CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The realization struck Tabitha Burton on Monday’s drive from the family’s Halifax, Va., home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Her “little boy” Jeb will drive a Sprint Cup car for the first time Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.
A whirlwind couple of weeks saw Ward Burton’s son lose his Camping World Truck Series ride because of sponsorship issues and then land a Cup seat with BK Racing. It happened so fast that it wasn’t until Monday’s trip for Jeb’s press conference that Tabitha realized she needed to make plans to be in Daytona this weekend to watch her son practice and qualifying.
Some will question if Jeb is ready for Cup or if BK Racing can provide a good enough car for Jeb to be competitive. Jeb has raced only two full seasons in the Camping World Truck Series and two races in what is now the Xfinity Series. He has a three-year contract with an organization that failed to have any of its four cars finish in the top 30 in owner points last year.
Jeb’s parents understand the challenges he faces. While this moment arrived sooner than expected, it has been quite a journey to get to this point.
Tabitha was there when Ward, the 2002 Daytona 500 champion, couldn’t be because he was racing. Tabitha accompanied Jeb to races, shared late-night drives, and cheered him on each lap.
When Ward’s career slowed, he had more time to train his son. Jeb always wanted to race and had success in go-karts, so the family got him a Late Model stock car for Christmas when Jeb was 14 years old.
Tabitha soon saw Jeb’s desire to race, by surviving his father’s taxing test sessions.
“They went everywhere and practiced,’’ Tabitha said of her son and Ward. “(Jeb) made almost 3,000 laps before Ward would let him race. He just said, ‘If you want to do this, you’ve got to prove to me that you can do it.’
“His dad was really hard on him. Really hard on him. He just expects perfection, and if Jeb would make a mistake like anybody would, he would let him have it. He’s just really, really tough on him. He’s doing it for his own good.’’
Ward, who won five races in NASCAR’s top series including a Southern 500, admits he can be “kind of overbearing sometimes’’ but he had a purpose. He knew how tough it is to get to NASCAR’s top series and being soft wasn’t going to be helpful.
“What I was wanting to do is to get him to understand two things,’’ Ward said. “Once you learn how to drive a car properly, that’s one of the steps, but there’s a lot of learning that is taking place. It’s not all about driving. It’s communication, telling your team what the car is doing, it’s all the work and dedication that goes into it. I about jerked that car away from him and others twice. You either are going to do it 100 percent or don’t do it at all.’’
It was during those tests that Ward saw his son had the ability. He noted that Jeb drove a car like a go-kart. A driver doesn’t need to turn the wheel much in the corners in a go-kart but does in a stock car. Jeb was not turning the wheel enough when he first started driving a Late Model.
“I saw the right side of the number on that (dang) car … how many times I can’t tell you,’’ Ward said. “It finally got to the point where I started realizing what he was doing to make that happen. How he saved it every time. He never overcorrected or spun the thing one time. I saw the right-side number, I’m talking about it was a common occurrence. So just having that raw ability to have that car control was unbelievable to me. You can’t teach that.’’
The more Ward talks, the wider his smile grows, a father’s pride resonating with each word. Even today, Ward recalls that number – 27 – on the side of the car.
Still, Ward needed convincing that his son was focused on racing. Ward said that he spent more time in the garage with the car that first year than Jeb.
“That was kind of getting under my goat a little bit,’’ Ward said. “The second year I stopped going to the shop. A dad just needs to step back at some time and let the kid either do it or not.’’
Jeb began showing up at the shop more.
“I didn’t realize the dedication it takes to make it work,’’ Jeb said. “Once I got really dedicated to it, I started to having success. It’s been a tough road, and it’s still going to be tough.’’
It might be tougher on his mom even after watching her husband race for years.
“It’s emotional,’’ Tabitha said. “It’s a different level of anxiety being your child out there. I think it’s hard because I’ve always been there.’’
She will be again with him this weekend at Daytona.
“I can’t imagine not being there,’’ she said.