth are Jack Roush. That's the way it is when you drive for the biggest team on the NASCAR circuit.

So, when Burton goes out Sunday to defend his title in the Jiffy Lube 300, victory won't be as important as its long-range impact. Moving up in the standings is the target.

The ultimate goal is the Winston Cup championship, and the demands placed on Burton and teammate Mark Martin by their car owner make the journey interesting.

"Nobody has higher expectations than Jack Roush," Burton said of his boss, who owns five cars on the circuit. "Jack wants one of the cars to win the championship, and the other to be right on his heels.

"It's a great position to be in, to have an owner who believes we should run in the top 10 every week. It's exciting."

At the same time, Burton knows that his teammate, two-time series champion Jeff Gordon, and Dale Jarrett won't be beaten without a superb effort.

"This series is so competitive," Burton said. "You have to do just about everything right to win a race. One mistake, and you're out of it."

Burton concedes that he has made several mistakes this year, the kind that dropped him from contention earlier in the season. Recently, he has risen to eighth in the standings, still not acceptable after a fourth-place finish last year.

"If you look at our record, you don't see anything but top-10s and 38s," he explained. "That's a hard way to earn points.

"I had to back off a little, so we could finish races. You have to have consistency, and that's what we're starting to get."

Burton won't attribute his decline -- he is winless this year after scoring his first three victories in 1997 -- to the change of crew chiefs from Buddy Parrott to Frank Stoddard. After showing Burton how to win last year, Parrott has become the overseer of all the Roush cars.

This, Burton insists has been helpful. He says Parrott's knack for dealing with people has created a better network of information-sharing among the cars -- particularly his and that of Martin.

"I know people can look at our record and make the argument that we're not as good as we were a year ago, but the structure hasn't changed much," Burton said. "Frank Stoddard has always been the guy who touched the race car."

As he approaches the race Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway -- the 17th of 33 on the schedule -- Burton predicts a strong second-half showing. He credits Stoddard's leadership for allowing him to feel that way.

"We've had some problems, and if you react you're going to make mistakes," Burton said. "If you respond, that's when you're going to get it right. That's what we've done -- respond."

As Burton attempts to become the first driver to successfully defend a race title in five years of competition in New England, Gordon will be trying to make a little history of his own. The only two-time winner since Winston Cup racing came to Loudon, Gordon will try to become the first to win consecutively. He took the CMT 300 last September.

"After the way we ran in the first race here last year, winning in the fall was a big thrill," Gordon said on the eve of qualifying for what he hopes will be his fifth victory this year and the 34th of his career.

Last year in the Jiffy Lube 300 -- a race he won in 1995 en route to the first of his two series titles -- things didn't go well from the start.

"We qualified 29th in the first race, then we had a flat tire and were just never able to make up for any of it," he said of his 23rd-place finish. "The whole team was disappointed."

Both Gordon and Rusty Wallace have picked cars from their respective garages that have carried them to considerable success in the past.

"I'm confident that we can qualify up front and run there all day come Sunday," Wallace said.

The other top contenders figure to be flat-track ace Bobby Hamilton, and -- as usual -- Martin, Jarrett and Jeremy Mayfield.