ATLANTA - It's becoming more apparent that Ward Burton won't go away in this year's chase for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship.
His credentials pale in comparison with the rest of the top-10 drivers in the standings, but the racing underdog has managed to put himself second in the current points challenge with a lot of unassuming top-10 finishes.
There are 23 races remaining in the longest season in professional sports, but Burton has shown no signs of fading down the stretch. In a season where there have been 10 different winners in 11 races, Burton knows he doesn't have to be great to be a contender. He only needs to be good enough.
"It's certainly possible for one team to win more races, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will win the championship," Burton said. "I think it's neat that NASCAR has got the competition as close as it does so that we've got 10 different winners.
"But I think the whole key, as it is every year, is consistency. When you're having a bad day, to make the best out of your day and try to get a top 15 if you can, or even a top 10 or a top five. So never giving up and capitalizing on the times when you're really good, and when you're struggling a little bit to try to still have an even keel and be smart and not make it any worse than it has to be."
Burton has two career wins - one coming in 1995, the other at this year's Mall.com 400 at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. He is only 3 points from catching Bobby Labonte's lead in the current standing. Labonte has 1,601 points heading into The Winston all-star race May 20 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. while Burton trails with 1,598 points.
While he only has three top-five finishes this year, the oldest of two racing Burton brothers built his success on the strength of eight top-10 finishes. Not great, but good enough.
His climb actually started more than three years ago. He was 24th in the point standings in 1997, 16th in 1998 and ninth last year.
"If that was a breakout year, we're hoping this is going to be the bust-out year," said car owner Bill Davis. "We should have won some races last year and not the ones we finished second. There were other races we should have won. I think we're going to win some races this year. I think this will be Ward Burton's breakout year."
Burton is the sport's best story. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won twice in his rookie season, but his grooming included two NASCAR Busch Series Championships and the richest sponsorship deal in stock car history. The difference between the two is clear - Burton has a better understanding of the big picture. Young Earnhardt has the most wins this year, but he's only 17th in the point standings because he's only got three top-10 finishes this year.
"Well, a race team -- like any other business when you get a lot of different personalities together, a lot of different egos together -- it's hard to get everybody focused in the same direction," Burton said. "It's also hard to have clear-set goals so that everybody knows what direction to go in. We've worked real hard with the communications so that everybody knows the proper chain of command first; everybody has got real good goal values and the same goals as a whole for the team. So, instead of harboring a whole bunch of chiefs, we've got a lot of Indians and the proper chain of command when it gets to the chief. But, at the same time, we're open minded enough from the top to the bottom of the totem pole. All these guys have a lot of input, and that makes a lot of difference because some of us are more talented in some areas than others.
"The other side of it that Tommy (Baldwin, crew chief) and I are going to be working on very shortly is our communication because our communication from the driver to the crew chief can affect the rest of the team. So, we learned a lot about how to talk to each other and understand each other last year, but we need to do it in a way so that it's always positive and it's always productive for the team as a whole."
Davis is one of the most popular car owners in the garage area and has a knack for bringing out people's abilities.
He went head to head against the car owners of two or more race teams for years before finally making rookie Dave Blaney a teammate to Burton four months ago.
It was Davis who first recognized the talent of Jeff Gordon. He brought Gordon into the NASCAR Busch Series with plans to move to Winston Cup. When Rick Hendrick learned that Davis operated by a handshake, he lured Gordon away and signed him to a contract.
A year ago, teams tried to raid Bill Davis Racing again by attempting to steal Baldwin, now considered one of the brightest stars in the garage area. Baldwin, like his driver, however, is more impressed with loyalty. That combination will make them tough to beat.
"It's up to us to give him everything we've got on Sundays so we can win some races," Baldwin said. "I think Ward Burton learned a lot last year on how to run up front and how to run with the big guys. We just have to grow a little more as a team and work on some areas that we haven't been as strong at and I think we'll be OK."
It won't be great, but it will be good enough.