No one questions Jeff Burton’s talent or commitment. The 46-year-old Virginian has won 21 times over 20 full seasons competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, finishing among the top 10 in the standings on eight occasions.
He placed third in points in 2000, capping a four-season run of top-five championship results. Burton’s most recent success in his current ride, the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, came between 2006 and 2010 when the veteran qualified for the Chase four times.
Then, disappointment. Burton ranked 20th and 19th the past two years and appeared destined for a re-run this season, flipping in and out of the top 20. Conversely, both teammates, Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard, have held positions in the top 10 in 2013. So has Kurt Busch’s Furniture Row Racing, which draws technical assistance from the Childress organization.
On Sunday, the Burton of yesteryear – a four-time New Hampshire Motor Speedway winner – reappeared. Burton ran at the front of the field for most of the afternoon to finish third for his best performance on a non-restrictor plate track since a second-place effort at Dover in the fall of 2010. He moved from 21st in the standings to 17th, matching a season-high ranking.
It gives Burton Chase Wild Card eligibility but the competitor has higher goals. With seven races remaining before the Chase lineup is set, Burton is only 25 points out of the top 10.
Burton believes Sunday’s performance is indicative of how his team will run as it continues to settle in with freshman Sprint Cup crew chief Luke Lambert and the many new faces that were added to the team in 2013.
“We have been running a lot better the last two months,” said Burton. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we are the class of the field but we are definitely making progress and we feel like we are starting to build on something, and we understand what we’re looking for now.
“And we don’t think we are out of the Chase. I know everybody else in the world does, but we don’t. We feel like we can still do it.”
Burton has victories at two of the final regular-season tracks – at Richmond in 1998 and Bristol in 2008.