NASCAR & Auto Racing

Half the battle: No time to stop digging

EDITOR'S NOTE: With plans for the project to turn into a book, motorsports writer David Poole of The Charlotte Observer and 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:

KANSAS CITY, Kansas - In many ways, Lisa Cox had one of the easiest jobs in the Nextel Cup garage. As Burton’s public relations representative for Richard Childress Racing, it was her job to help her driver manage his responsibilities with the media and with sponsors and still have the time he needs to get his work done with the race car and the team.

Burton enjoys being interviewed, and relishes the fact that most of the media consider him a “go to” guy when they need good copy on the sport and issues surrounding it.

He had emerged, for instance, as driver who was willing to talk frankly and intelligently about safety issues in the sport during a time after Dale Earnhardt’s death when that became a primary topic in NASCAR coverage.

Burton knew that there were some in the garage who thought he worried too much about safety in a sport where many pretend to embrace danger as a defense mechanism. Some even went so far as to question whether Burton’s winless spell might be related to the fact that he worried too much about being safe and not enough about going fast - criticism that Burton knew about but managed largely to ignore.

With his team’s performance improved significantly in 2006, reporters no longer had to find reasons to include Burton in their stories from the track. He’d been a contender for a Chase spot all season long, and after the win at Dover he was not only in the battle for the championship, he was now leading it.

Burton was extremely relevant now.

An early goal after the Dover win was to escape potential drowning or electrocution during the SPEED interview in the monsoon that immediately followed the race. In typical Burton fashion, however, even before that he’d already set the agenda for his team during his victory lane interview with TNT.

“This thing isn't over, we have eight races to go, this deal isn't over,” he said.

“This win is a great deal, but we can’t lose focus on what we have going the next eight weeks.”

Burton admits that he is not the best in the world at enjoying the good times.

But he also takes pride in the fact that he’s able to move beyond setbacks in much the same way. Good or bad, Burton’s mind turns quickly to what’s next.

“Certainly that’s a way of guarding against being too let down when things don’t go your way,” he said. “It’s preparing yourself for the fight ahead of you.”

It was also preparing his team, too. There would be no party after the Dover victory. Everyone had a good time in Victory Lane, and there certainly were more smiles and pats on the back at the shop over the next few days. But in a week there was another race, and another chance to kick ass.

“I want our guys to appreciate and be able to celebrate it,” Burton said.

“But at the same time, it’s on my mind to remind them, ‘Hey, we have work ahead of us.’ All along, we’ve been talking about how that if we could find a way to step it up just a little bit we could do this. We could win races and fight for this championship. We know we’re capable of it. We just have to do it consistently.”

Within an hour of the end of the race at Dover, the voice mail box on Burton’s phone was full. He cleared it once before takeoff after he and his family left the track and got to their plane for the ride home, but it was full again when they landed in North Carolina.

Goodness knows how many messages he didn’t get, but the ones he did made him feel good. Dale Jarrett left a long message. Buddy Parrott, who’d been Burton’s crew chief at Roush Racing, called.

Teammate Kevin Harvick, whose engine had let go with just less than 40 laps left at Dover, was crossing the bridge over Turn 2 that allows people in the Dover infield to get out of the track and saw Burton and Kenseth fighting for the win.

“Kevin said he stopped and said, ‘I have to watch this,’” Burton said. “That’s gratifying.”

The victory also was gratifying for Scott Miller, the 49-year-old native of Bardstown, Ky., who hooked up with Burton in a shuffle of RCR crew chiefs near the end of the 2005 season.

Miller had been crew chief for Dave Blaney on the No. 07 team while Kevin Hamlin had been in charge of Burton’s cars. But Gil Martin was going to move up from the Busch Series with Clint Bowyer into the No. 07 Chevrolets for 2006, and RCR chose to move Miller to Burton’s team in place of Kevin Hamlin.

Hamlin switched places with Miller for the final two races of the 2005, going to work with Blaney, and later left RCR to move with Blaney to the Bill Davis Racing team.

Like many crew chiefs in NASCAR’s top series these days, Miller’s background is as an engineer. He has raced motorcycles and stock cars himself, and worked as a mechanic and engineer on sports cars and Indy cars before moving to North Carolina in 1995 for a job as a shock specialist with Tri-Star Motorsports.

He came to RCR for the first time in 1997, but left in 2000 to serve as the race engineer for PPI Motorsports. Miller came back to RCR in 2002, working as the team engineer for Jeff Green’s team, but left again in 2003 to become crew chief for Ricky Craven back at PPI. That spring at Darlington, Miller got his first win as a crew chief when RCraven and Kurt Busch staged a fender-banging battle on the final lap and Craven came out ahead in one of NASCAR’s most memorable finishes.

He came back to RCR as a team engineer in 2004, working with Robby Gordon and Harvick’s teams. When Todd Berrier, Harvick’s crew chief, was suspended for five races early in the 2005 season, Miller was the interim crew chief when Harvick won the Food City 500 at Bristol. He went to Blaney’s team in August and then to Burton’s in November and, it seems, found a home.

Miller, who is married and has one daughter, are alike in ways that help them work well together - especially that even-keel approach where neither the highs nor the lows are the focus.

Miller is not a screamer. Neither is he predisposed to “perform” when he thinks the TV camera might be in the team’s pit. The tone of Miller’s voice on the radio rarely changes, either, whether Burton is fighting for the lead or fighting to hang on when the car is not at its best.

Miller and Burton worked on their car at Kansas Speedway, getting into the race in the 10th starting spot and into the top five in the final practice. Going into the race on a warm, sunny day, Burton felt teammate Clint Bowyer’s car was strong, and also feared he might have trouble keeping up with Jimmie Johnson who started third, and Kasey Kahne, who was on the pole alongside his Evernham Motorsports teammate Scott Riggs.

The fastest cars, however, don’t always win. At Dover, Burton had noted how Miller’s calls on pit strategy played a critical role in the team’s victory. At Kansas, it wound up being even more so.

When David Stremme and J.J. Yeley wrecked in the second turn on Lap 195, the leaders made stops and the green flew again on Lap 200.

That left 67 laps - 100.5 miles - putting most teams at the very outside of their window for completing the race without stopping again. If another yellow or two came out, more cars might be able to stretch it, but even if the race stayed green it seemed possible that some would try.

Miller, however, knew that Burton would need to stop again.

“With about 25 laps left, Scott made a comment about us not being able to make it and I just assumed nobody else could, either,” Burton said.

“It seemed to me like we’d been on the same strategy as most of the rest of the field. For a minute or two, I started thinking about all of the scenarios and then I said to myself, ‘Get off of that and drive the car.’ With Scott, I know that my best chance to get the best finish we could is to make the best lap times and let him think about all of that stuff.”

Miller reinforced that line of reasoning over the radio as the Banquet 400 moved into its final 20 laps. “Just keep on digging,” he said. “We’ll see how this plays out.”

Greg Biffle began the parade of cars coming in for fuel with 18 laps remaining. Earnhardt Jr. came in three laps later and Harvick made his top with 12 to go.Two laps later, Miller keyed his microphone.

“Pit this time,” he said.

“What are we doing, Scott?” Burton asked.

“Fuel and right-side tires,” Miller replied. The crew can change two tires in the time it takes to dump one can of fuel, so taking right sides would cost the team nothing.

The pit stop was routine. After getting back on the track, Burton asked Miller where they were on the scoring monitor. Burton was 10th, a lap down, but the cars ahead of him were either still going to have to pit or had decided to gamble.

Edwards came to pit road on Lap 262 and Kahne tried to follow. But Kahne slid his No. 9 Dodge into the grass after failing to get cleanly onto the pit lane and looped it.

His car also was out of fuel. After starting first and running near the front all day, Kahne would finish three laps down in 33rd and fall 273 points down in the Chase.

Kahne’s problem quickly turned into one for Johnson, who had led 88 of the previous 96 laps.

Johnson was slowing to come down pit road when he saw Kahne’s car head into the grass. Guessing there would be a caution, Johnson stayed out. The race remained green, however, costing Johnson substantial time and, ultimately, track position after he had to come all the way back around the track to come back in for the fuel he needed.

Johnson’s situation got worse when he was penalized for leaving pit road too fast. Johnson had to come back down for a pass through penalty, and was there when the race ended.

Still, though few could figure out how afterward, Johnson would be credited as finishing 14th as the last car on the lead lap.

Burton watched this play out and, for a few minutes, he was convinced that Miller and his crew had once more concocted at race-winning strategy.

“We were in front of Johnson before he got penalized,” Burton said.

“In my mind, that was the race for the win. When he pulled out, that’s what I thought.”

Burton knew there were cars ahead of him on the track. But he had two new tires and those cars were clearly running low on fuel.

“Just because people go for it doesn’t mean they’re going to make it,” he said.

Even if they did, Burton was now back up to fifth and still had designs on passing Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin, both also gambling on fuel.

Tony Stewart, actually, had assumed the lead when Johnson made his pit stop.

He had a 17-second cushion, about half of a lap, on second-place Casey Mears. But as Stewart brought his No. 20 Chevrolet off Turn 2 on the final lap, he no longer had any fuel. The engine sputtered to a stop, and all Stewart could do was try to coast it through the final two turns and get to the finish line.

Mears had yet to score a Nextel Cup victory. Here was his chance. He was in second place and the only car ahead of him wasn’t running. The problem was that his No. 42 Dodge was out of gas, too.

Martin and Jarrett were too far back, and Burton didn’t have enough time to catch either of them. Stewart, riding low on the track’s apron, rolled silently under the checkered flag for his third win of the season and his first since Daytona in July.

Burton had to settle for fifth, but it was a valuable finish. Gordon, second in the standings at the start of the race, fell out with a faulty fuel pump after just 238 laps and finished 39th. Kenseth was 23rd and Denny Hamlin wound up 18th. It added up to a 69-point lead for Burton over Hamlin, with Martin 70 points back and Kenseth 84 behind.

Three races into the Chase, Burton had finished seventh, first and fifth and things seemed to be going his way.

“I can’t think of anyone who had performed better in these three races than we have,” Burton confessed.

“But this stuff moves so quickly. Being 69 points ahead, that’s a good number. If you were 100 points ahead, you might start getting pressure to try to protect your position. But I don’t think that’s the right way to go about our business. We can’t get off our rhythm. We’re only 30 percent through this thing. I’d love to be able to proclaim us as the champions and move on, but that’s not going to happen.

“What we have to do is not worry about it. I’d be as happy not knowing where we stood and just go race. I really believe that’s the key for us, to continue to find a way to improve and focus on what we need to do better. If we do that it will help us remain focused and not get all caught up in it.”

Actually, Burton said, he felt better about his team after Kansas than he had after the win at Dover. For the second straight week, his car had been better after the final pit stop than it had been in the rest of the race.

“If we can keep performing at that level,” Burton said, “We can get our business done.”

Coming next: To Jeff Burton, “luck” is a four-letter word.