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. - Candace Bowman’s doctors were telling her she was still six weeks away from giving birth to her first child. But her husband, Curt, was already nervous.
“All I know is that if I am not there when he is born, I’ll never hear the end of it,” said Bowman, a mechanic on the No. 31 team.
Bowman gets busy at the track, crawling up under the car to work on gears and things, so he knew it was going to be difficult to carry his cell phone all day at the track.
So Candace had the number for Lisa Cox, the team’s PR rep. If anything happened that Curt needed to know about, Candace would call Lisa and Lisa would find Curt.
Candace was coming to Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s Subway 500 and Curt was planning it like he was staging an invasion. The primary concern was finding a parking space close enough to the infield tunnel so she wouldn’t have too far to walk and so she could leave before the race ended to beat the traffic.
Jeff Burton had the answer. His motorhome was parked behind the track’s third turn, as close to the tunnel as just about any space there was. Candace could leave the car there. Burton would get Bowman the pass before Sunday morning.
Engine tuner Wes Adams’ wife, Lori, was pregnant, too, with a boy who would their second child. Lori Adams and Candace Bowman, in fact, were both due at roughly the same time, so their husbands’ teammates had concluded that both babies had been conceived during the off weekend following the season’s second race at California.
Bets were down on when each baby would be born and whether the Adamses or the Bowmans would be first to deliver.
Adams was also getting steady grief form his teammates about how regularly he seemed to show up in photographs taken around Burton and the car. It became a running joke that Adams followed Burton around all day and made sure to be in camera view.
The ribbing hit a crescendo after Adams and spotter Rocky Ryan appeared in photos for stories about a stop-smoking program in a weekly NASCAR publication. Adams and Ryan were depicted with their sleeves pulled up to show nicotine patches, but with a little work by mechanic Andy Spenner and shock specialist Skip Pope, those ads were turned into unflatteringly suggestive posters that wound up wall-papered all over the truck.
Pope has a good vantage point to watch the circus that surrounds him. His work station is a shock dynamometer mounted about two-thirds of the way down the aisle leading from the back of the transporter to the lounge where Burton meets with Miller and the team’s lead engineer Jeff Curtis and assistant engineer Aaron Johnston.
Curtis’ nickname is “Jazzy.” His first name is Jeff and from there someone made the leap all the way to “DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.” Johnston is “A Squared.” Rear-tire changer Aaron Smith was on the team first, so Johnson was Aaron No. 2, or A2 and thereby “A Squared.” Tire specialist Tracy Ramsey works closely with Curtis and Johnston, since tires provide the car with its contact with the track and have so much to do with its performance.
Darin Nesterlode the team’s car chief, is a second-in-command to Miller. If changes need to made in the car, Nesterlode makes sure they gets done.
Engine builder Greg Gunnell and Adams, the engine tuner, make final tweaks on the power plant under Burton’s hood and make sure the backup engines on the truck are ready to go in case they’re needed during the weekend.
Chad Tigert and Gary Stoots provide pit support. On race day, Tigert pulls the empty fuel cans from pit road to the Sunoco pumps and then hustles back.
Frankie Nester is the transporter driver, and for much of the final few weeks of the season the rest of the team decided to convince Nester that spotter Rocky Ryan was angling to take over that job - just for the sake of seeing Nester squirm.
Back at RCR in Welcome, Wayne Orme is in charge of getting the car set up for the trip to each track. Greg Meredith specializes in gears, while Jonathon Steele and Michael Tesh deal with suspension. Danny Parker leads the fabrication team, a group including Jason Sardis, Jeremy Price and Phil Jackson that makes sure the bodies on Burton’s cars give him every possible aerodynamic edge.
Dozens of others at the RCR had a hand in getting the No. 31 to where it was halfway through the Chase – on top of the standings. The engine department builds power plants for RCR’s Cup and Busch teams while the chassis department turns steel rails and tubes into the structural skeletons of Nextel Cup cars.
Each of those departments has people working on developing better engines and better cars and trying to keep the company ahead of the sport’s rapidly changing technology – people like Nick Hayes, a former technical director for Cosworth Engineering’s Formula 1 program in Great Britain who Childress hired as his director of engine R&D.
A Nextel Cup team’s headquarters is colloquially called a “shop,” but don’t let that conjure up the image of a grimy garage in someone’s backyard. There is a rich tradition of the “shadetree mechanic” in NASCAR, but like moonshine runners and drivers racing in plain T-shirts and denim pants, that era is gone.
Today’s “shop,” for the sport’s largest teams, is a factory where high-performance cars and engines are built at maintained. It is also, in many ways, a laboratory, where data gathered in tests and in real-world racing experience is collected, processed and analyzed using computers and computer-driven machinery that can simulate conditions a car might face over the entire course of a 500-mile, 3½ hour race.
While it’s Burton who plants his foot on the accelerator, dozens of people have a hand in making the No. 31 car go fast. A racing generation ago, many NASCAR drivers helped build their own cars and almost all were hands-on in getting them ready to run. Burton had axle grease under his fingernails for a long time, but the sport has changed.
“The hardest thing that I've had to deal with is the understanding that I can't do everything,” he said.
“My personality is such that I don't want to leave for chance that something was done right; I want to be in there helping make sure it's done right.
“When I had my success at Roush, I was an integral part of what we were building, how we were building it, when we were building it and how we were setting it up. I was a big part of that. We had 20 people working, maybe 25. We have 300 working now.
“I just don't think that the driver can run the team anymore; I think he needs to be able to concentrate on driving. The competition level is so high now I need to focus on racing, not on the logistics part of it.”
The team’s routine was altered in the week between Charlotte and Martinsville by a trip to south Florida for a two-day test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In a month, the 2006 season would end at the 1.5-mile track south of Miami and NASCAR had staged an open test for all teams.
The track was open Monday through Wednesday, with each team allowed to pick two days to work on gathering data. Burton’s team used Monday and Tuesday, testing two cars equipped with data-gathering systems that would provide reams of input for Curtis, Johnston and the other engineers back at Welcome to go over before deciding how they’d try to attack the track with, they hoped, a championship on the line in mid-November.
And then, there was the Ward factor.
Jeff Burton is the youngest of three sons. Ward is nearly six years older while Brian is roughly halfway between them in age.
Brian Burton got started early in racing, just like his brothers, and won five Virginia go-karting championships, as many as Ward (two) and Jeff (three) combined. But Brian stopped racing, got a marketing degree at Lynchburg College and prepared to take over the J.E. Burton Construction Co., the business his grandfather started in 1937.
Ward Burton also walked away from racing in high school. After attending Elon College in North Carolina, Ward left school and spent two years living by himself in the woods in southern Virginia.
He nurtured what has become a lifelong passion for the outdoors, hunting and trapping animals and thinking about what he might want to do once he decided to rejoin civilization.
Jeff Burton’s direction never changed. He went directly from go-karts to late model stock cars and the weekly short-track racing in the Winston Racing Series.
The construction company, then being run by John Burton, the Burton brothers’ dad, was sponsoring Jeff’s efforts on the track. When Ward saw Jeff having some success at their hometown track in South Boston, racing once again began to have some appeal.
Before long, both the oldest and youngest Burtons were racing each other every weekend.
Sometimes it didn’t seem to matter much to them if there was anyone else on the track. The only driver each Burton knew he had to beat was the other Burton.
The rivalry turned into a near brawl one night after they were in wreck with each other. Stories about that incident vary, but both Jeff and Ward agree that following it they were both tried harder to remember that when the racing was over they were still brothers.
They both eventually made it to the Cup series, and Ward won first at Rockingham in 1995 driving for Bill Davis Racing. Once Jeff got his ride at Roush, he started winning more often. While still looking for his second career victory, Ward finished second three times in 1999 – at Las Vegas, Darlington and Rockingham. Jeff won all three of those races.
When asked after one of them if it was particularly frustrating to finish second to his brother, Ward’s succinct reply was: “Do you have a brother? Then you tell me.”
Ward did win again, at Darlington in 2000 and again the following year, and then in the 2002 Daytona 500 and at New Hampshire later that season.
But with four races left in 2003 he left Bill Davis Racing and went to a team owned by Gene Haas. With two races left the next year, though, Mike Bliss replaced Ward in that ride and the oldest of the racing Burton brothers was out of a NASCAR ride.
Virtually every weekend since then, whenever he did a hospitality appearance or stopped to sign autographs, Jeff Burton got the same questions. Where’s Ward? How’s Ward doing? When is Ward coming back?
Jeff’s answer was always the same. Ward’s looking for a ride and hasn’t been able to find one. First, Jeff wanted Ward to have a ride. Second, he was tired of being treated like his brother’s keeper.
Why the fascination with Ward? He was a winning driver, but his pronounced Southern accent also made Ward one of the most widely imitated people in the sport.
Another question Jeff Burton had answered thousands of times was how he and Ward could grow up in the same family and sound so different when they talked.
“He grew up in the southern part of the house,” Jeff usually said. Ward’s standard explanation, honest to goodness, was that Jeff had gone off to “speeching school” to learn how to talk in public.
At Homestead, when Burton took a short break between runs to talk to the reporters who came to the test, the first question was not about the No. 31 team leading the Chase. It was about the fact that Ward had announced he would try to make his first Cup start in almost two years at Martinsville, driving the No. 4 Chevrolet for Morgan McClure Motorsports. The line of questioning continued Friday morning at Martinsville.
“I’ve said it before,” Jeff said in the media center before practice began.
“The blood tests are definitive. We are brothers. No one really understands it. My parents don't understand it. I don't understand it. But what I want for Ward and anybody in my family is for them to be happy.
"Happiness is worth its weight in gold. If Ward wants to be back then I want that for Ward. I care much more about that then I do anything else. Ward seems excited to be back. I think when Ward first got out, I don't really think he thought he'd miss it as much as he has.”
Ward had made his own visit to the media center that morning, too. One reporter actually asked Ward if he had decided to come back because of all the attention his younger brother was getting.
“They are the team to beat,” Ward said when a less obtuse question, one about his brother’s chances to win the championship, was asked.
“I feel like they are the most consistent team. Once they made the Chase they've had good things go their way but they run really consistent. They earned everything they got. I feel like it's Jeff's to win or Jeff's to lose. I think it's in his hands.”
Nothing like having your brother turn the pressure up a notch – or 12. “That's a heck of a thing for your brother to say,” Jeff said.
But from the time Burton’s car got damaged in the Lap 4 wreck at Martinsville, it was clear that the misfortune that took its toll on other teams earlier in the Chase had come to roost on the No. 31.
Engines sometimes fail, and to be in position to win the championship a team has to asking everything it can out of all of its equipment as well as its people.
Burton and the team realized they were done early for the day, but not necessarily for the Chase.
“This thing is not over by any means,” said Burton, saying the same thing now as he’d said when he was leading the points race. “It was a bad day for us, but we won’t quit. I guarantee that. We fight together. This team is really tough and resilient. We feel like going to Atlanta we have as good of a chance to win this as anybody and this team won’t lay down.”
A few years ago, Burton would have been trapped inside the track until the end of the race. But Martinsville had added a tunnel, so both he and Candace Bowman were able to head home early.
Burton was nearly back to Huntersville when Jimmie Johnson completed a victory in which he led 245 laps, including the final 56. Denny Hamlin was second. Kevin Harvick finished ninth and Matt Kenseth 11th and all four of those drivers passed Burton in the standings.
Coming next: Chipping away