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).”

What drivers said at WWT Raceway


Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

Kyle Busch — Winner: “That was pretty awesome. Man, to sit on the pole, lead a lot of laps and have my guys do such a great job today was pretty phenomenal for us. Great for RCR. Just win, baby! … We’re going to have a great time with this one. This one is pretty cool.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, I thought we were super dialed if it was 95 degrees like it was supposed to be with those delays – it kind of took away from the advantage I thought that we had. I’m proud of this whole Sport Clips Toyota team – pit crew did a phenomenal job keeping us in it and doing really good on the money stop with about 60 to go. We are going to have to wait another to get that 50th (win).”

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “I’m proud of the fight. We were mediocre – just outside the top five all day long. There was a group of cars that were a tick better than us. Then we executed at the end and beat a few of them. We tried some new things from last year, and we learned some lessons. But overall: Good. We needed a solid run. We’ve been going through hell here lately. So, it’s nice to get a top five, third place, and some points there in each stage. Good day.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 4th: “Proud of the effort today. It’s been a couple tough races. We’ve been so good all year long and the last few have been pretty bad and we’ve had to work on it quite a bit. The team got us in a place where we could contend for the win, so you can’t ask for much more than that. …  I wish I would have done a better job. When I was the leader, I hadn’t been at the front all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where people were running on restarts, and I didn’t know how hard they could go. I just got kind of caught off guard and lost the control.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “Started off the race near the front and stayed there through Stage 1 and thought we could get a little bit better and maybe have a shot at the couple, three in front of us. We had a pit road penalty and had to go to the back, and it was just an uphill climb from there. Just really tough to get through the field. We got some damage from when someone’s brake rotor exploded, that slowed us down even more. Really with all we went through today, a top-five is a really good day for us. I’m proud of the effort.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 6th: “We ran pretty good today. Won the second stage which was good, second in the first stage. Just kind of lost track position, lost the lead. Through a couple stops and restarts, we could just never really get it back. I thought that (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin) and I were similar. It was just a matter of who was out front. I just got a bad restart at the end and fell to sixth. But overall, it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good points day too, and we’ll keep going.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 7th: “The entire weekend was very solid for us. We barely missed the second run in qualifying and really, we missed it because of me and not because of the car. The car was capable of advancing. In the race, the car was strong right away. It was fun today and we really needed this as a team. We needed a result that we deserved, and I felt like lately it’s been a little difficult on us when it comes to that. Today, I felt like we deserved a top-10 or top-five and we came home seventh, so we will take it.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 9th: “We kind of learned last year that track position is super important. Taking two tires was an option last year, so we knew it’d be one this year. We did it early on and got track position, but we got spun out. So, went all the way to the back and then we put four on, and then you’re just buried back there. So, we had to go for it again, put two on and just left two on. We never took four again. There were a lot of laps on the left-side tires, but track position was super important. We had a great FR8 Auctions Ford Mustang, so I knew we could kind of hold our ground. Those last few cautions kind of hurt us a bit, but still came away with a Top-10. So, it was a good day.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “That was a long day – long race. There were a lot of cautions and red flags. It really started yesterday. I was in a little bit of a hole after qualifying, and I just didn’t do a good job. I had to dig out of that today. We had pretty good speed in our Fastenal Ford Mustang. I was pretty happy with it, and at times, had to move around the track quite a bit. I figured out Gateway really quickly. Not being able to run here last year, I felt a little behind getting going. Definitely found something there at the end. Honestly wish it was a 600-mile race because I felt like we could have kept getting better.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 13th: “Definitely frustrating having a speeding penalty … I’m a little frustrated with myself with that. You think something at the end of Stage 1 isn’t going to affect your race, but it just put us behind. We tried a bunch of strategy calls to get our Freightliner Ford Mustang up there. Had some good restarts at the end and made the most of it, I feel like. Those restarts got really scrappy. Proud of the team effort, proud of the recovery. Definitely a lot to clean up on my end to maximize what I thought was a Top-10 race car.”

Ryan Preece — Finished 17th: “That was a really long day. I fought a tight race car all day long and every time we came down pit road, my guys made really strong adjustments. It just wasn’t enough to get us to the front and stay there. There were so many cautions there at the end, I was just trying to save the car. Overall, it wasn’t a terrible day for us after qualifying 29th. The fans were out in full force today, too, that was awesome to see. We’ve just got to keep grinding for better finishes.”

Erik Jones — Finished 18th: “Just an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Chevy team. Didn’t end up how we wanted it to go, but we’ll go to work and get the car a bit better. I thought we had good speed, just didn’t have things go our way. We’ll work on it and hopefully go to Sonoma (Raceway) and have a solid day.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 32nd: “We kept our track position just like we wanted to. We got stage points, and I felt like we had a top-eight or so car, which was a big difference from last year. Obviously we’re striving to be better everywhere. We had a really good streak going of really good runs. It looked like the No. 2 (Austin Cindric) just, for some reason, right-reared the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) and took both of us Chevy guys out, so that’s a bummer. We definitely had a top-10 car today.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 34th: “Our day kind of went bad early on, but our McDonald’s Camry was able to get through traffic pretty well, but as the track stated to cool off, it just started going away from us. It was starting to get frustrating out there for sure, to have a car that good, and it felt like it was just going away. I had a bad feeling that was coming soon. I was just getting ready to have to back off with how soft the brakes got, but I obviously should have been thinking about that a lap or two sooner.”

Carson Hocevar — Finished 36th: “I thought it was great. I had a blast. Just so thankful for the opportunity. I don’t have a job for next year. I know Al Niece and Cody Efaw wants me to run for them and I will forever run a race or however many. But man, I’m just so thankful that they gave me the opportunity – the opportunity to drive a Xfinity car and now driving a Cup car. I was running 16th.. just so surreal for the first time ever. I thought we were going to have a good day and be in a good spot for Schluter Systems, Celsius, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sparks and the No. 7 Chevy team. Hopefully that call for a Cup ride isn’t the only one I get in my life.”

Cup results at WWT Raceway


Kyle Busch scored his third Cup victory of the season, winning Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime.

Busch is tied with William Byron for most victories this season. Busch and Byron have combined to win three of the last six Cup points races (two by Busch and one by Byron).

MORE: WWT Raceway Cup results

Denny Hamlin finished second. Joey Logano placed third. Kyle Larson overcame struggles early in the race to finish fourth. Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

Ryan Blaney placed sixth and took the points lead from Ross Chastain, who placed 22nd.

Kyle Busch wins Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime


Kyle Busch scored his third victory of the season Sunday, holding off the field on five restarts in the final 45 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Busch’s previous two wins this season were at Fontana and Talladega. Sunday’s win is the 63rd of his Cup career. He started on the pole and led 121 of 243 laps — including the last 60 — in a race extended three laps by overtime.

MORE: Race results 

MORE: What drivers had to say

“That was pretty awesome,” Busch said to FS1. “Man, to sit on the pole, lead a lot of laps and have my guys do such a great job today was pretty phenomenal for us.”

Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

Sunday’s race featured an event-record 11 cautions. Failures with brake rotors led to crashes by Carson Hocevar, Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Bubba Wallace.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ryan Blaney

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Denny Hamlin’s runner-up finish is his fourth top-five result of the year. All have come in the last seven races. … Joey Logano’s third-place finish was his first top-five result since Martinsville in April. … Ryan Blaney finished sixth for his sixth top 10 in the last seven races and took the points lead from Ross Chastain. … Michael McDowell‘s ninth-place finish is his second top 10 of the year.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brad Keselowski, making his 500th career Cup start, had mechanical issues early that left his car underpowered for most of the event. He finished 28th. … Carson Hocevar, making his Cup debut, was running 16th when a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing last. … Tyler Reddick spun early in race. After getting back toward the front, a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing 35th.

NOTABLE: This is the 11th time in Kyle Busch’s Cup career that he has had at least three wins in a season.

NEXT: The series races June 11 at Sonoma Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox)

Corey LaJoie learning in his week with Chase Elliott’s team


Spending this week with Hendrick Motorsports has proved eye-opening for Corey LaJoie.

He will pilot Chase Elliott’s No. 9 car today at World Wide Technology Raceway after NASCAR suspended Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin during last week’s Coca-Cola 600. This gives LaJoie the chance to drive in the best equipment of his career.

MORE: Corey LaJoie not giving up on his dream 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Working with Elliott’s team also has given LaJoie an inside look as to what makes Hendrick Motorsports so successful.

“I thought that I knew what we didn’t have at Spire Motorsports, but I had no idea,” said LaJoie, who starts 30th after tagging the wall during his qualifying lap. “There’s tools that those guys have, intellectual properties specific to Hendrick Motorsports, that even some of the other teams don’t have.

“But the biggest thing that I noticed was just the people and the attitude of the pursuit of perfection. All the key partner teams across all the (manufacturers) all have the same data, but (Hendrick Motorsports has) an unbelievable way of delegating, taking, compacting and making it just digestible – whether it’s for a driver, an engineer, a crew chief.

“I think the fact that they have four incredibly strong teams individually raises the tide for those guys because when you’re sitting in the simulator and William Byron ran a 33.20 (seconds for a lap) … if you’re running a 33.35 with the same setup, you know you have a tenth-and-a-half under your butt and you have to go find it. And then when I go run a 33.20, William next time is going to want to run a 33.19.

“There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the driver’s end. There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the crew chiefs in trying to build the best setups, and the engineers trying to find the best strategies.

“The inner-team competition is one of the biggest things, and I think there are several teams that have that … the healthy ones are certainly evident. But it’s just the overall structure. We have a Hawkeye (camera-based inspection stations used by NASCAR at the track) … all the things that do the same stuff that Hendrick Motorsports has, but the depth of people, collective focus of the goal and the mission is noticeable and evident. It’s a different world.”

It would be easy for LaJoie to be overwhelmed in this situation. His career has been marked with underfunded rides and trying to make the most of his equipment. He’s having his best season in Cup this year. LaJoie ranks 19th in points heading into today’s race.

LaJoie acknowledges the opportunity he has, but he also can’t let it alter his focus.

“It’s been a wild week,” he said. “I can get all sentimental … (about) my dad subbing in for Ricky Craven in 1998 (for Hendrick Motorsports) and all that sort of stuff. But at the end of the day, when I sit in that thing, I don’t know that NAPA is on it, or the No. 9 is on it.

“I’m going to drive it like I have been driving the No. 7 Chevy and putting that thing 19th in points. It’s been a super fun, successful year so far, and we have a lot of work left to do and things to accomplish over there.”

When he returns to his Spire Motorsports ride after today’s race, LaJoie admits this weekend’s experience with Elliott’s team will help him with his own team.

“How I prepare, how I’m going to engage with my team at Spire Motorsports going forward is going to change,” LaJoie said. “I think I’m going to be able to come in there and just apply and share some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the week with (crew chief Ryan) Sparks and the No. 77 team, as well, and I think we’re all going to be stronger for it.”