It's been a while since Jeff Burton has felt this good about his performance on the track.
Burton, who drivers the #31 Cingular Wireless Chevy for Richard Childress Racing, hasn't visited victory lane in nearly five years, but his success so far this season has him optimistic that his drought is about to end.
After winning the pole for the Daytona 500, Burton finished 32nd in the season-opening race. He picked up a fifth place finish in California and followed up with a seventh place run at Las Vegas the following week. He started third and finished 25th on Monday in Atlanta, but despite that drop-off, Burton is 11th in the point standings and is optimistic that he can finish in the top-10 for the first time since 2001.
"I truly left Daytona feeling better than I'd felt in years," said Burton, who broke into Cup racing with Stavola Bros. in 1994. "I'm not a pom-pom cheerleader kind of guy. I'm a give me the facts kind of guy. And the facts said we were doing a lot of good things. So my juices were flowing there. I told my wife when we left California that I felt like I used to feel."
Burton used to feel like a winner. He won 17 races during a five-year stretch with Roush Racing before the bottom fell out in 2002. Since then, he's averaged less than four top-5 finishes a year.
Burton has been frustrated with the lack of success and admits that it has taken its toll on his career, but he refused to doubt his abilities.
"Running bad sucks," admitted Burton, who left Roush to join Childress in 2004. "I do pretty well at separating my professional life from my personal life, but at the end of the day, when you run bad it's miserable. I have a little bit of an ego. I want people to understand that I can still do it. And when you drive in the corner and the car won't do it, you can't do it no matter who you are.
"I can't tell you the number of times that I got out of my car going to the airport on Sunday and looked at my wife and said, 'I drove my ass off today and nobody will ever know it.' When I have the stuff and it's right, I'm as good as anybody out here. That's just how it is. There are a lot of people who've never raced with me when my stuff is right, and they'll find out. If they want to compare themselves with me any day, I'm ready for it."
Burton would like nothing more than to end his winless streak this weekend at Bristol in the Food City 500 (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern on FOX). Burton has never won a Cup race at Bristol, but he won the Busch Series event there in 1997 and has been traditionally strong at the .533 mile oval. He finished second to teammate Kevin Harvick in the night race there last summer.
"Well, we've definitely run well there in the past and put ourselves in position to win," said Burton. "I've run second at Bristol and fourth at Bristol with this team. Every time we've been there we've been very competitive. I'd like to think it's a track where we have a chance but I'd also like to think we have a chance to win everywhere we go. Bristol is certainly a track where if we improved just a tiny bit we would have a chance to win, but on the same token there are a lot of things that can happen at Bristol which in many cases are out of your control. Hopefully we can pull it off."
After two straight years without placing anyone in the top-10 in the championship standings, RCR looks ready to compete for at least one spot in the Chase for the Championship this year. Rookie Clint Bowyer has been consistently good so far this season and is 10th in the standings after four races. Burton is 11th, while Kevin Harvick has struggled and is 23rd.
"We've made a lot of improvement," said Childress, who won six championships with Dale Earnhardt Sr. "We still have a lot of work to do. I feel the cars have been running really well in the Busch and the Cup. We've really concentrated a lot on our engine program and our bodies. We've some personnel changes all over the place, and with those changes, I think it's really beginning to show up."
NASCAR's new loop data statistics show that Burton is fourth with an average running position of 9.350. Jimmie Johnson leads the circuit with a 5.719 rating while Mark Martin and Greg Biffle follow. Statistics don't mean much to Burton, but he recognizes that a good start can have a lasting effect on the entire season.
"For us, every race is important when you've been knocked back on your heels and you're trying to get back in the fight," Burton said. "Right now, we don't have to dig ourselves out of a hole. If we keep running the way we're running, we'll get our wins and we'll do what we need to do in points. Our priorities have to be going fast. That's what we couldn't do last year. That's what I couldn't do the year before, or the year before that. That's what I have been able to do this year."