DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Burton finished eighth in the Chase for the Championship last year and comes to next month's Daytona 500 looking for his first win at the Daytona International Speedway. Burton took time away from this week's test session to talk about the upcoming season. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: What would it mean to win the Daytona 500?
Burton: Over Christmas I went to Ward's (Burton, his brother) house, and his Daytona 500 trophy was in his house there. You know, I don't know what it was about it, but I saw that trophy and it was like it was the first time I had ever seen it. My son was down there, he's 7, and I said, "You know what that is?" He's like, "Yeah, that's the Daytona 500 trophy." It was pretty special seeing that trophy. Having that trophy sitting there, that's the biggest race you can possibly win in our sport. That's something that no one can ever take away from him, and that's something that he'll always cherish and his family will. That's a special thing. Any win is a big win, but when you can look at -- if you look at a trophy like that and have that sitting in your house -- that's a different kind of win. It's one of those that lasts forever, and it has so much meaning, the importance of it.
Question: There was a lot of bump-drafting last week during the test. Do you expect a lot more beating and banging during this year's Daytona 500?
Burton: The great question is honestly how the car is going to handle. My inclination is that they're going to handle bad enough where I don't think bump-drafting is going to be a factor. I think the factor is going to be who can put the car where they want to put them. Bump-drafting really becomes a problem when you have the 43-car packs with no other option to pass somebody other than get the bump draft thing going. I think this is going to be a different kind of race. I think handling is going to be really important. The other thing about the bump-drafting when the bumpers do line up, it doesn't cause the problem that we saw with the other cars. We had a lot of wrecks in the other cars that people said were bump drafting when it was just wrecking. There's a difference. Running into the back of somebody isn't bump drafting, that's running into the back of them. Those mistakes won't show up as much in this car because the bumpers do line up.
Question: A lot was made of the declining television ratings last year. Are you concerned?
Burton: Well, to be clear, any time that attendance is down or TV ratings are down, we should be concerned about that. I'm not smart enough to know why the ratings are down. I'm not smart enough to know if that's something that's going on throughout television in general. I don't know. It's nothing that I can control, nor is it something I can impact, so I don't spend a lot of time worrying about how to fix it. You know, I think that we have more competitive teams today than we've ever had. We have more competitive drivers today than we've ever had. You can talk about the good old days all you want. The racing today is better than it's ever been. Those are facts, and those are things that I do know.
Question: Would the Daytona 500 have as much prestige if it was moved to later in the season?
Burton: I don't know. I think there's something unique about this being the first race and the biggest race. I've got to tell you, preseason football bores me to death. I can't imagine sitting and watching a preseason NBA ballgame. We just get right at it. I think there's something to be said for that. I think that the excitement starting, boom, right now, I think is a great thing. To me the Daytona 500 meaning so much, being the first race of the year, all the enthusiasm and excitement, that's something that can't be replicated by other sports. I wouldn't want to see that change. I think it's in the best interest of our sport to let the championship, the last race of the year, be a great big race no matter where it is because it's the championship. But the first race of the year being the Daytona 500, that's a special thing.
Question: Although Richard Childress Racing got all three cars in the Chase last year, all of you seemed to struggle during the playoffs. How do you avoid that this year?
Burton: Well, I can speak particularly for the AT&T team. We started the year great. I mean, if you go back and think about it, we finished third here, we had a chance to win California, and I missed a shift late in the race. Jimmie Johnson and I were battling with 20 to go in Vegas for the win, and we broke an engine. We went to Bristol and finished second. We were running as well as any team on the circuit for five, six, seven races, and then we lost it a little bit. Our stuff didn't drive as well as it had earlier in the year, and I think other people got better. Our stuff didn't really drive worse, it's just other people's stuff started getting better. We weren't able to make a step to get our cars better later in the year. We probably didn't do as well as we could have, it wasn't because we didn't try, in taking the old car and moving it forward. And ultimately that affected our Car of Tomorrow program, too.
Question: What will it take to win the Daytona 500?
Burton: It really depends on the kind of race that we get. I think like I said earlier, handling is going to be really important. We're going to focus a great deal on trying to make our cars drive as good as they can drive and then getting the right kind of race so that you're in the position you need to be in with the equipment set up the way it can. But right now we're going to have to be smart. We're going to have to have the right kind of race if we're going to take advantage of that race. There's a tremendous amount of strategy that goes into winning this race. You saw last year, the two cars that finished first and second, at no point did they exhibit the brute force that you would say that's the car to beat, but they put themselves in the right position at the right time and then took advantage of the situation that they were in, and I think that's what we're going to have to do.
Question: What will be the biggest storylines for the 2008 season?
Burton: I think the Toyota strength is obvious. We saw that last year at Talladega. The Toyotas were extremely fast obviously. Everybody is talking about Dale Earnhardt, Jr., being fast, the beginning of his time with Hendrick. But really at the end of the day the Car of Tomorrow, what is the impact of the Car of Tomorrow on the Daytona 500, how is the Car of Tomorrow going to make the race different than what we saw in the past. That's really the question that we all have to answer, what we're going to have to do differently to be successful with the Car of Tomorrow versus what we did with the last car. If you approach this race the same way you approached it with the car we've been racing, I think you're destined to be disappointed. This is a completely different package. It's a completely different mindset. And I think learning what that mindset needs to be is what's really important.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com