Jeff Burton was nicknamed the Mayor when he raced in NASCAR for his view on many topics. Those opinions remain for the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who addressed questions about the sport, Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliot and others as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen this weekend for Sunday’s race on USA Network.
Here’s what Burton had to say:
Q: How good of a chance does Jeff Gordon have of winning at Watkins Glen in his third race in the No. 88 car for Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
JEFF BURTON: I don’t think you can discount Jeff’s skill. At the same time, being perfectly blunt, it wasn’t like Jeff lit it up last year. I know that Jeff won Martinsville and made it to the Chase with a real chance to win the championship, but if you look at the number of laps that they led and if you look at the year they had last year, it wasn’t great by any means. And I believe that Hendrick Motorsports isn’t the Hendrick Motorsports we’re accustomed to seeing, but you’re going to a road course race and Jeff Gordon is a really good road racer.
Everything I heard from the test was that the track is different than it used to be. I think that this race is an opportunity for a lot of people to make something happen. I don’t necessarily think that Jeff is going to go out there and outrun, just go flat outrun say the 16 people that he’s going to have to just flat outrun, but I, without a doubt, believe that they can win the race. I know he’s good enough. I know he can make enough pace to put himself in position to take advantage of some things that can happen at Watkins Glen.
When you’ve raise your hand and said ‘‘OK it’s time for someone else to do this, I’m ready to go to the next phase of my career, my life’’ and you come back, it’s a different attitude. I think we saw that with Tony Stewart, too. I think Tony had moved on. I think Tony had emotionally said, ‘‘OK, I’m not having fun, I’m ready to do the next thing.’’ They put him in the position to win at Sonoma and he executed. Boom, like it’s a whole different Tony Stewart. I think the same thing can happen to Jeff Gordon.
When you put a guy like Jeff Gordon, when you put a guy like Tony Stewart, you put a guy who is competitive in nature and has a tremendous amount of pride and has had a lot of success and is considered one of the best ever, you put that guy in the right situation and light that wick, man, fantastic stuff can happen. That’s why I say that they can win, but by far they are not my favorite. You just can’t look at a champion like Jeff Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, going to Watkins Glen and not say that those guys that those guys will have a chance to win.
Q: Chase Elliott has finished outside the top 20 in five of the last six races. Although he’s still in a Chase spot, he’s fallen in the points. What kind of concern is there with five races to go?
BURTON: I think as a young driver or an experienced driver, when you have a string of races … where you’ve been in wrecks, it forces you to have to look at things a little differently. I think he summed it up best after the race. ‘‘Hey, I’ve got to figure a way to do something different’’ is basically what he said. I think that is astute. I think that is recognizing the situation that you’re in and understanding that there is five races to go. You have a good enough point lead, you don’t have to be spectacular and don’t slow your pace down, keep your pace up but be a little more in those few moments in the race where there’s a decision to be made, error on the side of caution a little bit.
That’s hard to do. You race the way you’re comfortable racing. When you start to change that it’s easy to get you knocked off your rhythm. It’s a fine line. It’s easy for me to say in the booth to say that Chase needed to not to make that mistake because of the position he’s in. It’s much harder in that race car to change who you are as a driver. That’s how you gotten there. It’s a delicate balance, but I do think that he has to look — and not every wreck that he has been in is his fault by any means — but as a driver you have to look at every wreck that you’re in as if it were something you could have done different. Because if you don’t look at it that way, you never learn. The attitude of any driver should be I always need to be doing something different.
He clearly said after the race what I thought was 100 percent correct. People get on Chase because he’s so hard on himself and people act like that is a sign of weakness. I believe the exact opposite. It’s a sign of confidence. It’s a sign of strength. It’s a sign of ‘‘Hey, I have confidence that I can do what I need to do … I have confidence to do what I need to do just that I need to experience it.’’ That’s what he’s saying. I’d much rather hear that than just say those (drivers) around me running all over people. I’d much rather hear what he says than what some other people say.
Q: Martin Truex Jr. had awful luck at Pocono and damaged the car he dominated the Coca-Cola 600 with. Should the team not have parked it after they went to the garage instead of going back out on track, which led to further damage to the car?
BURTON: For years our sport has been about having pride in getting back on the race track and doing everything you can do to never quit. I think there’s something to be said for that. Now, it is a different time. I could fully understand someone say we have nothing to gain. I get it. I still believe that there’s experiences can be drawn from every situation. I like a team that collectively says we’re not going to quit. Also it prepares the team and the driver to go through those situations because that might the difference between you moving to the next round or not. I think having done that experience is helpful.
As far as having a magic car, I think those days are over. If you have a car that goes to Charlotte and kicks everybody’s ass and you can’t replicate that car, there’s something wrong with your system. I would say that Cole (Pearn) would say if you can’t make the next car better, something is wrong with your system. As far as destroying cars and all that, we’re in a time where with all the technology available to the teams, teams should not have a favorite car. Those days are over.
Q: Kyle Larson raced Austin Dillon cleanly for the lead at the halfway mark Monday at Pocono when competitors thought the race would end soon. It was similar to how Larson raced Matt Kenseth at Dover for the win in May. What do you see out of how Larson raced at Pocono?
BURTON: I thought Larson on Monday didn’t have as fast a car as Austin had. Austin kept putting pressure on him, kept putting pressure on him. I thought he blocked Austin and did everything he could to slow that momentum down but Austin was coming. Once he got there, he had not choice but to give him room, which is the same thing he did earlier in that run and he was able to beat Austin off Turn 3. This time it didn’t work out because Austin got loose and ran into him.
I don’t know what else (Larson) could have done. When somebody behind you is faster, you’re trying to push your car a little harder than it needs to go because that’s the only way you’re going to stay in front of him. He blocked and didn’t make it easy for Austin. Ultimately, there was nothing he could do because Austin got loose and into the side of him.
Q: What else is on your mind?
BURTON: I would say this, after leaving Indy and all the negatives from Indy, fan attendance, quality of race, the next race on a 2.5-mile flat race track was freaking awesome. If you look at the number of the people that were at the race track (at Pocono) on Sunday and you look at the number of people that came on Monday. For a day when to be honest with you not many of us thought we were going to race, then you look at the quality of the race on a 2.5-mile race track, long straightaways and flat corners, to me it shows me the state of the sport can’t be valued on one race.
There was so much negativity, although the number of people that watched on TV was awesome, but there was so much negativity leaving Indy, like leaving Pocono was a completely different feel. I don’t think we should lose sight of that. Granted, I’m the ever optimist and tend to find the good things in that stuff. You compare the state of the sport after Indy versus the state of the sport of Pocono. It’s two completely different universes. I think that is worth noting. We can’t look at our sport after one great race or after one poor race and say that’s what NASCAR is. NASCAR is a collection of races that run throughout the whole year. There’s going to be good races, there’s going to be bad races. It’s just how it is. No different than football, basketball, and baseball.
Pocono was so good to me that the guy that had the fastest car on the race track without question was Kevin Harvick. I think it’s fair to say that Kevin Harvick did not get the majority of coverage. That’s because there were so many things going on … there were so many different strategies, Kevin Harvick wasn’t the main talking point even though it appeared to me he had the dominant car. I just left Pocono thinking about Indy and it just reminded me that we as a sport, the fans, the competitors, everybody involved has to be careful not to look at the sport as one race and look the sport as the collection of races and understand there’s good days and bad days. In whole, this year has been really good.