Jeff Burton's odometer to hit 1,000 on Sunday


Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway will mark the 1,000th-career NASCAR national-level start for Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. The bulk of his 999 starts, so far, have come at the Sprint Cup level. He has 689 Cup starts to his credit that have resulted in 21 trips to victory lane. In the Nationwide Series, he’s made 306 starts and posted 27 race wins. He has also competed in four Camping World Truck Series events, all coming in 1996.

Burton’s plans for 2014 are unknown, at least to folks not named Burton. Although there has been no public announcement, Burton says that he knows what he’ll be doing next year. He will not be among the driver lineup at Richard Childress Racing, as current Nationwide Series regular, Austin Dillon, will be moving up to Sprint Cup next year for RCR and Ryan Newman will be joining the team. Those two drivers will replace the departing Kevin Harvick and Burton.

On Friday, Jeff Burton participated in a press conference at Phoenix International Raceway to discuss his career and his future, among other things. Here’s what he had to say:

A BIG MILESTONE FOR YOU THIS WEEKEND YOU HAVE HAD A STOUT CAREER IN NASCAR MAKING YOUR 1,000TH CAREER NASCAR NATIONAL SERIES START HERE AT PHOENIX.  TALK A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR CAREER AND WHAT THIS MILESTONE MEANS TO YOU: 
“Well it means I’m getting old I guess, that is primarily what it means.  I’ve been really blessed to do it for as long as I’ve done it to do something that you love and to be able to do it as long as I’ve done it really is a blessing.  When I was seven years old I wanted to be a race car driver.  I’m 46 and I’m a race car driver.  I’ve just been really blessed.  The cool thing is I’ve met so many people and experienced so many things that I never would have been able to do.  To have a chance to compete for a living is really is a cool thing.  You know what your job is and go out and try to do it.  Competing to me means something.  To be able to do it this long has been really cool.”

IN SHORT TERM OR LONG TERM FUTURE IS THERE AN OPTION TO SET UP YOUR OWN SPRINT CUP TEAM? 
“Do I look dumb?  (Laughter) You know there was a time that I really thought that would be an option for me, but in the environment that we have today I don’t know how a small guy could have a Cup team that would be a formidable force.  My pockets aren’t deep enough and wouldn’t have the financial; actually Jack Roush talked to me about the money tree one time.  If he had to he could turn the money tree on and create money for the investment until the investment had time to pay off.  If you can’t do that as a car owner I don’t think you can be an effective car owner.  So for me in today’s world there may be room for me as an ownership group, but to be the primary owner would be farfetched.”

OF YOUR 999 RACES WHICH ONE STICKS IN YOUR MIND THE MOST? 
“I have done a terrible job in my career of taking time to enjoy it.  My personality is such that I’m always on to the next thing.  In many cases kind of looking back on now they are a little more special now than they were then.  Racing Matt Kenseth for those couple of wins that I got with him meant a lot to me because I respect Matt so much.  I respect what that No. 17 car was all about.  They meant a lot to me.  Winning my first races in Nationwide and Cup were big races.  Racing Kyle Busch at (Las) Vegas in a Nationwide car last lap battle.  I got by him on the outside, he spun coming off turn four.  That was fun.  It was just two guys racing hard.  If I would have finished second or spun it still would have been fun.  Those experiences are really neat.  Winning Darlington in adverse conditions, rain delays, those kinds of things, we went to Darlington and dominated those races for years and couldn’t find a way to win and then we won two of them in rain shortened races.  Winning the Winston ‘No Bull’ races I think we won three of those.  When we won three of those races three fans won a million bucks too.  Being in Victory Lane with those fans winning that money that was cool.  I hate to pick one out, but those were really cool events.”

WE ARE AT THE END OF THE YEAR WITH THE GEN-6 CAR.  WE ARE LOOKING AT MAKING SOME CHANGES FOR NEXT SEASON.  WHAT IS YOUR EVALUATION OF HOW THE CAR HAS CHANGED RACING OVER LAST YEAR AND HOW IT HAS PERFORMED AND ALSO WHAT WE NEED TO TWEAK? 
“I think it’s an improvement over last year’s car.  I think that is evident in watching races I think it’s proven to be better.  I still think there is a step to go.  I’m guilty of comparing what we do today to what we did 15 years ago, but I think that’s irrelevant.  What we really need to be looking at is what do people want to see today?  So, sometimes we defend the racing today by saying ‘well it’s better than it was 10 years ago’, but that doesn’t matter because today’s fans are today’s fans.  There may be a fan that was there 10 years ago, but what they are watching today is what they care about.  So, fans want to see more action.  They want to see more intense racing.  The only way to do that is to get the cars closer together.  We talk a lot about making it easier to pass.  Well if you make it easier to pass are the cars really going to be closer together?  Do we really want it to be easier to pass?  I think the reason Martinsville is so much fun to watch and do is because it is hard to pass.  The definition of what better racing is that is where the problem comes in.  You are not going to make everybody happy.  I think what NASCAR has to do is they have to look and say ‘what is NASCAR all about’?  Then make the rules so that the racing is indicative of what NASCAR is about.  That should be close racing; not intentionally wrecking each other, but tire marks down the side of cars is cool.  That kind of close racing is what we need to be pushing for, but it is hard to do.  A 1.5-mile race track running 190 miles per hour into turn one it’s kind of hard to be rubbing tires.  We have got to find a way to have cars that can be closer together, can race harder to put on more exciting racing.”

IF YOU LOOK AT OTHER SPORTS AGE DICTATES HOW LONG YOUR CAREER IS.  AUTO RACING IS SO DIFFERENT FROM THAT IN THAT YOU GUYS HAVE A SAY ON WHEN YOU WANT TO CALL IT QUITS.  WHEN DOES A RACE CAR DRIVER KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO GO? 
“Well that is a really tough question.  One thing I do know is when you aren’t having success and you are 46, it’s because you are 46.  That is what people think.  When you aren’t having success and you are a rookie it’s because you are a rookie also, it works both ways.  To me it’s about what you are willing to give up to be in this sport.  I think what happens is the older you get the more other things matter.  Racing still means a lot to me, but for me to sit here today and say it means the same thing to me that it meant when I didn’t have a daughter getting ready to go to college, a son that is racing, those things they do play a role.  I think that the schedule is harder today than it’s ever been.  I know guys used to race more in the ‘50’s, but I’ve been in Toronto (Canada) all week filming.  You are gone more today.  I think it boils down to desire.  If you have talent, I don’t think talent goes away.  Certainly eye sight changes, those kinds of things change, but we can fix that.  But talent doesn’t change; it’s more the passion that you are willing to bring to it.  As long as you are willing to bring that passion and you are willing to give something up then your career can go a long time.  It’s not a number; it’s more of a personal thing and what you are willing to sacrifice to be involved in the sport.”

YOU LOOK AT MATT CRAFTON HE IS 37, YOU LOOK AT TWO GUYS IN THEIR 40’S BATTLING FOR THE CUP TITLE, SAM (HORNISH, JR.) IS NO SPRING CHICKEN.  WE TALK ABOUT ALL THESE KIDS COMING UP, BUT DOES THIS YEAR TELL US MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE CAN STILL DO THIS? 
“Well there is no question.  I mean we are blessed because we are in a sport that you can.  It isn’t like the NFL; it isn’t like Major League Baseball, where you don’t have to be young to do this.  Experience helps you here.  There is no question.  It’s good to see who is battling.  Don’t get me wrong I believe in the cycle of things.  I believe that we always need to have young drivers coming and pushing the older drivers out.  I mean I’m a 46 year old driver saying that, but we need it.  Our sport needs that, but at the same time it’s good that we have two veteran drivers battling it out, because it is a sport that if you have passion and you have desire and you have the right situation you can have success well into your 40’s.”

IN YOUR BUSCH DEBUT BACK IN 1988 YOU MADE TWO LAPS IN THE GOLDEN SKILLET CAR BEFORE THE ENGINE BLEW.  DO YOU REMEMBER THAT DAY? 
“Vividly, that was the second engine we blew up that day.  I had gone to the bank and borrowed money; we wonder why the banks are in trouble right.  I had gone to the bank to borrow money to buy and engine and it blew up after qualifying.  Hubert Hensley, Jeff Hensley’s dad who is a crew chief on a truck, said ‘hey man, I’ve got an engine if you need it.’  We went to his shop that night and we had a Pontiac engine in and had to put a Chevy engine in.  Which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was a big deal.  We ran that engine for those laps and it blew up.  So, yes, I remember it vividly.  It took me about three years to pay that damn engine off.  No, it didn’t it took me longer than that.  It took me like five years to pay that engine off.”

OF THE TWO CHAMPIONSHIP LEADERS MY GUESS IS YOU KNOW MATT (KENSETH) A LITTLE BIT BETTER THAN JIMMIE (JOHNSON) PROBABLY CAN YOU COMPARE AND CONTRAST THEM BOTH AS RACERS AND AS PEOPLE? 
“You know they are very similar in how they race.  They are both quietly aggressive.  They are both aggressive drivers, but they don’t do it by running into you.  They do it by driving into the corner a little deeper than perhaps they should to get that position.  They are both clean drivers, both very committed to the sport.  They are a lot alike.  I don’t know Jimmie nearly as well off the race track.  Matt is a smart ass.  We all know that right?  He knows that too.  He claims that he learned it from me, but I don’t think that is true.  They are both good people.  They both have values that you can be proud of. They are the kind of people that when they win championships you are proud that they represent the sport.  But you know their driving styles they really are very similar.”

WHEN YOU ARE A YOUNG DRIVER YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN ASKED ‘WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING IF YOU WEREN’T DRIVING’.  LOOKING OVER YOUR LONG CAREER WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN DOING IF YOU WEREN’T DRIVING RACE CARS? 
“I left high school and went to work for Jay Hedgecock building race cars, building chassis.  Actually me and Bobby Labonte and Jack Sprague all worked there at the same time.  So, I really enjoy that part even my time at Roush, Jack (Roush) let me kind of oversee the chassis department there for a while or be involved in it rather.  So I really enjoyed that part of it.  Had I not been able to make it as a driver that would have been the direction that I would have tried to go in; whether I would have been good at it or not I don’t know, but that is what I would have been trying to do.”

HOW DO YOU THINK KEVIN (HARVICK) WILL HANDLE NOT HAVING THAT TYPE OF FORCE OR PUSH FROM RICHARD CHILDRESS AND HOW THEY HAVE GOTTEN?  IT SEEMS LIKE THEY IN ONE SENSE MAYBE THRIVED ON HOW THEY HAVE PUSHED EACH OTHER AND WHAT IT HAS KIND OF BEEN LIKE.
“I think Kevin (Harvick) is going to wherever Kevin is he is going to be pushing.  That is one of Kevin’s strengths is to… Kevin is not the kind of guy that is willing to say ‘okay it is going to be good three weeks from now’.  He wants it good right now.  I think that RCR has benefitted from that.  I think that Stewart-Haas will benefit from that.  Kevin to me is a different person than he was four years ago.  Kevin owning those race teams, Keelan coming along, all those things have had a major impact on Kevin.  Kevin really sees the company.  He understands it has to be successful from a financial stand point.  He understands investment is not easy to make.  He has a much broader picture than he had say six years ago.  I think that he will help Stewart-Haas.  Richard (Childress) to his credit, much like my father did with me, Richard didn’t try to stifle Kevin.  Richard let Kevin be Kevin.  He would get mad at him, but he wasn’t the kind of guy that just would say ‘you are not going to do that’.  He would let Kevin be Kevin.  There was a lot of wisdom in that.  You have got to learn your way.  You can’t learn by somebody telling you not to do something.  You have got to learn by doing it and wishing you hadn’t of done it or at least that is how I have learned everything I’ve learned.  That is really what Richard, in my opinion, let Kevin do.  But Kevin is really good at pushing buttons to try to get things to happen.  You have to do that in this sport.  You have to do it.  If you don’t have that intensity of ‘we have got to succeed now’ then the future never gets here because if you are always building for something you are not doing it now.  The now matters.”

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF BEING IN FIVE YEARS? 
“I don’t know.  I don’t know we will see. When this process started this year I decided to step back a little bit and take myself out of the mental habit of being at the race track every single weekend and look at things from a broader view.  Kind of ‘hey what else is out there’ in the racing world so to speak.  The last several months have been really interesting.  I have been offered some things that were just crazy that I can’t talk about today, but there were some really interesting things that have come my way.  I’m having meetings with people currently about doing stuff with them that are real exciting, but I don’t know.  We will see. I will be involved in the sport. There is a place for me.  I want to be here.  I feel like I can contribute so I would be surprised if five years from now I wasn’t still involved in the sport.”

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HARRISON (BURTON)? HAS HE TALKED TO YOU ABOUT WHAT HE WANTS TO DO IN THE FUTURE AS FAR AS NATIONWIDE AND EVEN A CUP DRIVER IN THE FUTURE?  IS THAT SOMETHING THAT YOU FEEL LIKE YOU WANT HIM TO TAKE A PATH WITH? 
“Well, what I try to do with Harrison is to teach him everything I know about racing, but we don’t go racing trying to teach him how to be a Cup driver or how to be a Nationwide driver.  We go racing trying to teach him how to do what he is doing today the best he can and then when it’s over what did we learn.  Where that takes him we don’t know.  He is doing things at 12 and 13 years old that are pretty much unmatched. I mean no one else has been able to do the things he has done at his age.  I’m not bragging that is just how it is.  But what is more important to me is that through all this he is learning how to be a human being because driving a race car isn’t a given.  Just because he’s the son of a Cup driver that doesn’t give him the right any more than it gives anyone else a right to drive a race car for a living.  He has got to earn that.  He may not, as good as he looks today, he may not look that good five years from now.  You never know.  But he is always going to be with himself and so through racing we are trying to teach him how to be the kind of person that he needs to be.  That is really the primary focus.  Now don’t get me wrong we go to race we go there to win or we go there with a realistic goal.  When he races against Bubba Pollard and he races against some of those guys to think that a just turned 13 year old is going to beat those guys right now is sort of unrealistic, although he is getting close.  But what did he learn from that experience?  That is really what we are focusing on.  We are not worrying about what he might be one day because we don’t know that.  We are trying to train him so that mentally he is capable.  His physical skills will take care of themselves, but his mental skills are the most important thing.  As far as he’s concerned he is going to win three or four Daytona 500’s and four or five championships and all is good.  But I know that probably isn’t going to happen and that is what as parents that is what our focus is on.”

YOU HAVEN’T ANNOUNCED YOUR PLANS FOR NEXT YEAR YET, MARK MARTIN HASN’T ANNOUNCED ANY PLANS FOR NEXT YEAR NOR HAS BOBBY LABONTE.  AFTER NEXT WEEK’S RACE ARE WE LOOKING AT THE POSSIBLE END OF AN ERA? 
“We are going to go film a movie about three old guys in (Las) Vegas (laughs).  That just dawned on me.  I’m thinking that might work.  Mark would be boring as hell though.  He would be in the gym every morning.  I find it hard to believe that we won’t still be around in some form or fashion.  Now the chances that any of us are going to be running for a Cup championship next year are obviously next to nothing.  But Mark Martin has a tremendous amount of value of being able to have a positive impact on this sport in some form or fashion so does Bobby Labonte and I feel that about myself as well.  Yeah, I think it is going to be different and that is okay.  I’m speaking for Mark or Bobby either one, but for me when I came in a spot was created for me somehow some way a spot was created for me.  Part of that is through older guys moving on.  It’s just the natural cycle of things.  But to think that Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte don’t have a way to contribute to make this sport better whether it is for a team of for the sport in some form or fashion to think that they wouldn’t is inaccurate because they can definitely help.”

A FEW WEEKS AGO YOU SAID THAT YOU WERE PRETTY CONFIDENT IN YOUR 2014 PLANS.  SHOULD WE TAKE THE SILENCE TO MEAN THAT THINGS HAVE CHANGED? 
“No, really nothing has changed.  I feel that I know what I am going to be doing it’s just you all don’t (laughs).  Some things have taken a little longer than I thought they would take and some of that is because of me.  Some of that is because I slowed some stuff down and wanted to really think about it. Some of it is because some situations have popped up that weren’t there a little bit ago.  I feel very confident.  I know exactly what I’m going to be doing part of next year and there is another part of it that I’m still working on, but really close on.  I’m just not the kind of person that is going to talk about it until we need to be talking about it.”

IS PART OF THAT PLAN DRIVING? 
“Yeah, part of it is, yes.”

– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR

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