Jeff Burton has been a die-hard Duke fan for most of his life.
NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver Jeff Burton can relate a bit to thedie-hard race fan. You know the type of fan who knows every little thingabout his favorite driver, has followed that team for years with greatanticipation, and won't miss a televised event. This fan can name everymember of the team as well as every sponsor on the car of their favoritedriver.
You see, Burton is an avid Duke Blue Devils fan. More specifically, heis a fan of the men's basketball program at Duke University. He hasfollowed the team since he was a child growing up in South Boston,Virginia, which is located about an hour from the famed university inDurham, North Carolina. There are very few Duke basketball games Burtonhas missed over the years whether it is in person, watching ontelevision, or listening on the radio.
"My dad was a huge Duke fan when I was growing up," said Burton. "We hadseason tickets, so I went to a bunch of games when I was a kid. Theatmosphere would just consume you during the games at Cameron IndoorStadium. There was no way you could leave there without becoming a fan."
Burton has the utmost respect for the traditions and dedication of theDuke basketball program. The tradition-rich story of Duke Basketballincludes 13 trips to the Final Four and national championships in 1991,1992, and 2001.
"Duke Basketball is, in my eyes, in a league of their own," said Burton,driver of the No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet for Richard ChildressRacing. "I don't necessarily mean on the court. I mean as far as respectand admiration. Coach Krzyzewski is such a great teacher and motivator.There are kids all across the world that would love to play for Coach Kat Duke."
Burton had high hopes for the Duke Blue Devils this season. They won theAtlantic Coast Conference Tournament and drew the number one seed in theAustin, Texas, region in the NCAA Tournament. The team had a fewinjuries during the season, but everyone was healthy for the tournamentso they set their sights on chasing down their fourth NationalChampionship.
"This wasn't the most talented team in the history of Duke Basketball,"said Burton. "But, in my opinion, they had the best shooter in thecountry in J.J. Redick, one of the best big men in the country inShelden Williams, and a great guard in Daniel Ewing. Add to that thebest coach in the country in Coach K, and I thought they really had ashot at the National Championship."
Burton's hope for that fourth National Championship came crashing downMarch 25, along with the Duke Blue Devils' season, in the semifinals ofthe Austin regional. Top-seeded Duke was upset by fifth-seeded MichiganState. The Spartans then went on to beat second-seeded Kentucky indouble overtime in the regional final and are now heading to the FinalFour in St. Louis.
Now that his beloved Blue Devils are no longer part of the Tournament,Burton isn't quick to announce his next pick for a National Champion.That could be due to the fact that Duke's archrival--the University ofNorth Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels--is one of the Final Four teams. Roundingout the list of teams in the Final Four are the University of LouisvilleCardinals and the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, who both wonthrilling regional final games in overtime.
"I definitely think a bunch of people had Illinois and UNC in theirbrackets," said the 37-year-old driver. "I guess even Louisville hereand there, but not too many picked Michigan State to go this far. Ithink there will be some close games in the semifinals, but I am lookingfor Illinois and UNC to make it to the championship game. If thathappens, the championship game on Monday night will be a barn burner."
And about that pick to win it all? Will Burton go against everything hehas ever felt for the UNC Tarheels and pick them to win the title?
"Well, let's just say there was probably a good reason Illinois wasranked No. 1 all season long."