BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jeff Burton might be the only person for whom what ultimately happened in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was more significant than how it all went down.
“All I know is we have the trophy,” Burton said after winning for the first time in his career at this .533-mile track. “That’s what I came here to do, win.”
Win he did, but not until plots twisted and entwined deliciously for the more than 150,000 on hand to witness a full measure of the kind of wackiness this place has come to be known for.
Since Burton did win for the 20th time in his Sprint Cup career and for the first time at this track that he called a “special facility,” let’s begin by allowing the 40-year-old native of South Boston, Va., to speak on what that means to him.
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“This is a track where you have to be smart, you have to be aggressive,” he said. “You have to do everything well here. You don't have any fluke winners at Bristol. It's one of those tracks that just requires so much from the equipment, requires a lot from the team, the driver, everybody. You can't have a real weak area and be successful here.”
That’s true, and Burton did hang around in or near the top five for most of the afternoon until his No. 31 Chevrolet got a little tight on what looked like it might be a long green-flag run to the finish.
Burton had dropped back to sixth before Brian Vickers cut a tire and went into the wall to bring out a caution as the leaders completed Lap 486.
At that point Tony Stewart, who led 267 laps in his Toyota, was in front and trying to hold off late charges from Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Both were coming fast before Vickers’ incident shook things up.
Harvick gave up second place to hit pit road for fresh tires, hoping enough people behind him would do the same thing to help make that the right move.
Burton’s crew chief, Scott Miller, certainly never debated not coming in since his driver’s car had been faltering.
“The opportunity presented itself for us to make something happen, and our best chance to make something happen was to do what we did,” Miller said.
Stewart, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out and lined up at the front of the field for a restart with five laps left. Harvick was fourth with four tires, Greg Biffle was fifth with two tires and Burton was sixth with four tires.
Hamlin jumped around Stewart, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, on Lap 497 and grabbed the lead. Two laps later, Harvick cut to Stewart’s low side through turns 1 and 2 but then pushed up the track and rapped Stewart’s car, sending Stewart into the wall.
“I thought I left him plenty of room, I don’t know,” Stewart said. “I am sure it’s somehow my fault.”
Harvick, however, said that wasn’t the case.
“I just lost it underneath of Tony,” he said. “I made a mistake. It was mine to lose at that point, and I lost it.”
Burton, meanwhile, was there to capitalize. “That was the door that opened,” he said. “If we had any shot at all to win, we had to jump through it.”
Burton bumped his way past Harvick into second as the yellow flew, then lined up behind Hamlin for the green-white-checkered restart.
When it came time to go, Hamlin didn’t.
“We were either out of fuel or it was fuel-pickup problem,” Hamlin said. “By all calculations we were good on fuel to the end, including a green-white-checkered. It has been that kind of a season for us. We can’t get a break. We just couldn’t finish it off.”
Burton jumped through that door, too, sweeping into the lead and holding off Harvick and his other Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, for a 1-2-3 RCR finish.
Biffle wound up fourth with Earnhardt Jr. fifth and Hamlin sixth. Stewart wound up 14th.
“We put ourselves in position, and that's how you win these races,” Burton said. “We're not going to stand in here today and say we had the fastest car all day. We had good pit stops. We had good strategy.
“We did all the little things well. When you do all the little things well, a lot of times the big things take care of themselves. That's what happened for us today. We had some breaks, but we put ourselves in position to take advantage of the breaks. That's how you win these races.”