Birth date: June 29, 1967
Hometown: South Boston, Virginia
Residence: Huntersville, North Carolina
Family: wife Kim; daughter Paige; son Harrison; older brother Ward is also a Cup driver.
Jeff Burton was a model of consistency during his early years with Roush Racing, finishing Fourth, Fifth, Fifth, Third, and Tenth in points from seasons 1997 to 2001. His career then took a downturn, culminating in his surprising departure from Roush and consecutive finishes of 18th in points. Last season marked a resurgence for Burton and for his new employer, Richard Childress Racing. His Seventh-Place points finish came during a season when he returned to Victory Lane for the first time since 2001. We caught up with Burton at Daytona, two days before teammate Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500.
SCR: Last year had to be especially gratifying-you were Seventh in points, won for the first time in four years, and really got back on track. Talk about what that was like.
BURTON: It was a good year for us. We've been building to have that kind of year. But it was a good year and a disappointing year, all at the same time. We did a nice job of putting ourselves in position and then didn't execute and get it done at the end. But we did put ourselves in position and that's really, at the end of the day, the primary goal. I think the experience last year will go a long way toward helping us in the future to close the deal.
Burton is known as one of the more thoughtful, articulate drivers on the circuit.
SCR: If you had to pinpoint one thing that helped RCR turn it around, what would that be?
BURTON: Well, obviously, Scott Miller has done a phenomenal job. His organization and his desire to compete at a high level is huge. That has a lot to do with it, as does the commitment from Richard to make changes and to be willing to look at it and say, hey, what we're doing isn't good enough, so we need to find a way to do it a lot better. He's putting a lot of resources into trying to do just that. Really, every department in the company has been changed in the last 18 months. That's really a big part of it as well.
SCR: That's the ultimate mindset for a racer-you do what you have to do to succeed.
BURTON: The hardest part of what we do is to know when to do something different. In some cases, when you're not having any success, it's easier than when you're having some success. When you're having some success, you tend to try to hold on too much, or change too much. When you're having none, then you go at it. Truly, I think that's the hardest part of this job, in this sport-knowing when to do something different.
SCR: Daytona in particular has been good to you recently. You sat on the pole for the Daytona 500 last year and ran Third in your qualifying race this year. You seem to have this place figured out somewhat.?
BURTON: I enjoy racing here. It's fun. My 500 record is pretty pathetic over the past five or six years. I don't really know why. It just seems like we've been caught up in a lot of stuff. But I enjoy racing here and I love the history of this racetrack. We need to win a Daytona 500. It's something that I certainly want to try to get done before my career is done, for sure.
SCR: From the outside looking in, I think most people expected you to be a Roush Racing lifer. How hard was it to leave there?
BURTON: Well, it was hard. Honestly, I thought I would be a Roush Racing lifer, too. As things continued there, we started having less success. There wasn't a lot of excitement about the program. It just wasn't successful, and we weren't able to do the things we needed to do. There comes a point where change is good. I don't believe change is good by itself, but good change is good. And it was time for something new for both parties. I feel like I contributed a great deal to that company in a lot of different ways. That company contributed a great deal to me. But it was time to do something a little different.
Burton says crew chief Scott Miller (right) has done a phenomenal job.
SCR: You have the unique perspective of having seen both Roush Racing and RCR from the inside. From the outside, they appear to be total opposites in how they approach things. Is that a fair assessment?
BURTON: In some ways it's fair. And in some ways they're very similar. The management style is completely different at RCR. It's a much more worker-friendly environment. It's a warmer place. It's not as industrialized. The desire to compete and win is real high at both places. The willingness to throw funds and effort into doing the things it takes to win are equal at both places. The thing that's firmly the same at both is the car owners' desire to compete at a high level. But the management style is drastically different.
SCR: It really relates to the different personalities of the owners, doesn't it?
BURTON: I think the thing that probably most people would laugh about is that RCR, from a technical standpoint, is very advanced. We're not as advanced as we could be, so we have a lot of room to grow there. But I think a lot of people think, from the outside looking in, that RCR is back like it was 15 or 20 years ago, when, in fact, there's been a huge effort to be in the next decade in technology. That's something that was surprising to me.
RCR has focused on getting the hardware back to a high level. And it's paying off.
SCR: Could you elaborate on that, the advances in technology?
BURTON: From an engineering standpoint and from a technological standpoint, this sport is moving quick. We want to try to be on the good side of it; we want to be responding to it rather than reacting to it. When you're reacting to it you're making quick judgements, you're trying to make something happen right now, [and] you're trying to get caught up. We want to be responding to it so we'll be ahead of the curve and not playing catch-up.
SCR: What do you like best about this sport?
BURTON: What I like about it the best is the competition. I love to compete. The thing I enjoy is when we get up in the morning and walk in the garage, I know there are 42 teams that are doing their best to win the race, which means doing their best to beat us. And this team is doing its best to beat them. It's very in the open, it's very in-your-face competition, and I like that. I really enjoy that, and I enjoy the people. As much as we compete against each other and as much as we get frustrated with each other, I enjoy walking into the garage and seeing Jack Ingram and stopping and talking to him, seeing a young driver and stopping and talking to him, seeing a crew member that works on another team and stopping and talking to him. I just enjoy that part. I think for the most part there are a lot of good people in this sport. We all share a common interest, and I really enjoy being a part of that fraternity.
SCR: Sounds like the things that drew you to the sport as a kid are still true.
BURTON: The reason I'm in this sport is because as a kid I wanted to be in this sport. I'm one of those people at 5 years old I knew what I wanted to do. If you asked me where I wanted to be today, it would be right here. I mean, there are days when I would like to be somewhere on a beach with my family. Everybody has those days. But for the most part, this is where I want to be. I have lost no passion for it. If anything, I've gained it after having some years of not being as successful. We had a six-year run there when we were highly successful. Even in our years when we were defined as not being successful, we finished 10th in points one year, and we finished 12th in points two years in a row. And those years were catastrophic. We had [two years] when we were 18th, but [one of those] was a year in which I drove for two different teams. So my expectation level is really high. After having not been able to meet some of my expectations, I now appreciate even more the opportunity to be in this sport. It's what my professional life is all about.
After several down years, Burton has reason to smile again.
SCR: Let's turn that around. What do you like least about this sport?
BURTON: I never complain about the number of races that we run, because I would just as soon run more. The thing I like least about it is I wish we could run the number of races that we run but over a longer period of time. If we just had two more weekends off just to catch our breath. People don't understand: Drivers, crew members especially, don't see their kids. They miss an incredible amount of stuff. I'm able to take my children with me. But during the week, I don't see my children as much because I'm traveling all the time. Just a little more time to get reconnected with your family and reconnected with your friends. I have done this at the expense of my relationships with my friends, my relationship with my family. That's been the cost. The cost is that the friends I had growing up I now don't know very well. I rarely see my parents. I rarely see my brothers. This requires so much time that I don't have. Outside of my immediate family, I have no personal life. That's the thing I like least about it.
SCR: You started in this sport in 1993 driving one Cup race for an owner by the name of Filbert Martocci. Who was that?
BURTON: I drove for Fil for two years in the Busch Series. The first year I drove for him we were just going to run a few races. Then we started racing and he said, hell, let's just run the whole year. Actually, Gil Martin was the crew chief. The second year, we ran the full series and ran one Winston Cup race. Then I had an opportunity to go drive at the Cup level and took it. But the first Cup car I drove was under his ownership.
SCR: You got your start in go-karts, then moved to South Boston and raced. What was the next step after karts?
BURTON: After go-karts, we ran two or three races in a Pure Stock division and then went to Late Models. It was what should have been called a Street Stock division but it was called Pure Stock. It was an inline six-cylinder Camaro. I ran that three races then the next year went to Late Models, at South Boston and Orange County.
SCR: Then you became a track champion?
BURTON: The best I ever did was tie for a track championship one year. The other guy had won one more race or whatever so he was the champion.
SCR: What did you learn about the sport during that time that helps you now?
BURTON: My father had the wisdom to let me run off and do it. Not that I knew what I was doing, because I didn't. But I wanted to do it my way, which is a Burton trait. And he had the wisdom to let me do that. But he also had the wisdom to step in and say, look, you need some help. I learned a lot about racing by doing it myself. Those years really helped me be more informed about even this level because a race car is a race car. It's not as different as you would think, even from a Late Model to a Cup car. From a technological standpoint, it's not that different. I was intimately involved in building the cars, preparing the cars, setting the cars up. I enjoyed that part of it and still do. I learned a lot from doing that.
SCR: Any plans to start your son out in the sport?
BURTON: We're Quarter Midget racing some now. He's 6. My daughter has no interest in it, but my son is fanatical about it. Loves it.
SCR: So you're behind him if he wants to pursue it as a career some day?
BURTON: I would support him in it and I would support him if he wants to be a gymnast. You know what I mean? I'm not going to force him into doing something. It's what he wants to do.
SCR: Do you ever get out to any local tracks?
BURTON: No, I don't, to be honest. There's the time when I'm not doing this that I feel like I need to be with my family. I'm running 18 Busch races this year, the Cup schedule, all the testing that's involved, and all that, all the sponsor commitments. If I did some more racing it would be at the expense of my relationship with my family, even more than it already is, and that's just not worth it right now.