EDITOR'S NOTE: With plans for the project to turn into a book, motorsports writer David Poole of The Charlotte Observer and ThatsRacin.com spent the final portion of last season following Jeff Burton and his team in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. The book deal never was finalized, but the access the No. 31 team allowed provided a behind-the-scenes look of the battle for a NASCAR title:
MARTINSVILLE, Va. (Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006) - Jeff Burton pressed the button on his steering wheel to talk on his race team’s two-way radio. It was turning into a tough afternoon at Martinsville Speedway, and he wanted his team to keep on fighting.
“Let’s stay after it,” Burton admonished. “This is one of those days when we’ve got to earn it.”
Burton, driving the No. 31 Chevrolet in the Subway 500, started the day leading the fight for the Nextel Cup championship. Halfway through the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, Burton and his Richard Childress Racing team had amassed 5,763 points, 45 more than any of the other nine drivers qualified to compete for the title.
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A week earlier, Burton had dodged peril to finish third in the Bank of America 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth at Charlotte but remained 106 points behind Burton, in fifth place in the standings.
“We didn’t gain on the new ‘Ice Man,’ Jeff Burton,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You can’t break him. He’s just there every week doing a great job.”
But Burton knew that with five races left nobody had won anything yet. “We have done a nice job of positioning ourselves to have a chance to win a championship,” Burton said before starting practice on Friday at the circuit’s shortest track, a .526-mile paper-clip shaped oval located 60 miles from Burton’s hometown of South Boston, Va.
“If we go out and grab it, then good for us. But everybody else is trying to go grab it too. And we're one bad race away from being fifth in points.”
It had not been a particularly smooth weekend. Burton qualified only 28th fastest with a lap at 95.651 mph, nearly two mph off pole-winner Kurt Busch’s lap at 97.568 mph. In two practices on Saturday Burton ran 137 laps working with crew chief Scott Miller to get the feel Burton was looking for. But it had just never seemed quite right.
On Lap 4 in Sunday’s race, Sterling Marlin and Kyle Petty bumped as their cars came off the fourth turn. Burton ran into the rear of Joe Nemechek’s Chevrolet as they tried to avoid the wreck. Immediately, Burton and Miller began talking on the radio. Rocky Ryan, Burton’s spotter perched high above the front stretch, trained his binoculars on the car to help assess the damage, too.
Burton and Miller chose not to stop for repairs. Burton had made some progress – he would be in 20th for the restart – and they didn’t want to give up any hard-earned track position if they didn’t have to.
But when the team came in later for a pit stop, NASCAR ordered the team to tape the hood to close a small gap that the impact had opened. Burton sat on pit road as car after car took off. He was losing ground with every extra second. Finally, Miller told him to go ahead.
“NASCAR was bitching about the hood flopping,” Miller said.
Burton protested, saying all of his hood pins were in. “We lost 15 spots for a tape job,” he said.
That soon would be the least of the team’s concerns. Burton’s car was running hot. He was stuck back in traffic and eventually got lapped. Then, after a restart on Lap 162, Burton radioed that his engine felt like it was shutting down on the straightaways.
As the green flew for another restart on Lap 210, Burton knew he was in trouble. “The motor is broke,” he said.For a few moments, denial replaced logic.
“If you switched the ignition, go back to number one,” Burton was told.
“That ain’t it,” Burton said as his car slowed dramatically. “It’s shutting on and off. I don’t know what it is.”
Later, the team would discover that a spring inside one of the engine’s valves was broken. As it came apart, more and more bad things began happening inside the engine. Still, nobody wanted to believe the worst was happening.
Childress, the team owner, came on the radio to ask Burton what his car was doing.
Burton, growing increasingly concerned and frustrated, answered indirectly. He was speaking to Miller, to Childress and to anybody else who might have been listening as he felt his lead in the standings slipping away.
“It’s the engine!” he said. “Trust me, it’s the engine. ...It is not running. It’s not the ignition, it’s internal. Can we just come in and fix it? What do you want me to do?”
Childress wanted Burton to stay out, hoping whatever was wrong would somehow smooth out.
“If we don’t fix it, it will blow up and we won’t finish the race,” Burton protested.
After completing his 217th lap, Burton turned left off Turn 2 into the opening that normally serves as the pit road exit at Martinsville. As he rolled to his assigned stall near that end of the garage his crew was running from pit road to meet him.
Burton stayed in his driver’s seat as his team swarmed the car, hoping to find something as simple as a loose spark plug wire. Burton tried to refire his engine. No luck. The car was pushed backward out of the garage and the crew gave it a big shove, hoping the motor would catch and turn over with the car in motion.
“We’re done,” someone said over the team’s radio.
Before disconnecting his radio and taking off his helmet to climb out, Burton keyed his microphone and asked all of the team members to assemble inside its transporter for a quick meeting.
Wes Adams, the team’s engine tuner, knew that he and engine builder Greg Gunnell would spend the next week trying to figure out what happened and how to keep it from happening again.
Just before going in to join the quickly called meeting, Adams walked between the 31 team’s truck and one parked right beside it.
And he threw up.
Coming next: The race at Richmond