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:
DOVER, Del. (Friday, Sept. 22, 2006) - “What makes me angry,” Burton told reporters in his weekly interview session before the second race of the Chase at Dover, “was that this was a lie.”
Kevin Harvick, Burton’s RCR teammate, had won the Chase opener at New Hampshire. Burton got passed by Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler after a late restart and finished seventh, lamenting immediately afterward about those two spots – and the points that went with them – that he’d lost.
After the race, Burton and his wife, Kim, gathered their children, Paige and Harrison, for a helicopter ride to the airport in nearby Concord. Chris Terry, who has been Burton’s pilot since Burton bought his plane in 1999, had the wheels up around 5:30 p.m. The Burtons went from Concord in New Hampshire to Concord in North Carolina, then drove about 15 minutes to their home in Huntersville.
Burton got home around 8 p.m. – in time to catch a little TV before bed. Burton turned to Speed Channel for “Wind Tunnel,” a weekly show hosted by Dave Despain, and his ears perked up when Despain cut live to a reporter who was still at the track.
“A bunch of interesting stuff happened in post-race tech, Dave,” reporter Bob Dillner began.
“There was a little bit of an issue. Nothing will come of it because it's one of those patented gray areas that we always talk about, but what the No. 29 and No. 31 teams – and remember, Kevin Harvickactually won the race so we're talking about the winner of the race – did is they were they were trying to manipulate the rules around the actual rims that the tire goes around.”
The wording of Dillner’s reporting would become important as the week went on.
“In short-track racing, you have something that's called a bleeder valve,” said Dillner, who is himself a racer.
“That releases the (air) pressure to help the guys get the proper pressure that they need. Well, you can't use a bleeder valve in NASCAR Cup competition, but what the team did here is they laser-cut the rim to three one-thousandths of an inch in one part of the tire.
"That actually allowed some air to escape from the rim, and it was a performance advantage basically for the No. 29 and the No. 31 teams. There's been a lot of talk this year about teams doing this sort of thing in the garage area, but nobody was ever caught with it.”
Until now, according to Dillner, who cited no sources.
Dozens of other reporters who’d been covering the Sylvania 300 had no idea such intrigue had gone on in NASCAR’s inspections following Harvick’s win.
Indeed, before leaving for the night after filing their stories, most had made a routine check with NASCAR officials. No issues, they were told.
As soon as Burton arrived at RCR’s shop the next morning, he started asking questions. If a Cup team is “pushing the envelope” – a euphemism for “cheating” – it most often doesn’t let the driver in on it. Now Burton wanted to know if his team had actually been smart enough to come up with what Dillner had “uncovered.”
“The engineering on that,” Burton said, “was quite spectacular.” Or would have been.
Monday afternoon, NASCAR vice president for corporate communications Jim Hunter labeled the Speed report “pure fantasy” and “sensational journalism.”
Childress responded with vigor, too.
“Reports in the media, specifically on Speed TV, that one or more of our Nextel Cup Series teams was found by NASCAR to be manipulating the rules yesterday at New Hampshire International Speedway are false and misleading,” he said.
Dillner was not backing down and his bosses stood behind the story. Burton was doing his own investigating. In addition to his discussion with Miller and others at RCR, he had telephone conversations with Dillner and his producer about the story.
By the time he got to Dover on Friday, Burton was convinced of two things.First, there was nothing “creative” done to the tires on his car or Harvick’s car at New Hampshire. Second, Speed didn’t much care whether its story was right or wrong, as long as people were still talking about it.
“There is no truth to this,” Burton said. “I can honestly tell you we do not have laser-cut wheels or bleeder valve caps or other ways to leak air from our tires. I am 100 percent convinced nothing is going on.”
Burton and Harvick came to their own conclusions. They felt some one on another team had given Dillner the information.
“I'm sure it was,” Harvick said when he was asked it the story was planted to try to disrupt RCR’s resurgence as the Chase began.
“Right now, our guys have worked really hard to do what they need to do to make things go well. And you know, it's a pretty common practice in this garage to try to see what your competitors’ teams are made of.”
That, to be precise, was what had Burton fired up.
“If a team did that it's highly unethical,” he said. “And someone did it and it is unethical. It is unethical to lie. When you're 5 years old and you tell a lie you get your hand smacked. You're taught at an early age that it's wrong to lie. And without a doubt, someone was lying to Bob, no question about that.
“I don't think Bob created this story. Bob's a highly ethical and very professional journalist and he was given information that was 100 percent wrong. That's just how it is. If their mother did a good job raising them, someone woke up Monday morning feeling bad about themselves.”
What the whole thing had done for Burton and his team, though, was to fire them up.
“It puts us in a position as a company and as a race team to go shove one up everybody’s ass,” Burton said.
The team felt good about its chances at Dover. Burton had led 48 laps and finished fourth in a race Matt Kenseth won earlier in the season at the 1-mile concrete track.
But the qualifying effort, only 19th, was a little frustrating.
On Sunday, Kenseth took the lead on Lap 264 and was pulling away. Kenseth made a pit stop after Scott Riggs crashed to bring out the yellow on Lap 298.
The other leaders stopped, too, and some came back to pit road just before the green to top off their fuel tanks in hopes of going from there to the finish.
On Lap 324, a yellow flew after J.J. Yeley’s car brushed the wall on the frontstretch. That put Kenseth in a tough spot. If Kenseth came to pit road, several cars would undoubtedly stay out and hope to go the rest of the way on fuel.
If Kenseth stayed out he knew that most of his closest competitors would stop. They’d get enough fuel to have no problem making it the rest of the way, and they’d also get tires that might help eat into the advantage Kenseth’s car had enjoyed.
In a similar circumstance in June, crew chief Robbie Reiser wanted Kenseth to pit but Kenseth elected to stay out, and he eventually won the race. This time, Kenseth opted for a similar strategy. He remained on the track, as did Busch and rookie Reed Sorenson, who’d been among those who topped off on the previous yellow.
Burton came to pit road.
As the Chevrolet came to a stop inside his pit box, jackman Josh Yost slid the jack underneath the car’s right side and pumped the handle. With the car coming up off the ground, front-tire changer Joe Zielinski and rear-tire changer Aaron Smith were already zapping the lug nuts off the right-side tires. Kevin Nervenga, carrying the front tires, and Jason Fowler, on the rear, slammed new Goodyear Eagles on and the lug nuts were quickly spun back on.
Gasman Larry Hartle had already dumped one 12-gallon can of leaded fuel into the car, and he and catch-can man Rich Burgess hugged close to the rear corner as the rear-tire changer and carrier sped by. A second can of fuel topped off the tank as the left-side tires were changed.
Burton barely beat Gordon to the scoring line at the exit of the pit lane. That scant difference was crucial, however, since it gave Burton the fourth position for the restart.
More significantly, it made him the first car on the track with fresh tires.
The green flew again on Lap 328, and once again Kenseth took off. But within a few laps, Kenseth’s lead was no longer growing. Busch and Sorenson weren’t gaining ground, but Burton was. By Lap 357, Burton was up to second and eating away at Kenseth’s advantage.
“Be smooth, buddy,” spotter Rocky Ryan said on Lap 373 with Burton now so close to Kenseth’s rear bumper it seemed like he could reach out and grab it.
With 18 laps left, Burton made his first real bid to Kenseth’s inside. The two were now no longer lined up. Burton inched forward, pulling almost door-to-door.
Kenseth held on, but Burton pressed forward.
After two laps, Burton went into Turn 4 so hard in an effort to get the pass made he nearly lost control of the car. The next time around, though, the two leaders were virtually even.
Rain had threatened all day, and with one of the season’s best battles for the lead late in a race raging on the track the clouds seemed to be gathering anew.
Burton kept working on Kenseth. Kenseth, however, refused to relent. Twice, three times a lap, it seemed the two were about to wreck each other. But each time, the former teammates at Roush Racing skillfully danced on the edge of control.
On Lap 393, Burton nearly let the car get away from him. Time was running out.
Finally, on Lap 395, with the skies growing darker by the second, Burton drove hard to the low side in Turn 2. This time, Kenseth’s car did not get quite enough bite to surge forward and deny the pass as he’d been doing for nearly 15 laps.
“Clear!” Ryan said, using the word he’d been desperately wanting to say as the duel beneath him raged.
Burton was leading, with just six laps remaining, and Kenseth was mounting no counterattack. In fact, on Lap 398, the engine in the No. 17 Ford sputtered and stopped. Kenseth was out of gas.
“This was stupid, guys,” he said over the radio.
It was the last hurdle Burton had to clear.
“The 17 has shut off behind you,” Ryan said. “Hit your marks and bring it home.”
Edwards was now second, but he was nearly eight seconds back – a lifetime at this stage of a race.
“No pressure from behind,” Ryan said. “This one is yours, buddy.”
As he drove out of Turn 4 to complete Lap 400, Burton could see the black-and-white checkered flag against an ever-blackening sky. Or he would have.
At that moment, hs wife, Kim’s eyes weren’t the only ones in the Burton family filling with tears.
“Thank you so much, guys, for resurrecting my career,” Burton said, his voice choking, as he crossed the finish line. “YES! YES!”
As Burton headed toward victory lane Speed’s postrace show began. Burton did the ceremonies with TNT’s liver coverage, but was soon whisked to the Speed set where John Roberts, Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer were waiting.
At almost the same moment Burton stepped foot on the set, the clouds that now hung low over the track let loose with a driving rain. For Burton, the enduring image of the moments after his 18th career victory will undoubtedly be looking out or his car in Victory Lane and seeing his wife and children there with big smiles on their faces.
For just about everyone else, though, it will be the ridiculous sight of Burton sitting with three other men under a trio of golf umbrellas, huddling against that downpour while trying to complete a television interview.
Sometimes, the symbolism of a moment is so stark it slaps you upside the head.
For Burton, the drought was over.
Coming next: No Time to Stop Digging