IN A SPORT repletewith facile, fence-straddling pitchmen, Jeff Burton stands alone in the Cupgarage, a no-spin arbiter of right and wrong, true and false. He calls it as hesees it, his delivery as blunt as his crewcut. So after his Bank of America 500victory last Saturday night in Charlotte, the fifth race of the Chase, it wasno surprise when Burton declined to offer any hype or false cheerleading."We're not going to get caught up in the whole points thing," he said."We're just laying it out there, having a good time. Whatever happens, weall know we put a lot of effort into it. If we don't win the championship, ouryear's not a failure."
Though the win atLowe's Motor Speedway vaulted the 41-year-old Burton into second place in theCup standings, 69 points behind Jimmie Johnson (who finished sixth in therace), it's hard to see the result as a harbinger of better things to come.Burton led 58 laps in Charlotte; in the previous 30 races he'd led a total ofonly 82. Johnson, on the other hand, has turned 1,369 laps in the lead thisseason, and has five victories to Burton's two. "We're just not as fast ashe is," says Burton. Halfway through the Chase, it's clear that Johnsonwon't be overtaken unless he suffers some disaster. Little wonder that Burtonand his crew have adopted such an even-tempered approach to their jobs.
This mind-set maystem from Burton's history in the Chase. In 2006, the last time he ranked sohigh this late in the season, he left Charlotte with a 45-point lead in thestandings. But he blew an engine at Martinsville the following week and neverrecovered, finishing no better than 10th in the next four races and ending theyear in seventh place. "We may have gotten a little too tight," hesays. "Everybody always wants to give somebody a trophy right now. Justhold on. Anything can happen."
Such an approachmight someday benefit Carl Edwards, who spent much of his time at Charlottetrapped in a shame spiral of his own making. At Talladega the previous Sundayhe'd caused a 12-car smashup late in the race that took out several Chasecontenders, including teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Afterward KevinHarvick, another of the Chasers caught up in the wreck, called Edwards "apansy" on live television, prompting Edwards to leave a sarcastic note onHarvick's plane. Unable to let it go at that, Edwards confronted Harvick in theNationwide garage last Thursday, and the two had to be separated. Edwards,visibly embarrassed, attempted to downplay the incident. But Harvick—ascapegrace of some renown in the Cup garage—reveled in twisting the knife.Smirking from behind his sunglasses on Friday, he announced to reporters,"I could give two s---- about Carl Edwards."
On Saturday abeleaguered Edwards finished 33rd after suffering early ignition problems. Theresult knocked him from second to fourth in the standings and all buteliminated him from Cup contention—he trails Johnson by 168 points.
As Edwards'sseason crumbled, the unflappable Burton made his strongest competitivestatement yet. Still, as he'll be the first to tell you, it might not be enoughto win a championship.
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Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
The focus in Sprint Cup racing these days is on the top12, of course, but don't overlook the hammer-and-tongs battle being waged for13th place (the top spot for drivers outside of the Chase): Second-year driverDavid Ragan (above) is 86 points ahead of Kasey Kahne. Ragan seized theadvantage from Kahne on Sept. 28 with a eighth-place finish at Kansas and hasheld on. Kahne, 28, who finished second last Saturday, is a known quantity toCup fans, especially at Charlotte, where he won the All-Star race and theCoca-Cola 600 in May. But in the Chase phase of the schedule, the 22-year-oldRagan has been his equal in running off three straight top 10s. It would be nosurprise to see both drivers continue their rivalry next season—in the Chase,instead of among the also-rans.
THROTTLED Edwards (near left) charged Harvick last Thursday; Burton (inset) charged to victory on Saturday.
CHRIS KEANE/REUTERS (BURTON)
[See caption above]
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (RAGAN)