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:
HOMESTEAD, Fla. - One more day.
Curt Bowman had made it until the season’s final day and his wife, Candace, still hadn’t had to call the cell phone to get Lisa Cox to find her husband to tell him to hurry home.
Chase Bowman, so far at least, was shaping up to be a team player. So, too, was Peyton Adams, since Wes and Lori Adams were also waiting patiently for the arrival of their second child.
“Any time after today and I’m golden,” Bowman said.
Wes and Lori Adams would eventually have their baby first, as Peyton Grey Adams was born Dec. 13. Chase Bowman arrived, finally, on Dec. 18.
In mid-November, the Bowmans still had a Chase to very much look forward to.
For the race team, though, the Chase was no longer about winning a championship. The crash at Texas ended any serious consideration of that. But that didn’t mean there still weren’t things to be accomplished in the season’s final two races.
There was, of course, the opportunity to win two more races. Before the victory at Dover, Burton’s previous victory had come at the 1-mile track just west of downtown and it remained one of his favorite tracks.
But Burton was also realistic, and he knew his team.
“I won’t lie to you,” he said on qualifying day at Phoenix. “This has been a down week for us. I thought we have done a really nice job in the championship. I thought we prepared very well, and still are prepared. I think we came in with the right attitude; we had some things that we needed to do a better job of controlling, and there were some things that we couldn’t control that got us. But this has been kind of a hard week.”
Burton came home 10th at Phoenix and 14th at Homestead to finish with 6,228 points, 247 fewer than champion Jimmie Johnson, to wind up seventh in the standings. He’d averaged 121.3 points per race in the 10 Chase races, less than the 127.8 per race it had taken for him to get his hard-earned spot in the playoff to start with.
“I believe this was a great learning experience for us,” Burton said. “I really believe we learned a great deal about ourselves and about how to win a championship.
“This team is very well-grounded. They don’t have their heads in the sky, nobody believes what we did this year was great. They all believe it was good, which it was. We don’t have conversations that exhibit bitterness or mass disappointment or anything like that. I like where we are as a team.”
The only thing that happens spontaneously at a Nextel Cup awards ceremony in New York these days is a mistake. And as spontaneous mistakes go, Kyle Busch made a lulu.
Busch finished 10th in the final standings and, as such, was the first to speak following dinner in the historic Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in midtown Manhattan. As he was thanking everyone on his list for their help in making the Chase, he took a moment to acknowledge his girlfriend, Eva.
There was just one problem. His date for the evening was Erica.
And that’s not even the bad part.
There is an Eva in Busch’s life. She’s married to his brother, Kurt.
There was a palpable sense of relief among the nine drivers who would follow Kyle Busch to center stage. There was now a running joke to seize upon, and Busch’s fellow competitors were relentless.
Mark Martin was up next. He thanked Arlene, his wife of 22 years, and then said, “It is Arlene, right?”
Jeff Burton took his shot, too, mentioning the popularity of younger drivers in the sport – indeed, at age 39 Burton was the oldest driver to win a Nextel Cup race in 2006.
“But us old guys,” he added, “we don’t forget our wives’ names, that’s for sure.”
Burton accepted a check for $1,356,113 from the postseason points fund, pushing his total earnings for the year to $6,364,995, then spent about 4½ minutes thanking his sponsors and his teammates and their families and congratulating the championship team.
Burton recounted the telephone conversation he’d had with Richard Childress on the night he made the decision to move from Roush to RCR, asking the single question about whether Childress was willing do what it would take to make the team a success.
“Richard Childress,” Burton said, “is a man of his word. That man could not have done anything more than what he has done for our company.”
Childress had said the same thing about the driver of his No. 31 Chevrolets a few weeks earlier.
“Jeff has given us experience and leadership and he has been able to kind of bring a calm when everybody gets sideways on stuff,” Childress says.
“He understands this business. He has had the good and the bad and he’s been a part of all of it. He wants to win. He is everything I expected him to be in terms of a leader. I knew he drove a race car really hard, but I didn’t really realize how hard. He drives the heck out of it.”
Burton said he was proud of not only how his team had performed in the year that was ending on a night when Jimmie Johnson’s first-place share of the points fund was $6,785,982, pushing his season’s total to a NASCAR single-season record $15,770,125, but also of the way it was already working toward topping it in the year to come.
“After Homestead, they weren’t satisfied,” he said. “They wanted more. It wasn’t enough. Nobody walked around with their chests poked out. That means a lot to me. They got a taste of winning and competing for a championship this year, and I can assure everyone in this room and everyone who’s listening that we will continue to work had and put a dedicated effort into having an even better year next year.
Indeed, Scott Miller wasn’t in New York for the banquet week festivities. He and the other RCR crew chiefs and team engineers were in Iowa at a new race track there, already working on cars that would be raced in 2007.
Burton and Miller still hadn’t had their formal postseason debriefing, but Burton didn’t expect there’d be any surprises when they finally did get the chance to sit down.
“I think it’s clear to us that we had a good year,” Burton said. “I think it’s clear we built a good foundation. But I think it’s also clear to us that we’ve got to find a way to do it better.
“It’s difficult to say we had a great year, but we can’t say we didn’t have a really good year. I think we did. With five races to go we had as good of a chance as anybody and it just didn’t work out for us. For the most part, we really don’t need to spend much time on the ‘what ifs.’ We need to focus on where we need to be better. For me, I see a lot of room still to grow.
“I kind of feel like we haven’t ended this year. That may sound kind of stupid, but we’re working hard for there not to be a beginning and an end. We want our program to be continuous, and even though we’re not racing we’re still at tracks and working and pushing the envelope. It’s not a nine-month thing, it’s a 12-month thing. That’s what it takes to compete and win the championship. We opened the door, now we have to find the way to walk through it.”
Burton knew that when he got back to the track for testing and for Speedweeks in Daytona that the media would want to know what he felt about the year ahead. And he liked that.
“I love the dialogue, I love to be in the mix,” he said. “When you’re not competing at a high level it’s hard to be in the mix of the hot topics and all of that stuff. I’ve really enjoyed that, it’s one of the things I enjoy most about the sport, to be honest.”
He enjoys being a part of competitive equation, too. He knew that more people would be looking at the No. 31 team and assessing what it might do as a follow-up to 2006.
“I am glad we’re on people’s minds, that our competitors look at us as a potential threat,” Burton said. “But they still don’t look at us the same way they look at some of the other teams. We have to find our way there. I’ve been to the banquet where we were one of the teams that people were saying, ‘Those guys are ready to strike at any moment.’ I think people look at us now as being consistent and good, but not as being great. And we’re not great.
“Our goal is to get there. As I’ve said, when I got here we put together a three-year plan and that the goal in that third year was to win races, win the championship and compete each week at a very high level. There are going to be times when you may be doing better than you should and times when you’re not doing as well as you should.
"That’s difficult to control. But the best teams can run a pace that lets them control what’s going on. That’s the key for us, I think, to take to that next level. We need to set the pace.”