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:
HAMPTON, Ga. - The NASCAR garage is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Before the race at Martinsville, a member of the No. 31 team stood at the back of the transporter and, to no one in particular, asked a question that he was not the first to ponder.
“Would NASCAR,” he muttered, “really let this team win Big Yellow’s championship?”
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“Big Yellow” was a reference to Nextel, which had signed a 10-year, $750 million deal to become the circuit’s title sponsor when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco gave up that slot following the 2003 season.
Since the contract was signed, Nextel and Sprint had merged to form an even larger wireless communications company, but the name Nextel Cup remained on the series, on the silver trophy its champion received each year and on the check for more than $6 million the 2006 champion would receive.
Burton’s team was sponsored by Cingular, a rival to Sprint/Nextel in the exceptionally competitive wireless industry. Richard Childress Racing had a sponsorship with Cingular when the Nextel deal was signed, as did Ryan Newman’s team at Penske Racing with Alltel. Nextel agreed to “grandfather” those deals in.
In a sport as sponsor-driven as NASCAR, such sponsorship clashes are inevitable. Johnson’s car is sponsored by Lowe’s, and before Kahne’s sweep at Charlotte’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2006, Johnson had won the previous four points races there and skeptical fans figured it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.
But Tony Stewart, sponsored by The Home Depot, won at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2003. And Jeff Gordon, who endorses Pepsi, won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte three times.
Suspicion that NASCAR either helps or hinders a team’s success has always been a part of the sport and such allegations always have been difficult to prove false. But as much as Burton didn’t like to hear people talking about bad luck, he had even less time for such suspicions. As he’d said at Dover, during the discussion about the allegations RCR’s team had illegal wheels, he truly believed that anybody who thought the sport was “rigged” needed to get out of it.
As the flag fell at Atlanta, Burton was dead on when he talked about how what had happened to his team a weekend earlier had effectively hit the reset button on the 2006 Chase.
“It’s not quite like it is zero to zero, because we’re 40 points back and 40 points aren’t easy to make up,” he said. “But it is almost like we’ve started over again.”
But not before the requisite post-mortem on the engine failure at Martinsville was complete. Wes Adams, chagrined that the story was out about him literally getting sick when he realized the extent of the problem at Martinsville, knew where the trouble had started. Patiently, he described how the valve spring came apart and spread trouble like a disease through the engine.
Sometimes, he said, parts fail. What was important was for him, engine builder Greg Gunnell and the people in the RCR engine department to figure out if what started it was something that could have been prevented or might be addressed.
The media looked for a simple answer, but Burton wasn’t offering one.
“There is a continuing evaluation going on with the engine program as far as what happened to our engine at Martinsville,” he said.
“We believe we know why that engine broke a valve spring and the other RCR engines didn't and I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to say and what I'm not supposed to say about that. I'm just going to say nothing. I'm not lying. I'm just telling you I don't know what to tell you so I'm not going to tell you anything. We think it broke it a valve spring and why it did that is up to conversation. That's the really difficult business of trying to develop every horsepower you can and also make it reliable and I have all the confidence in the world that my guys did the very best they could and we just pushed it a little harder than we should have and it just didn't work out for us.”
The engines on the RCR cars that were able to finish the race at Martinsville differed from the one in Burton’s car in one significant way. Burton’s team had a different rev-limiting chip in the No. 31 that allowed its engine to turn more RPM.
It was not a tremendous difference, but since Burton’s engine failed and the others didn’t that factor could not be brushed aside as insignificant.
RCR’s engine department said that its work on dynamometers had established that the chip with the lower maximum should be used. Burton’s team contended that it didn’t know that, saying the the message not to exceed the lower level had not reached the team.
In the end, of course, it didn’t matter. The points left on the pavement at Martinsville could never be gathered back up. It was now time to race at Atlanta. Just not until Saturday. Word spread through the garage that NASCAR would call off all practice and qualifying around 3 p.m. Friday. Reporters had been working on rainout stories since Burton’s early session in the media center.
“I haven’t felt an increase in pressure just yet,” he said. “I am sure if we can stay in the Chase, it will get there, butI still believe you race this thing one race at a time and you put every effort you can in to that race. Spending time, effort and energy about things you can't control is a complete waste of time.
"The way this sport goes, though, you have a lot of time to sit around and wait and think about things you probably shouldn't be thinking about. The key is finding a way to get yourself back to thinking about what you should be thinking about, or, completely get away from it.
“We now have a four-race championship with a lot of teams and chances are that one of those teams will find a way to go through these next four races without a major problem. To win this championship you're going to have to run well and put yourself in position to win races. You're going to have to gain points. Where we are right now today, I don't think it's going to come down to a lot of people of having problems.
"I think the quality of these teams, several teams will put together a four-race strategy with no major problems. It's my opinion to win it you're going to have to run well in these four races."
Burton was reminded that some people had said just one week earlier that it was his championship to lose. Now, he would have to make up ground to win it.
“When I sat in the media center at Dover after winning the race and told you guys that this was a long race and 10 races is an eternity in this sport, that's what I was talking about,” he said. “You can think you have everything going your way and then one race all that changed. I'm not surprised. I do find it humorous.
“C'mon raise your hand, who didn't write Jimmie Johnson and those guys off? I read enough and listen enough to know that some of you guys were like, ‘It ain't going to happen. He can't get it done.’ This is a fast-moving target.”
The rain was gone by Saturday, allowing the 43 teams that made the race a pair of practices. As the cars lined up to take the track for the first time, someone on Burton’s team noticed there weren’t as many people crowding around the No. 31 as there had been a week earlier. “Last week they all wanted to take pictures of us,” he said.
There was a good sign early in the Bass Pro Shops 500. On the fourth lap, Kyle Busch spun out in Turn 4 and slid across the track directly ahead of Burton. But as he did early in the Chase, Burton came through unscathed.
Burton had started fifth, but struggled a bit with rear grip in the early going on an afternoon where it was significantly warmer than it had been all weekend. As a general rule, a warm race track provides less grip than a cooler one, so Burton wasn’t the only one fighting a loose condition.
Burton passed points leader Kenseth on Lap 70 and was back to picking up ground. “That’s a really, really good pace right there,” Miller said on Lap 80. “You’re the fastest car on the track.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., though, was found himself in a difficult spot. He’d been there already, after making an unscheduled stop for a vibration in the No. 8 Chevrolet, but when the rest of the field stopped under green Earnhardt Jr. not only got back on the lead lap but took over the lead. By Lap 82, however, Jeff Gordon was closing in to challenge and Earnhardt Jr. was on the brink of having to make his own pit stop under green that would have knocked him out of sequence with the leaders.
“They’re talking about debris,” spotter Rocky Ryan warned on the radio. “There it is, caution.”
Burton was happy to see the yellow. “Good!” he said when it came out. “Whew!” The pace had been frantic on one of Nextel Cup’s fastest tracks. “That is,” he added, “by far the best we have been.”
The Bass Pro Shops 500 started just before 3 p.m. NBC wanted it to end around 6:40 or so it could do 20 minutes of postrace coverage and switch directly to its new “Football Night in America” NFL programming, beginning with a 7 p.m. pregame show.
For NASCAR competitors, that meant the race started in the daylight but moved through twilight into the early evening. Atlanta Motor Speedway had lights, so that wasn’t a problem, but it did set up a challenge for the teams because the track would change as evening approached. As it began to cool down, Burton’s problem began switching from too loose to too tight. On new tires, he simply could not go as fast as the people he was racing with. As a long run went on, his tires warmed up and he got more group, or at least didn’t lose as much as those who could go faster, sooner.
“I am getting back into my Rockingham mode,” Burton said. A track in Rockingham, N.C., which is no longer on the circuit, was known for being tough on tires. The idea there was to take it easy early in a tire run hoping it would pay off late as those who’d used up their grip too soon fell back.
Burton was still running in or near the top five, but as the race passed the midpoint he was growing more and more frustrated with his inability to get the car to go where he felt it needed to. “I am just flopping all over the damn place,” he said at one point. Later, he said, “I know you think I am whining but I can’t keep up with these guys.”
Miller made air pressure adjustments in all four tires, but it didn’t help. Burton restarted sixth on Lap 202, but when Gordon passed him on Lap 215 Burton was 10th. He was losing ground – and confidence.
“We completely suck right now, he said. “It just makes zero grip. I go in the corner and one lap it hangs a right and the next lap it goes sideways.”Greg Biffle went by on Lap 221.
“I am sorry Scott, I just can’t do anything else,” Burton said. “It is impossible to go any faster. I am just out of the race track, horribly. I just have zero grip. It is loose, but it’s a lot of things before that. It’s moving around all over the place.”Miller said it seemed the team had a bad set of tires on a car that had its own problems.
Mark Martin passed on Lap 231, and two laps later Dale Jarrett went by. He was now 13th and nearly 20 seconds behind race leader Tony Stewart.
“This son of a gun has blown up,” Burton said. “Not the engine, the chassis.” Burton needed a caution now as badly as Earnhardt Jr. did on Lap 83. He got it on Lap 244 when Ryan Newman wrecked on the backstretch.
Miller now faced a critical decision. Burton’s car had been good but now it was awful. The track conditions had changed, but Miller knew that if he made major changes to the car and it turned out that a bad set of tires had caused everything to go wrong, the changes he made might hurt the car once it had a workable set of tires on it.
Richard Childress had been on the radio telling Burton and Miller that their teammates, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, had made wedge adjustments that seemed to help their cars. Miller, though, was convinced that new tires would help solve at least some of the problems, and when the team got the old tires off the car the right-rear did, indeed, have a chunk of rubber that was gone.
“There was something going on with that tire from the get-go,” Miller told Burton.On Lap 249, Burton had to dive low in Turn 1 to miss a wreck involving Kasey Kahne and David Stremme, but again, he got by. It was a 325-lap race, and if Burton was going to make up any of the ground he’d lost he needed to do it quickly.
On Lap 268, Burton closed in on the rear bumper of Carl Edwards’ Ford as they went into the corner. The timing was such that the air passing over both cars as they went into the turn left Burton without as much ability to turn the car as he’d expected.
“I hit the wall,” Burton said over the radio. “I drove up behind the 99 and got tight and I couldn’t get it to quit.”
Ryan looked at the damage in his binoculars and tried to be optimistic. “You just knocked the yellow off the tire,” he said, speaking of the lettering on the tire’s sidewall. “We didn’t need that anyway.”
But Ryan wasn’t feeling what Burton was inside the car.
“I hurt the damn thing,” he said. Martin Truex Jr. passed him on Lap 272. “It’s getting real tight,” Burton said. “I must have the fender pushed in. I am sorry.”Joe Nemechek went by, then so did Bowyer.
“It’s wicked tight,” Burton said on Lap 276. “I just messed it up.”
Mark Martin went by on Lap 278. Burton was 12th and fading. Two laps later, Burton felt the tire going down.
“I’m coming in,” he said with resignation in his voice. The unscheduled stop under green left him two laps down in 17th place,
Once the tires were changed and the bent sheet metal had been pulled away, though, Burton’s car was fast again. All of the cars in front of him still needed to make a pit stop to complete the race, while the No. 31 was good to go.
Harvick made his stop under the green on Lap 288. If all of the cars ahead of Burton had to stop under the green, Burton wouldn’t catch all of them but he have a chance to improve on his final position.
There was still hope.
But on Lap 292, the yellow flag waved. Debris on the track. Burton knew the timing was bad, but what made it even worse was why NASCAR threw the yellow flag.
“Explain to me where the debris is,” he said on the radio. “There is a piece of roll bar padding on the apron. That’s freaking ridiculous. They ought to stop every car and see where it came from, and if they need a pair of binoculars, I will pay for them.”
After the race, NBC found a replay showing a piece of debris that appeared to be roll-bar padding come flying out of the window of Robby Gordon’s Chevrolet.
At the time, Gordon was the first car a lap down in 10th place, and indeed the ensuing caution allowed him to get back on the lead lap. Gordon denied throwing anything out of his window, and a NASCAR spokesman said a review of the videotape showed it was not conclusive enough to merit any further action against Gordon.
Martin Truex Jr. hit the wall on Lap 304, ruining what had been a good run.
When the yellow came out there, the leaders all faced a choice. With about 20 laps left, should they come for fresh tires or stay out? Stewart, the leader, chose to come in and so did virtually every one else, including Burton with the lap-down cars. Earnhardt Jr., however, chose to gamble and stay out, thinking others might do the same to give him a buffer between his car and Stewart’s or Johnson’s, who’d both been strong all day.
Earnhardt Jr. got a little bit of help when Edwards took two tires. He lined up second behind the leader, but Stewart was third and Johnson was fourth. They wouldn’t get a chance to catch the leader, though, until after another yellow for a multicar wreck in Turn 2 after the restart on Lap 309, a wreck in which Mark Martin was one of those victimized.
Burton could have made it back onto the lead lap on that caution, but when he stopped on the previous yellow Bobby Labonte and Sterling Marlin, also one lap down, beat him off pit lane. Burton had been swimming upstream into a strong current ever since he slapped the wall, and that wasn’t changing.
As soon as the green flew on Lap 315, Stewart swung past Earnhardt Jr. Johnson would take second, too, but he wasn’t going to catch Stewart’s No. 20 Chevrolet.
Burton was fighting for every spot and every point he could get. He made it to 13th and spent the final laps wondering how NASCAR would explain its decision to throw the yellow flag for the roll-bar padding but not for the smoke billowing from Mike Bliss’s car or for Bowyer hitting the wall just before the checkered flag.
“That’s a nice recovery,” Burton said. “I screwed up and I am sorry, but maybe it didn’t kill us.”
It certainly didn’t help. Burton and Earnhardt Jr. were now both 84 points behind Kenseth, who finished fourth. Johnson moved all the way up to second, just 26 points behind, while Denny Hamlin was third, 64 back.
Burton was still hot after the race about the roll-bar padding yellow.
“They ought to stop every car on pit road and fine (whoever did it) 185 points and about $100,000 because it had a huge impact on the race,” Burton said.
“It’s ridiculous. It happens too often and NASCAR gets on everybody when they do it. They need to figure out who did it and penalize them.”
Eventually, NASCAR would. The more NASCAR looked at the video the more conclusive it apparently became. The following week, Gordon was fined $15,000 and crew chief Greg Erwin was fined $10,000. Both were put on probation until Dec. 31. Gordon and the team he owns also had 50 points taken away from them by NASCAR.
But Burton didn’t get any points back. With three races left, he was 84 points behind and couldn’t afford any more bad finishes if he wanted to stay in the hunt.
At Texas the next week, he started 29th. His car was tight on a cool, cloudy day. On Lap 80, Burton was running 17th but he wasn’t going anywhere. Five laps later, he’d lost a couple of additional spots and was beginning to fret.
“How long until we stop again, Scott?” Burton asked. Crew chief Scott Miller said it would be about 20 laps unless there was a yellow. “We’ll never make it another 20 laps,” Burton said.
He didn’t make it another 20 seconds. Coming off Turn 4 and down the trioval to complete Lap 88, Burton’s right-front tire blew out and the car shot diagonally toward the outside wall, slamming it with the car still running at full speed.
Burton’s chances to win the 2006 Nextel Cup championship, effectively, were done. He fell to seventh in the standings, trailing Johnson by 184 points. In the past four races, Johnson had scored 715 points while Burton had put up just 375.
“This is pretty much going to do it for us, unfortunately,” Burton said. “But we will keep fighting to get all we can. We won’t quit racing, I will assure you of that.”
Coming next: One thing ends, another begins