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No Flash, Just His Drive

Burton, 39, who last month broke a 175-race losing streak, now sets the Chase's standard.

October 17, 2006|Ed Hinton | Special to The Times

NASCAR is getting an infusion of class and dignity, with Jeff Burton at the fore of the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Suddenly successful again, out of a nearly five-year slump, his manner and manners remain steady.

In victory, he doesn't do burnouts and doughnuts. He doesn't move to the beat of the thumping hard-rock bass NASCAR's extreme-makeover machine blasts out at the tracks and on television.

A few weeks back, when David Letterman's writers put absurd one-liners in the mouths of nine Chase contenders for gag shots, the other one, Burton, was actually in character: "I don't care much for country music or beer."

To get him worked up outside NASCAR, put him at a Duke basketball game. He's cerebral enough to have been an alumnus, had he not been laser-focused on racing since he was 8. Had life turned differently, say, through Duke law school, he might now, at 39, be pursuing his private dream: running for the U.S. Senate from Virginia.

In the months before and after Dale Earnhardt was killed in 2001, Burton quietly but firmly led his peers in pushing for NASCAR's safety revolution.

Maybe it's just coincidence, but until four weeks ago, Burton hadn't won since that awful season of '01.

And now his comeback is propelled by Earnhardt's old team, Richard Childress Racing.

Dogged now as Earnhardt ever was, but fairer to others on the track, Burton, in the three races since his victory at Dover, Del., has been the most relentless non-winner, getting the best possible finishes in adversity. That is how championships are won -- certainly how Earnhardt won his seven titles.

Take Saturday night at Charlotte, N.C., when Burton drove the waning laps in a car shaking and vibrating so terribly that he feared a wheel was loose and would break off and send him crashing any second.

Reason prevailed. He made himself think analytically, back to a similar situation in a practice run, when a wheel had been out of balance. Horrific as the ride felt, he drove on, finished third, and widened his points lead in the Chase.

Throughout this season you could see it coming. Winning poles and finishing well, Burton was back in the media centers of the NASCAR tracks, turning news conferences into professorial reflections as only he can.

By Indianapolis in August, he dominated the Brickyard 400, then fell off at the end. Sunday after Sunday after that, he was almost there. Almost.

The RCR team was nearer and nearer peaking, after years of rebuilding from the disaster of Earnhardt's death.

And when it happened in September at Dover, when Burton finally won again, did you see the restraint not seen in NASCAR in years?

After he'd lost 175 consecutive races through nearly five seasons, you couldn't have blamed Burton if he'd ripped up the infield grass with spinning wheels, then clouded the front-stretch grandstands with acrid tire smoke. But he didn't.

He drove to the flag stand, accepted the checkered flag and drove around the track clockwise -- the opposite direction from racing -- the better to salute the crowd in gratitude through the driver's-side window.

Matt Kenseth, who'd dueled with Burton in the waning laps, had run out of gas and was stalled at the start-finish line.

Burton stopped, his car facing the opposite direction from Kenseth's, as you sometimes see two highway patrol cars in the median.

Combatants only moments before, they extended their hands to each other.

It was a rare gesture in any form of motor racing but particularly in the modern realm of hot-dogging young guns in NASCAR.

Sometimes restraint has more public impact than self-indulgence in pizazz. Maybe now the burnouts and doughnuts will go out of fashion.

If you want profuse emotion from the Burton family, look at the earnest angst on the face of his wife, Kim, in the pits in the final laps of that overdue win, and her joyful weeping at the end. Back in the multiple-win seasons before the dismal streak set in, she was noted for the emotion she put into all of his wins.

And now with Burton holding fast in the lead, halfway through the Chase, maybe Kim will be a magnet for the live TV cameras again, distracting them from the super-model girlfriends and super-cool wives of young guns in the recent seasons.

Then in Victory Lane, when the first two people to greet him were his kids, Kimberle, 11, and Harrison, 6, there was nothing phony about it, if you know Burton and how much they really mean to him. He has never won the Nextel Cup, and is closer now than ever before. "I'm just old enough to appreciate how hard it is, and appreciate the opportunity we have in front of us," he said at Charlotte.

"I'm also just old enough to understand that the sun's coming up tomorrow, regardless of what happens on any given Sunday.... There are things in life that are bigger and more important."

NASCAR is still sport to Jeff Burton, to be played hard but decently.

*

Ed Hinton covers auto racing for Tribune newspapers.

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