LOUDON, N.H. (AP) - Jeff Burton once experienced perfection at New Hampshire.
He’ll take third place this time _ and a renewed sense that he can make a late push for a spot in the Chase.
One of NASCAR’s most respected drivers, Burton’s run at his first spot in the championship field since 2010 got a huge boost with his season-best finish Sunday. Yes, Brian Vickers‘ trip to Victory Lane after a 75-race winless streak was the surprise of the race. But right behind him was Burton’s finish. That Vickers-Kyle Busch-Burton trifecta would have paid off big.
Burton put Sprint Cup on notice that he can still make an impact in the standings over the final seven races before the field is set.
“We don’t think we are out of the Chase,” he said. “I know everybody else in the world does, but we don’t. We feel like we can still do it. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen between now and Richmond. It’s so competitive, so tight.”
Burton jumped from 21st to 17th in the standings to move only 25 points out of 10th place and a guaranteed spot in the 12-driver field.
Burton, who led every lap in a 2000 win at New Hampshire, had a sluggish start to this season in the No. 31 Chevrolet. He had just one top-10 showing in the first eight races. The 46-year-old Burton appeared headed toward another lost season with Richard Childress Racing.
Winless since 2008, Burton just needed time to figure out his working relationship with first-year crew chief Lucas Lambert.
“We are starting to learn each other,” Burton said. “The system that we have that Eric’s been working really hard to get put in, all that’s helping. We have a lot of things going on; it’s not one thing, but I think the main thing is just having time together and understanding each other.”
His season started to turn at Charlotte. Burton was 12th, then had back-to-back 11th-place finishes before finally cracking the top 10 again at Michigan. There’s a reason, though, Burton said no one else considers his team a contender. His recent runs have been solid, not spectacular, and he’ll need to show New Hampshire was the start of something big, not a one-off wonder.
“I’m not saying we are the class of the field, but we are definitely making progress,” Burton said. “We feel like we are starting to build on something, and we understand what we’re looking for now. We have a baseline to work off, first time in a couple years we have a baseline to work off. We are excited about it. We feel like we are understanding why we are running well and we think we can improve.”
Burton, with 21 Cup wins, has taken a backseat at RCR as Kevin Harvick has become the organization’s star driver.
But Harvick is bringing his Budweiser sponsorship with him to Stewart-Haas Racing next season, leaving Burton as the face of the company.
Harvick is a strong contender for his first Cup championship. His potential to leave the team with the sport’s biggest prize would be a huge void for any driver to fill, even one as experienced as Burton.
“What we have to do is embrace the challenge and embrace the opportunity and go out and try to make it work, and try to be better through it,” Burton said. “But you can’t lose a caliber driver like Kevin and it not impact you. It’s just that simple. I think we can overcome it, and I think if we set out to do it, we can be better. Not because he’s leaving, but because in his absence, we’re going to do stuff to fill that void and through that, you make him get better.”
His performance at New Hampshire was a perfect example.