Jeff Burton on the Darlington race that defined his career

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Jeff Burton has a Southern 500 victory, but his most vivid memory of the Labor Day classic is the race he didn’t win – and the ensuing tempest for months.

Missed lug nuts on a mediocre final pit stop cost Burton his first Sprint Cup victory at Darlington Raceway in 1997, but he still turned in one of the more memorable charges in the 65-year history of the 1.366-mile oval. Burton rocketed from restarting 11th with 29 laps remaining to pulling even with winner Jeff Gordon as the white flag began to wave.

That also was when the sparks began to fly.

Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet hung a left into Burton’s No. 99 Ford entering Turn 1, blunting its momentum. But Burton didn’t retaliate.

“We were so much faster, my thought was the worst thing I could do here was us wreck,” Burton recalled. “Because I’m going to beat him. So I lifted and gave him the spot, and I figured we were so much faster, when I came off Turn 2, I’d pass him down the back straightaway.”

He regretted the decision when he hit the accelerator and realized his tires had been covered by slippery debris after being forced low on the track by Gordon’s block.

“I didn’t have grip,” Burton said. “I didn’t have enough time to recover because it was the last lap. In retrospect, we should have went firewall deep.”

Gordon basked in the euphoria of earning a $1 million bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds by virtue of winning the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 in the same season.

Burton brooded in the chaotic disillusionment of a near-miss that left team owner Jack Roush and crew chief Buddy Parrott fuming for different reasons.

“A lot of people don’t know this but when I’m in the gas trying to catch (Gordon), Buddy Parrott is on the radio screaming, ‘You go wreck that son of a gun!’ ” Burton said. “So when the race is over, not only do we lose the Southern 500, and Jack is irate and just ripping Buddy’s ass about the pit crew. Well, it wasn’t 20 minutes later we’re in the NASCAR trailer, and NASCAR is threatening to suspend Buddy because he was on the radio saying, ‘Wreck that son of a gun.’ So now Jack is mad about that. He’s mad the pit crew had a bad day and mad NASCAR is mad at his crew chief, but he’s taking all that out on Buddy. I’m in there trying to defuse the situation.

“Not only did it end badly, it ended badly again. That was probably the most animated meeting I’ve ever been in related to NASCAR and a crew chief, driver, car owner. It made for a long night.”

It continued as Burton rushed back to Charlotte to attend the Carolina Panthers’ 24-10 loss to the Washington Redskins in the season opener a few hours later. As he ascended the stairs at Bank of America Stadium, every step Burton took was another reminder of the race.

“I heard 20 times, ‘You should have wrecked him!’ ” Burton recalled with a laugh. “I hadn’t even been home yet. ‘Should have wrecked him! Should have wrecked him! Should have wrecked him! Should have wrecked him!’”

The chorus started anew when Burton arrived at Daytona International Speedway for the season-opening 1998 Speedweeks.

“The first day at Daytona, and I’m going through the (infield) tunnel,” Burton said. “The guard at the gate says, ‘Hey man, good to see you again. And hey you should have wrecked that son of a (gun). I’m like, ‘Hell, man, it’s another year!’ ”

Though angry in the moment, Burton eventually came to appreciate the finish.

“Jeff did what he needed to win the race,” he said. “He put a move on me that I didn’t respond to the way I ultimately should have. I did what I thought to give myself the best chance to win, and it wasn’t right.

“But what we did to get back to (second) was freaking phenomenal. That was one of the best drives of my career. So, would I have done something different now? Yeah, but at the time, I did everything I thought I needed to do. It was a great race. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but that race summed up my career. We never gave up and put ourselves in position but came up a little short. That’s kind of my career, which I’m cool with.”

Burton scored 15 of his 21 career victories from 1997-2000 while finishing top five in points in each of those four seasons. Many of his best battles were with Gordon, who won two championships during that span.

After being hired as an NBC Sports analyst, Burton joked with executive producer Sam Flood that he would emerge triumphant in his second career over Gordon, who will join Fox Sports next year.

“I said, ‘Flood, he beat me in a race car, he won’t beat me in the booth,’ ” Burton said with a laugh. “I’ve got to win something.”

The South Boston, Va., native eventually did win in Cup at Darlington – sweeping the 1999 season with two rain-shortened victories at the track.

“The odd thing about that year, if you look at the stats, we would go there and dominate,” said Burton, who also had four Xfinity wins there. “You always knew the 99 car was going to be a threat, but we couldn’t win the damn thing. We’d always do something stupid and not win. Then we won two in a row with rain.

“Not that the track owed us anything, but it was an example that you only remember the times you got screwed. You forget the times that things work out your way. It almost felt like payback in some crazy way.”

Burton’s other thoughts on Darlington:

On where the race ranks: “Nothing against the Daytona 500, but I always viewed the Southern 500 as the race. If you could win the damn Southern 500, that was a big deal. If you were a better driver or did a better job of getting your car to handle, you had a distinct advantage at Darlington. Winning Darlington meant a hell of a lot more from a prestige standpoint than winning Daytona. I took a lot of pride of running well at that track because it was the track that was the best test of your team and a driver’s ability to be successful.”

On moving back to Labor Day: “You play the Masters a certain time of the year. Certain things just belong. I think that’s when it ought to be. Some traditions you shouldn’t mess with.”

On attending the race as a kid with two older brothers: “My dad would take the motorhome and load it with kids and camp out and stay up all night causing havoc. We’d sit in the grandstand off what’s now Turn 2 and then Turn 4. I remember my ears ringing. I think sitting underneath that roof, your ears would just echo for days.”

On excelling at Darlington: “The only way to run well at Darlington was to attack it. That suited me. My 100% wasn’t as hard as other peoples’ 100%, but that 100% was the 100% you needed at Darlington. So when I was pushing as hard as I could push, that was all there was to get. Maybe at Michigan when I pushed 100%, maybe there was a little bit more. Darlington was a test of team and driver’s ability to push everything to the edge of what that track would allow. That track wouldn’t allow what other tracks would. You ran every lap as hard as you could. You hear people talk about saving tires. I never did that. I ran as hard as I could from the time they dropped the green flag until we pitted. That’s why I believe it rewarded better drivers with better handling cars.”

On why it was so difficult: “It was the tire wear and the degradation of speed. You would run a certain pace, and that was nowhere near what you would be at in a run in a little while. So understanding the change of speed is what made it difficult. Being able to be fast when it counted. A lot of people would take off running fast. But could you still be running fast at the end of 30 laps? You’d have to continually be looking for what was the limit your car could find to run the optimum lap time. It constantly changed. You have to constantly find the limit of the tire with the limit of the grip (at the track).”