JEFF BURTON, NO. 31 CATERPILLAR CHEVROLET, was the guest on the NASCAR Weekly Teleconference today. Full transcript:
An interview With: JEFF BURTON
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today’s NASCAR CAM Video teleconference in advance of Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Super Speedway. Our guest today is Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Jeff joins us from NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina.
Jeff is currently 25th in the NASCAR Spring Cup Series points standings, and at Talladega Super Speedway, Jeff has the fifth-best-driver’s rating and has accumulated four Top-5s and 13 Top-10 finishes.
Jeff drives for Richard Childress Racing and his teammates left Talladega last year with Kevin Harvick winning the first and Clint Bowyer winning the second. RCR is the all-time leader in owner wins at Talladega with 11.
Jeff, what do you think it will take to put the No. 31 team in victory lane this weekend in Talladega?
JEFF BURTON: Well, first of all I feel like we have really fat restrictor-plate cars. If you go back to last year and look at the Daytona 500 we, have had plenty of speed. Unfortunately I think we have I think maybe in almost every restrictor plate race last year, we ended up in a wreck.
So I mean, this year, for us, we broke an engine in the 500. But going into Talladega, what we are thinking about is getting to the end of the race. We have had the speed.
We have had the — we have led laps. We have done the things we needed to do, but we just hadn’t finished races. Honestly for us I think it’s about putting ourselves in the right position and getting to the end of the race and seeing if we can make it happen on the last lap.
Q. I wonder, you know, with Matt just winning, and how he talks about wondering whether he would win again, and he’s such a great race car driver, as are you, how do you overcome the challenges when you have a struggle and what does it do to you mentally?
JEFF BURTON: Well, you know, last year, we put ourselves in position to win a lot of races. And if you go back and look at where we ran last year and what our average running position was, how many laps we led, all of those things were really good.
We didn’t win races. And that was extremely frustrating.
Then the way we ended last year, you know, by we started pushing too hard. We started trying to make stuff happen and got behind in the Chase.
So we took that action and said, ok, to make it happen, we have got to really, really start pushing hard and that didn’t work out for us. And then to come into this year and get kind of start we have had this year, it’s really frustrating.
It’s hard to put into words. I can tell you this, though: I’m extremely confident that we can dig ourselves out of the hole and get ourselves in the position we need to be in.
I learned this from Mark Martin: Whenever you win a race, you don’t know if you’re ever going to win another one. He always said it publicly and everyone always criticized him for saying it like he was a pessimist and all that, but he was speculating from reality. The fact of the matter is, when you win a race, you don’t know if you’re ever going to win another one. I don’t care if it’s your first year or 30th year; it’s just that way. It’s very hard to win these races.
So I really can’t tell you that I’m sitting here questioning myself or wondering if I’m ever going to win a race any more than I ever have. I think that throughout my whole career, I have always wondered, wow, will we ever win another one.
So I’m really in the same position right now that I’ve always been.
Q. And are you able to just kind of relate it to other times in your career when you just had to solder through it? Because that happens to everyone in racing and if you try too hard, that never works.
JEFF BURTON: Well, that is everyone and everything. The New England Patriots don’t win every Super Bowl. The Lakers don’t win every NBA Championship. You go through times in your career, whatever sport you’re in, whatever business you’re in, you’re not as successful as other times. And while you’re going through it it’s difficult to really know why.
I think what’s important is to focus on exactly what is going on. Take the emotion out of it, pay attention to the facts, and if you pay attention to the facts, you can come to the solution a whole lot quicker.
For us, what we have to guard against is looking and saying, well, we have had bad luck. Because, that, to me, is an excuse. That to me is knocking it off and saying, it’s some other power — it’s some other power making us either be successful or not successful, and I just don’t buy into that.
I think it rests on our shoulders. You can certainly have bad luck and you can certainly have things go a way that you didn’t want to, but at the same time, those things equalize themselves out.
We never get credit for the good luck. We only talk about the bad luck. It’s been my experience, whatever bad luck you have, you also have that much good luck. So at the end of the day, it’s on our shoulders to go fix it, and I think we can.
Q. The consensus for this weekend is we are going to see the two-car drafts again. What are the challenges that that brings to the drivers, and is that good racing?
JEFF BURTON: Well, it’s not for me to decide if it’s good racing or not. I think that it’s my job to go out and do whatever I have to do to try to win the race. And we hope that the fans like to watch that, but at the end of the day, my concern is doing what we have got to do to get the Caterpillar team to victory lane.
I thought the Daytona 500 was a crazy race; whether you liked it or not, I have no idea. Whether the people liked it or not, I have no idea. But you look at the number of cautions we had, the number of lead changes we had, all those kinds of things, seemed to be a good race.
The challenges it created, first thing — these are not in any really order, but the first thing that pops into my mind is the vision thing. When you are the guy pushing, you can’t see through those cars. And so if you’re the guy pushing, you really don’t know what’s going on in front of you.
So you really have to have a spotter situation worked out where the spotter spots for both cars. And the guy that’s leading the race or leading the pack, he’s got to be willing to talk to you and give you that information.
So if he’s not your teammate and you can’t have that radio communication, that’s very difficult.
The other issues are — the overheating issue. You can only push for so long without the thing overheating. So the teams that have found a way to keep them from overheating and the drivers that have found a way to keep them from overheating; that’s a big advantage.
Of course, then the caution comes out and it throws everything out of the window because now you are pushing somebody or you are being pushed by somebody that’s completely different than you were the run before.
So a lot of challenges involved in this thing. We saw in it Daytona a lot of where he cans caused because the closing rate of two cars pushing each other was so much greater than two or four cars that have gotten separated.
And so there’s this huge closure rate, and we saw the guy that was pushing the car, he really didn’t know what was going on and he pushed both of the cars into a wreck. A lot of that happened at Daytona; so to me that’s a big challenge.
Talladega is wider and there’s more places to go and escape. So in theory, it should be a little easier at Talladega, but it’s still going to be a big challenge.
Q. It’s only an hour and 45 minutes of practice on the weekend, but coming out Friday, how much are you really going to know what you have for Sunday? And how much do you feel like the end of the race on Sunday will be impacted by who you work with well at the beginning of the race?
JEFF BURTON: Well, you know, from being at the 500, I think more people are going to practice for less amount of time than what we are accustomed to seeing. It’s our intention to practice once, maybe twice. At the end of the day, there’s not a whole lot we can do to the cars. Once we have built them, we have built them. You really can’t change the chassis setup to make the car go fast or anything like that.
Basically most teams I think will go out and it will mostly be two-car drafts. I don’t anticipate going out there and being in a 30-car pack in practice or a 20-car pack or even a ten-car pack for that matter.
I think you are going to see two-car packs in practice; people learning what their car will do as far as the heat situation, learning how far they can push and how long they can push and what they need to do to keep their car cooled off.
When they figure out, they are going to shut them off and wait to go qualifying on Saturday. I think that’s going to be our approach, and I’m pretty sure based on what I saw at Daytona, that’s pretty much going to be everybody’s approach.
So, you’re right. When the race starts on Sunday, that’s going to be the first time that we are ever really in a pack of 43 cars. And we are really not going to know exactly what we do have.
But again, I anticipate people trying to double up and team up, and you are going to have packs of two cars. And that’s something we are right in the back waiting. Because if you look at the 500, there’s no reason to think we are not going to have a lot of cautions at this race.
So I think a lot of people are going to play it conservatively and then some people are going to be really aggressive, because this is their chance to go win a race that they have not won so far this year.
The Speedway races are always interesting because you have teams that really have not been capable of winning at the downforce-type tracks; they see this as an opportunity. And those teams work very hard to try to put themselves in position. Trevor Bayne is a great example. They really haven’t been in contention to win any other races but they won the Daytona 500. And the Speedway races and restrictor plate races present an opportunity for teams that have a skill-set at that particular kind of race to go win a race, and those people are typically very aggressive.
Q. So does less practice team mean that you probably won’t expect a change in the plate, or there’s less information for NASCAR to evaluate whether to make a change in the plate?
JEFF BURTON: I think the only way that they would make a change in the plate would be if we were going faster than they think we are going to be going, and I don’t think that will be the case. Because again, I think you’ll see two-car packs and we are never going to get the speeds that we are probably going to get to on Sunday.
So they have lowered the plate a fair amount going into this race, and I can’t see us going faster than they think we are going to go. We might go slower than they think we are going to go, but, they are going to have to factor into the speed that’s going to pick up on Sunday with more cars on the racetrack; so I can’t anticipate a plate change.
Q. You mentioned earlier the different nature of Talladega versus Daytona. How much do you think that might play into you guys being able to avoid some of the overheating issues, maybe the vision is better there or maybe it’s not; what do you think of that?
JEFF BURTON: Well, Daytona and Talladega are different. They are not as radically different with the new pavement at Daytona. The corner radiuses are bigger and the track is wider at that time Talladega. So those two things will help some.
The vision thing will be a little, little tiny bit better because the corner radius is larger, and in the corner you may see in front because you’re looking out of left-side window, so you can see down the racetrack in the corner a little better at Talladega. On the straightaway it’s no different at all. So not a lot of difference.
But there’s more escape routes. If something happens in front you at Talladega, there’s another lane, two lanes to go try to find somewhere to escape. And I think that’s more the issue; the width is more the issue than the diameter and the radius of the corners.
Q. At Daytona there was quite a bit of communication, starters, drivers, teams blending and that sort of thing. More of that at Talladega? Did we set a precedent for that at Daytona or will it be about the same?
JEFF BURTON: I think it’s going to be more of it. I think that it’s really an interesting dynamic to be quite honest. We had a meeting this week talking about, you know, who you want to try to get on your radio, and it’s pretty odd. I mean, typically it’s teams that try to communicate within the team. But for a Childress car to be talking to a Hendrick car, or a Hendrick car to be talking to a Roush car, and a Roush car to be talking to a Gibbs car, we’ve never seen that.
It’s pretty interesting how that all is going down and who is going to who and talking and saying, can I put you in my radio. And with the etiquette: When do you go to a competitor’s radio frequency? All of that’s a moving target.
I don’t know, I’m a fan of it because I think honestly it’s safer doing it with one spotter and two cars. I think it’s actually safer.
However, I’m not a fan of it because it’s supposed to be us against them, you know. We are not supposed to be working together. (Laughing).
It’s a little bit weird in the sense that we are competitors or talking to each other; on the other hand, from the safety standpoint I think it’s the right way to go. It’s a pretty interesting time right now.
Q. You said a couple of years ago that this is a wake-up call and you have to go out and prove to the fans that you’re willing to do whatever it takes so they come to the races and have a good time. Two years later, how do you assess how you guys have done? And as things have moved forward and in this era, the fan expects more from drivers, where is that balance in what should be done and what’s reasonable to expect from drivers?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think it’s reasonable to expect a lot. Our sport is a sport of interaction. It’s a sport where the fans expect access and they should get it. There is an appropriate time. There’s an appropriate place.
I honestly don’t feel bad about not signing someone’s autograph during the middle of practice. If I’m on a mission right after practice, there comes a time where the focus is on racing. And whatever you have got to do to get ready to race, whatever amount of time you need to spend with your team, that’s what it’s about.
On the other hand, when you’re not in that time frame, you’re not in that rush and you’re not in that panic, we need to be accessible. I believe that over the last two years, the racetracks, the drivers, the cars, the sponsors have done more than really they have ever done. And I think that’s a good thing.
And I don’t think we should scale back. As our sport hopefully continues to be successful and continues to grow, I don’t think we should look at the last two years as an exception. I think we should look at it as the rule and I think we should look to improve it.
It is not something that our sport can do with the help of three or four drivers. It takes the whole community. We can’t ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, just the big names to go do all of this. We have got to be willing to spread it out amongst all of us. I understand that most fans want to come see Dale Junior and most fans want to see Tony Stewart; I understand that.
But we can’t ask those big guys to do it all the time. It’s not fair to them. They deserve a chance to focus on racing, and they deserve a chance to do whatever they want to do in their life, too. So there is a balance but I think the balance has to continue to stay adjusted to more access.
I think it’s the right thing to do. We need to be looking at more ways at the right time to have more access.
Q. You talked about ways to improve; what are some ways to improve this, in light of as some people say, the sport is picking up some momentum that some may think, what’s been done the last couple of years maybe doesn’t need to be done as much now.
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think that would be a mistake and I think that it’s kind of like paying taxes; once you are already taxed, you don’t ever want to pay any more, and it’s kind of that same thing.
We have to be willing — in this generation of drivers, we have to be willing to return to the sport when we walk away from it to the next generation of drivers in better shape; and that generation of drivers, they damn sure better take the responsibility of taking it to the next generation and giving it to them in better shape.
So that’s what Cale Yarborough, Bobby Labonte, Richard Petty, that’s what they did for my generation, and we have to be willing to do it for the next one.
I have to admit, I think there has to be an appropriate time and appropriate place. I think that we have to — you know, I don’t believe that an NBA ballplayer should have a deal with meeting a fan while he’s playing the game or practicing the game. I think there’s a time where he should be able to focus, and that same should go to us. But there’s also a time when we need to be accessible to the fans.
Q. In the last decade of NASCAR, what that’s changed most for and you what changes in the same decade, roughly, have been the best for you?
JEFF BURTON: Well, you know, the sport has changed a lot, and if you look at NASCAR’s being proactive around safety, that’s been the biggest change. NASCAR really stepped up to the plate and became a leader in the industry as far as motorsports safety rather than a follower. NASCAR became very proactive. The mind-set today is completely different than it was in the past.
I think that our sport has advanced, obviously from an engineering standpoint, from a technical standpoint. If you walk into our shop today and you compare that to 15, ten years ago, there ain’t nothing to compare. It is, honestly, we ran Cup teams 20 years ago no different than a late model team to be quite honest. We didn’t have a lot of engineering support. We had more people; we had access to the wind tunnel, although we really were not using it very effectively. We really were not very technically advanced. You fast-forward to ten years later, we have teams of engineers, and we have an extreme amount of information that we gather through data; so the engineering impact has been huge. There’s no question we made huge strides on that.
Where we are today is I think that our sport is listening more than it’s ever listened. The sport, because of what Bill France and Bill France, Junior set in place, the sport has always been a sport that’s listened to the fans. The fans are the ones that have always generated the things that this sport was going to be.
And I think that today, as the years go by, we are more wide open than they have ever been because of the struggles that we have had. We have had some struggles with getting people to the racetrack, there’s no question; there’s 1,000 different theories why.
But I’m kind of proud of NASCAR in the sense of through the struggles, they have not turned a deaf ear and said, hey, our sport is great the way it is. They continue to make it better. I think this has opened all of their eyes to try and move the sport forward and find a better way to do things.
So through adversity, I think the sport will come out stronger and the willingness to listen to the fans, the willingness to make changes; those things have been generated by the fans. And then when they made changes that were wrong — the fans made that well-known, too, and a lot of those things have gone back on. So I think that that’s a really good thing that’s happened, as well.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much for your time today.
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