NASCAR Winston Cup Racing's Most Exciting Jeff
17 September 1997This column is dedicated to one of the hottest drivers on the circuit right now. It's about a Jeff but not the one that drives the car that wins every other week. Nope this is about the Jeff that doesn't speak in sound- bite oriented passages. It's about the Jeff that drives the wheels off of his ride. The Jeff that drives a Ford (not Geoff). It's about Jeff Burton- Winston Cup's most exciting Jeff.
Jeff Burton started his racing career in the South Boston. Va. area where he grew up. He showed from the start that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with when he notched a couple of Virginia State go-kart championships at a very early age.
Burton continued on with his career when he graduated to Late Model stocks on the bull rings in the area and where he went on to become the Orange County Speedway champion.
Burton made the move to the Busch Grand National division in 1988 when he ran 5 races. That was also the year he was voted South Boston, Va.'s 'Most Popular Driver'.
Burton drove full time in the Busch series starting in 1989 were he made folks take notice with his 4 wins in 153 starts.
In 1994, Burton's big break came when he took the #8 Stavola Brothers Winston Cup car over. We got to see how much character Burton had that year. He was in a fierce Rookie of the Year battle when NASCAR found a severe technical problem with his car at the second Richmond race. NASCAR, on a tip, inspected Burton's car and found that someone had drilled holes in the roll bars - the bars that protect a driver in the event of an accident. NASCAR said that the car wasn't going to compete and Burton, though quite visibly upset, sucked it in and took it all with grace. It was, as some might tell you, that very night that Burton clinched the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award as part of the voting process takes character into consideration.
His two years with Stavola Brothers, 1994 & 1995, netted him 24th and 32nd, respectively, in the Winston Cup points battle.
But it was during this time that Burton caught the eye of one of the premier car owners on the circuit. ... Jack Roush. It was in 1996 that The #99 Exide Roush prepared Ford hit the circuit with Burton behind the wheel and wrenched by Buddy Parrott. Parrott, a seasoned crew chief, had helped drivers like Derrike Cope, Rusty Wallace and Steve Grissom. Parrot brought a calming influence to the start up team. The new team, having the all the best that money could buy and driven by the need to excel, finished the season 13th in series points.
When 1997 rolled around, the team, with a season under its belt, served notice that it was going to be a force in the Winston Cup series. Burton finished a respectable 3rd at Rockingham, 5th at Atlanta and 4th at Darlington - one of the circuit's toughest tracks. The team rolled into Texas sitting 5th in series points.
It was during the inaugural event at the 1.5 mile Texas Motor Speedway that Burton 'rung the bell' and broke into victory lane for the first time. The win was emotional for all involved. The image of his wife Kim sitting on the war wagon crying as the laps wound down only drove the point home that we had something different to work with.
Burton not only got his first Winston Cup victory at Texas but he served notice that he would be a 'trouble maker' when he drove his Exide Batteries Ford to victory in the Interstate Batteries 500.
Burton backed up his winning performance, as did Kim with her tears, at the July Loudon event, 11 races later. There were 6 top-fives in that 11 race period and the team held 5th in the series points.
When the team rolled into Darlington it was coming off a 4th place finish at Bristol. Burton was hungry, Parrott was hungry, his pit crew... well they kind of took the day off. Burton had the fastest car on the track during a lion's share of the day but his pit crew would lose him a handful of positions on each stop. Burton never pointing a finger at them said, "I have the best pit crew in Winston Cup Racing."
It was his pit crew that set up the most exciting, to date at least, finish for the 1997 racing season. Burton had 30 laps to make it out of a pack of lapped traffic, then past Dale Jarrett and to Jeff Gordon in order to win. He almost did it as he caught Gordon on the last lap and almost got by for the win. Burton and Gordon beat and banged off of each other all the way down the front straight but Gordon was able to get the edge going into turn one and went on to win.
The Burton and Gordon show had the 75,00 folks at the raceway on their feet going wild.... that included the normally sedate press corps that watch this stuff for a living.
Burton in post race interviews displayed his displeasure with Gordon's tactics and even used a cuss word. That is unheard of in this age of politically correct NASCARess sound-bites. We loved it... a driver with the fire to win and would even let us know when he wasn't happy.
His weekend at Loudon was a mess as he had to climb from his ride on Friday afternoon when he was stricken with an as of yet undiagnosed inner ear problem. The problem similar to vertigo but not vertigo is being diagnosed at Duke University. The problem, according to a team spokesperson, is similar to what fighter pilots experience at times and could be attributed to G-Force's moving 'debris' around in the inner ear. Burton started the car Sunday but handed his ride over to Todd Bodine at the first caution.
"There is something moving around in his inner--ear and it's hitting his sensory nerve. That causes Jeff to get dizzy," said the spokesperson. "It might be related to his injury at Michigan but it might also be a hair follicle."
Whatever it is we hope that Jeff is back to form soon. We need the spunk and fire that he has brought to the sport. We enjoy seeing him up front dicing it up - the harder the better - Cause when he gets out to tell us what happened we know it's not going to be politically correct sponsor speak.... he leaves that chore to the other Jeff.
Mike Snow -- The Auto Channel