Burton Wins at Loudon Four Years After Winston Cup Debut
14 July 1997LOUDON, NH - Jeff Burton has come a long way since his NASCAR Winston Cup debut in Loudon, NH in 1993. That race four years ago resulted in a disappointing 37th-place finish. The 1997 version of the Jiffy Lube 300 ended in a very different place. New Hampshire International Speedway's victory lane.
"There are a few race tracks where I have a special feeling when I come to them and this is one of them," said Burton, who recorded his second win of the season.
The 1994 Series Rookie of the Year pointed out that there is a different Jeff Burton climbing behind the wheel of a stock car today. "I didn't do a very good job of representing myself in that first race. I got into two wrecks and that wasn't the kind of image I wanted to give everybody. I think today you saw a few years of maturity. You have to learn from your mistakes and that was a day that even though I didn't think the first wreck was totally my fault, that was when I first took the initiative to say that every wreck is your own fault. That was one of the times in my career that helped me mature a little bit. I still have a long way to go. I'm not saying I've learned all I'm going to learn."
Burton started the 300-lap event from the 15th position and quickly worked his way into the top five. His first appearance at the head of the pack was on lap 174 when he led one circuit during a round of green flag stops. A two-tire pit stop during the second and final caution period gave the lead back to Burton on lap 196. From there on the #99 Exide Batteries Ford would show the way giving up the lead only once for a brief splash and go pit stop.
"I've got a hell of a race team," said Burton. "It's only been a year and a half that we've been together and to get two wins and be as competitive as we've been just says a lot for this race team. They've worked their butts off every single week and they never take anything for granted. They assume that we're going to come and run bad and they work like hell to prevent it. That's all I can ask for."
The Roush Racing driver cruised to the checkers a whopping 5.372 seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt.
The seven-time Winston Cup champion dug a hole for himself before the race even started with a 26th place qualifying effort, which is nothing new considering his average starting position in 1997 is 21.2. "The car was a brand new car and I was really proud of the guys," said Earnhardt, who is seeking his first win since March 1996. "It came off the truck running good. It should have qualified better but Dale Earnhardt didn't get around the race track quick enough. We had to come from the back. We did fine adjustments with air pressure and the car stayed consistent. We haven't won a race yet, but we're going to get 'em."
Crossing the line third was Rusty Wallace in the #2 Miller Lite Thunderbird. Wallace ran in the top 10 for most of the afternoon but explained that his Thunderbird got loose after a two-tire pit stop under caution on lap 195. "We took two tires at the end and that was the right decision, but it really did upset the balance of the car. We had done real well up until then. I got real behind (after that) and I really couldn't get quite caught up. As the fuel load would burn off it would get tighter and I could run a little better. I thought there'd be a lot more cautions, but the race track held up real well."
Steve Grissom's fourth place finish was his best of the season with his only other top-ten (10th) coming at Texas Motor Speedway in April. "We had some good runs already this year," said Grissom, "but we haven't really been where we need to be when the checkered flag falls. To get a good qualifying effort in and to be there when it counts is pretty big right now for us. It seemed like we were trying to pass somebody all the time. It was pretty tough to pass out there. You about had to wait for the guy in front of you to make a mistake to get by him. Once you got by him, you could go on."
Rounding out the top five was Mark Martin. "We didn't run as good as we needed to," said the driver of the #6 Valvoline Thunderbird. "But the pit crew did a great job today and got me a fifth place finish with a 10th place car. We take the best position we can every week, no matter where anyone else finishes. That's what we do every week."
Robert Yates Racing teammates Ernie Irvan and Dale Jarrett were strong early and swapped the lead back and forth a couple of times during the midstages until engine woes plagued both drivers. Shortly after lap 186, however, Jarrett's engine developed what the team thought to be a valve spring problem and he limped the #88 Quality Care/Ford Credit Thunderbird home 38th, seven laps behind the leaders. Irvan's motor lost a cylinder late in the race and he was able to hang on for an eighth place finish.
Terry Labonte's seventh place finish coupled with teammate Jeff Gordon's miserable day resulted in Labonte taking the series points lead by a slim three-point margin over Gordon.
Labonte played cat-and-mouse with the competition by making a second stop during the final caution period to top off the fuel hinting that he could go the final 103 laps without a stop. The Hendrick Motorsports driver managed to stay on the track 10 laps longer than everybody else who stopped for fuel only but finally came down pit road giving Jeff Burton the lead for the final time on lap 292.
"The guys worked on the car all day and got it better there at the end," said the defending series champion, who fought a loose race car all day. "I wish we could have started that good. We couldn't make it on fuel at the end. We though about not stopping for fuel, but it wasn't a good enough gamble to gamble on it. We were going to have to pick up a little more fuel than we could pick up. We would have really looked stupid if we had run out of fuel, sitting on the back straightaway with a couple of laps to go."
Jeff Gordon's day went sour on lap 106 when he cut a tire down and was forced to pit during green flag racing. Gordon lost a lap in the pits and was never able to recover. He was credited with 23rd finishing position, two laps down to the leaders.
The race took 2 hours, 42 minutes, 35 seconds to complete at a race record average speed of 117.134 mph. There were two cautions for 10 laps. The lead changed hand 14 times among 8 drivers.
The next race on the Winston Cup Series schedule is the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway on July 20.
Lori Vizza -- The Auto Channel