Burton on a roll heading to Vegas

The talk about the fate of Jeff Burton's career began to seep into racing conversations early last season and it picked up serious steam during the summer. It was the kind of talk that affixes itself to all athletes whose fortunes waver around th...

Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton and his fans undoubtedly would give the start to his season a thumb's up. He is fifth in the standings, heading into Sunday's Shelby American at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Last year after two races he was 31st in points. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The talk about the fate of Jeff Burton's career began to seep into racing conversations early last season and it picked up serious steam during the summer. It was the kind of talk that affixes itself to all athletes whose fortunes waver around that arbitrary point where they start being labeled as "aging."

And in the fall, after Burton had missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time since 2005, his first full season with Richard Childress Racing, even Burton's most loyal fans had to be wondering.

It's just the way it goes.

Today, as the Sprint Cup teams prepare for Sunday's Shelby American in Las Vegas, even Burton's most loyal fans have to be feeling a bit foolish because in conversations about his fate, he's being labeled a "championship contender."

The 2010 season is just two races old, but Burton is 2-for-2 in the impressive-starts column, looking fast enough to win at Daytona and again last weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California.


Burton sits fifth in points this week, and adding to the titillation factor is the fact he is heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he has been a consistent top-10 finisher.

Burton, who will turn 43 in June, took a deep breath this week when asked about his early-season mood and then said, "I'm a lot more confident today than I was last year."

Ah, yes, last year.

Heading into Las Vegas in 2009, Burton had settled into a Russian winter. He finished 28th at Daytona and then 32nd at Auto Club. He was 31st in points and dang wary when he stepped off the airplane in Vegas.

"I was concerned going into last year because I knew we had worked hard, but we didn't finish the previous year off strong," Burton said this week. "We did a tire test in January (2009), and we were pretty far off on speed. I was really sick and not feeling good and I kept saying that I am still fast when I'm sick, so it's not that. Then, it showed itself pretty quickly that we weren't very good."

Thus started the season of aging-laced conversations by onlookers and of concerned frowns by Burton.

"It's a lot of pressure for those who got off to a bad start," he said.

This winter? Well, it's off to a warm start because, as Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said, "People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy."


The No. 31 RCR team seemed to embark on happier times at the end of the 2009 season. The team's engines appeared be cranking out more power during the final 10 or so races last year, and improvement continued in the offseason.

When the team arrived in Daytona for Speedweeks, it just seemed to be lot more prepared, Burton said.

"We felt good about what happened in the fall, over the winter," Burton said. "Until you start racing, you don't know where you are honestly. You feel good about it. I had quite a bit of confidence coming in.

"But until everybody gets out here and they're going to give somebody a trophy, you don't really know where you stand. I expected to run well."

Burton should expect to run well again this weekend. Las Vegas is a Burton track.

His average finish in Cup races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is 9.8. That is his best average finish of the 24 tracks he has competed on since his first Cup race in 1993. Burton has two wins among his eight top-10s in 12 starts at Las Vegas.

Both victories came when Burton was in a Roush Fenway Ford and before the track was rebanked, but he also has done well in an RCR Chevy on the new configuration. Last year, for example, one of his best runs came at Vegas when he finished third and led a season-high 61 laps.

"Las Vegas is a track I'm comfortable racing on," Burton said. "I think we have learned a lot from previous races that has helped us have good starting points every time we unload there. So, based on the data we gathered from last year's event and offseason preparation, I know we'll have a competitive Caterpillar Chevrolet."


And if he does, his casual winter mood will continue on for at least one more week.

"I've had good starts, and I've not had good starts," Burton said. "When you have a good start, it enables you to just relax a little bit."

Fast facts

What: Shelby American

Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV: Fox, 1 p.m.

Radio: PRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128


Track layout: 1.5-mile oval

Race distance: 267 laps/400.5 miles

Estimated pit window: 50-55 laps

Qualifying: Friday, 5:40 p.m.

2009 winner: Kyle Busch

2009 polesitter: Kyle Busch

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