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The Callahan Report: Jeff Burton proves the championship is still within reach

2 July 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
Jeff Burton
DAYTONA BEACH, FL: The NASCAR Winston Cup drivers lit up the night sky at the Daytona International Speedway Saturday. The race signaled the end of the first half of the 2000 racing season. For Jeff Burton, scoring a victory heading into the second half was paramount if he was to have a chance at becoming the Winston Cup champion. Burton's chances are still alive. He was the first driver across the finish line at the Pepsi 400 Saturday night.

Burton drove well, but this is a team sport. Frank Stoddard, the wise crew chief for the Exide Racing Team, made a call on the final pit stop that was as important as Burton's driving skill. Stoddard figured track position was going to be critical in the final laps. He made the call to give Burton two tires on his final pit stop. Most of the other front-runners elected to install four new tires.

"Two tires got us our track position, got us in front of the crowd and it was very difficult to pass," said an elated Burton in victory lane. "Passing was hard and we were fast enough to block and stay in the way enough to be a pain."

Burton spent more time looking at his rear view mirror than he did through his windshield during the waning laps of the annual Fourth-of-July weekend classic. He got a good view of talented legends Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt. If Burton had made even a small mistake, he would have had a very bad view . . . tailpipes belonging to those same racing heroes.

Some called it blocking. Others called it a masterful drive. No matter how you look at it, Jeff Burton did exactly what he had to do to satisfy his desire for winning. His "all over the place" run during the final 20 laps provided excitement in another follow-the-leader Daytona race. Burton's efforts provided him with his eighth career victory on the circuit. It was his first win ever at a restrictor plate race.

"We had to give some big blocks," said Burton. "Taking the green (after the final caution period), I knew, would be real big. Once I held him (Dale Jarrett) off on the front straightaway I knew he'd still get a run on me. Fortunately, we blocked him enough. I stayed in his way enough to be a nuisance and that was real important. That was the race."

Dale Jarrett, who knows exactly what it takes to win at the Daytona high-banks, had no quarrels with Burton's driving style at the end of the race. Jarrett was going for his third straight victory at Daytona before Burton crucified that effort.

"I want to congratulate Jeff Burton who did a great job there. He really knew what to do with his car," said Jarrett. "It was fast through the corners and he blocked the race track like he should."

Burton is in fifth place in the current Winston Cup point standings. He sits 213 points behind Bobby Labonte, the series point leader. Some say the margin is too large to overcome. However, considering the season is only at the halfway point, Burton proved Saturday night that he certainly has the talent to move back to the top. Throw in a little bad luck for his competition, and the championship is still a close race.

Oddly, Burton credited losing efforts in the past for success this time around. The controversial rules associated with restrictor plate racing does take patience and experience if a team is going to "beat the rules."

"Maybe the best way to get experience is to get beat a lot,'' Burton said, commenting on his first restrictor plate win. "We've made a lot more wrong moves in restrictor-plate races than right moves for a while. The first time we made the right moves was tonight. The only way to learn is to do the wrong thing first, and then learn from that."

Burton and his high resource team will continue to do the things that have gotten them to where they are today in the championship race.

"We care about points, we want to get back into it," Burton said frankly. "Winning is the best way we know how to do that"

Bobby Labonte was never a factor in the Pepsi 400. Burton was able to close the gap on Labonte and the rest of the top four finishers with his win Saturday night. If Burton continues with his smooth and smart driving, he could find himself wearing a simple but cherished ball cap at season's end. One that says "2000 Winston Cup Champion."

Tighten your seat belts, this battle they call the Winston Cup Championship is just heating up.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.