Ward Burton's return to the track came after he sat out most of the past two seasons. Phot
The last thing Larry McClure did before his Nextel Cup Chevrolet was rolled out of the garage for its final inspection at Daytona was to begin reshaping the left-front fender with a hammer.
Twenty-five years ago, McClure hammered on cars because he had to. Now he does it because he wants to.
It is that doing-it-my-way desire that makes the scrappy Morgan-McClure Motorsports team blend well with the intensely competitive personality of Ward Burton, its new driver.
Both have survived on grit, determination, and tenacity.
This day, they needed all they could find in their personal reservoirs.
It was the Wednesday before the Daytona 500, and the State Water Heaters Monte Carlo was in danger of not making Sunday's race.
Burton, the surprise winner of the 2002 Daytona 500, returned to racing full-time in February. He backed out of the sport two years ago when it became apparent he wasn't on anyone's list for a competitive ride for 2005.
He and Bill Davis Racing parted company in 2003, when Burton went from BDR's Caterpillar car to drive for Gene Haas in the NetZero entry for the last four races of the season.
"Ward's a great guy and a good driver," says Davis. "We won some races together-the Daytona 500, the Southern 500-but we got to the point we weren't moving forward. We tried a lot of different things, but we just weren't making any progress.
"We parted friends," Davis adds. "I think you could say we had a mutual understanding of what we needed to do, although to be honest, I was pushing harder than Ward to end it."
Burton began 2004 with Haas but was replaced by Mike Bliss for the last two races of a season that saw Burton get eight DNFs and only three Top 10 finishes. His forced vacation was largely the product of timing, as the split with Haas came late enough in the season that most of the good seats for the next year had already been filled.
"I wanted to drive, but I didn't want to do anything that would harm my career, either," he says.
During more than a decade in Cup racing, Burton won over $24 million, giving him enough money to live comfortably and never have to work again.
"I also wanted to take some time off, to get my life back," he says. "It was nice to be on my own schedule for a while. All my life has revolved around racing, my family, and the outdoors. I'm still doing the things today that I loved to do as a kid."
Burton may be the most independent driver in Nextel Cup, a man who doesn't think it at all strange that after two years of college he went into the Virginia woods to live off the land for two years.
His love of the outdoors resulted in the creation of the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, which purchases land to preserve and protect wildlife habitats. He spent much of his two years away from racing nurturing the foundation and spreading his gospel of good wildlife stewardship to youngsters.
But the lure of strapping into a Nextel Cup car and trying to tame the high banks of Daytona or survive the banging of the Martinsville bullring was always nagging at him.
He's gone from unemployed to full employment. In addition to a full season in Morgan-McClure's State Water Heaters Chevrolet in Nextel Cup, he's also in BrewCo Motorsports' Ford Fusion in the NASCAR Busch Series.
"I didn't have to get back in a race car," Burton says. "I wanted to. I'm 45 years old and I knew that someday. I would be too old to do this, and that I would regret not giving this one more shot."
The No. 4 Chevy smacked the outside wall in the closing laps of the Gatorade 150 qualifyin
Morgan-McClure emerged as his best shot.
"We knew he was looking for a ride," says McClure. "He let us know he was available. We had him in the car three times last year and felt he could get along well with our team. I think we can work together."
After 25 years in the sport, Morgan-McClure remains one of NASCAR's grassroots operations.
"We don't have a lot of money," McClure says. "So we have to be smart about how we spend what we have."
That means finding a young driver on the way up, a seasoned driver on the way out, or someone like Burton willing to cut a deal to put jumper cables on his career.
It's worked for the team in the past. They won the Daytona 500 in 1991 with Ernie Irvan and in 1994 and 1995 with Sterling Marlin. The team also fielded cars for NASCAR notables such as Mark Martin, Rick Wilson, Joe Ruttman, Joe Nemechek, and Bobby Hamilton.
In 2006, Morgan-McClure's team finished 39th in owner points, four spots out of having a guaranteed slot for the Daytona 500.
"But we know how to win," says McClure. "And so does Ward."
Both agree the team needs more money.
"We need more sponsorship," Burton says. "We've barely got enough for the team. If we want to get better, we need more resources.
"Given a good car with adequate sponsorship, I know I can still go fast," he adds. "I know I can win."