Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Gordon, Burton Put it On The Line in ’97 Southern 500

Two decades ago, Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports dominated the competition at Darlington Raceway, site of Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Seven times Gordon won races at the Track Too Tough to Tame, including four Southern 500s.

With 93 career victories in what today is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet were tough to beat anywhere.

But Darlington was an especially good track for him. In fact, the only track where he won more often was Martinsville Speedway, where he won nine races.

The most memorable of Gordon’s four Southern 500 victories came in 1997, when he held off a furious charge from Jeff Burton in the closing laps to win the race and in the process capture The Winston Million, a $1 million bonus that R.J. Reynolds gave for winning three of NASCAR’s biggest four races of the year.

Little did anyone know at the time that Gordon (FOX Sports) and Burton (NBC Sports) would both go on to become NASCAR television commentators after their driving days ended.

The ’97 Southern 500 began on a strange note, when Dale Earnhardt passed out in his car on the opening lap of the race. The seven-time champion was pulled out of his car, placed on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. A week later, Earnhardt would joke about it and insist he was never in any danger, but when it happened it appeared serious.

Once the race got going, Bill Elliott dominated early, leading 181 of 367 laps. But at the end of the race, it came down to a battle between Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Burton’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford.

Coming to the white flag, Burton dove under Gordon in Turn 4, but Gordon turned down on him and the two made contact at the start-finish line. On the last lap, Gordon was able to hold off Burton to become the first driver to win three consecutive Southern 500s.

Afterwards, Burton was not happy with Gordon. “We had the fastest car all day,” said Burton, who was hurt by a series of sub-par pit stops. “Now we know how to race. We know how he’s going to race, so we know how to race him.”

And Burton said he should have hit back harder.

“I just didn’t get him good enough. … I was going to do my best to make sure he didn’t win the race, because he cut down on me,” Burton said.

And Gordon said had the roles been reversed, Burton would have blocked him.

“I would have expected it (in the same situation),” Gordon said. “You get that checkered flag in your mind and in your sight and you’ll do just about anything to get there. That’s what I did.”

Categories
Trucks

NASCAR Next Drivers Gilliland, Burton Already Making Big Moves

One of the most exciting aspects of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is the huge influx of new talent coming into the series.

Young drivers like Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson — all of whom are less than 25 years old — are filling the void created when established stars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and, soon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. step away from the cockpit.

But the young guns of the Cup series are hardly alone.

There is an entire new wave of even younger drivers coming up through the ranks and they are in a hurry to get there.

In exclusive interviews with PopularSpeed.com, drivers Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton talked about the challenges and opportunities ahead of them.

Gilliland, 17, and Burton, 16, are two of the nine drivers in the NASCAR Next program for upcoming racers, and despite their young ages, the two already have impressive records.

After nine races this season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Burton has four victories and leads the points in that division.

In the K&N Pro Series West, Gilliland is the defending champion and the current point leader with four victories in eight races. In his career dating back to 2015, Gilliland has 11 victories in just 23 West starts. And he’s also racing in the K&N Pro Series East, where he has a pair of victories and is second to Burton in points.

As if that wasn’t enough, both Burton and Gilliland are racing limited schedules in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Heady stuff, for a couple of guys who aren’t even old enough to vote yet.

Of course, it helps that the two grew up with fathers who were NASCAR racers, Harrison being the son of Jeff Burton and Todd the son of David Gilliland. Still, these two are getting it done in a big way at a young age.

For his part, Gilliland gives a lot of the credit for his success to the Bill McAnally Racing team that he drives for.

“No driver can do it without a great team and great equipment,” Gilliland told PopularSpeed.com. “They definitely give me the cars I need to be able to win. And from there, it’s just learning for myself. The races we finish second in or don’t win, it’s about learning how to get myself to the race-winning caliber that my cars are.”

As for the best advice Gilliland has gotten from his father, it’s this: “Just stay humble and patient.”

That’s a sound strategy. The opportunities certainly will be there for Gilliland in the future, although like Burton he’s still finalizing his 2018 plans.

“Being 17 years old, there’s really no rush,” said Gilliland. “It’s really about taking your time and making sure you’re 100 percent ready for every opportunity when it presents itself.”

Burton, on the other hand, sounds a little more impatient.

“It’s been a great advantage having my dad in the sport, but I’m ready to make my own name,” Burton said. “Everyone knows me as Jeff Burton’s son. If you Google my name, it comes up as ‘Jeff Burton’s son.’ I’m ready to make my own name and add to my stature.”

For both drivers, racing in the Truck Series this year has been a positive experience.

“It’s been huge,” says Burton, who has two more races in the trucks this year. “I’ve been able to learn from one of the best in the sport in Kyle Busch. And having the experience of racing with the truck guys is huge. It’s a big deal. I’ve been blessed to run with KBM and have some good finishes, but I’m looking for better ones. We haven’t really finished as good as we’ve run.”

Gilliland said he’s enjoyed racing with the Truck Series regulars.

“It’s really cool to be able to gain their respect,” said Gilliland, who has four more Truck Series starts scheduled in 2017.

For now, both Gilliland and Burton are concentrating on running for K&N Pro Series championships and learning what they can in the Truck Series. But it likely won’t be long before they both move up the NASCAR ladder. And they will be fun to watch along the way.

Categories
Commentary

CALINOFF: NBC Stands for NASCAR’S Best Coverage

NBC has a rich history of broadcasting premier sporting events.

Beginning in the late 1930’s they’ve provided coverage – at one time or another – for every major stick and ball sport, as well as the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

It’s safe to say that if you’re an avid sports fan, the colorful Peacock in the upper right-hand corner of your screen gives you a sense of comfort.

In 1999, they began their foray into NASCAR.

Along with FOX, FX and TNT, they obtained the broadcast rights to the two top National Touring Series in a six-year deal. NBC televised the second half of the season and alternated coverage of the Daytona 500 with FOX. In December 2005, NBC announced that it would not renew its agreement with NASCAR.

Grab that remote and fast-forward.

The network made its return to NASCAR at Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 this July with the promise of bringing fans a new experience – something they’ve been craving for the past several years.

They’ve kept their promise and, in my opinion, have over-delivered.

The key ingredient in their secret sauce: Relevance.

Lead analysts @SteveLetarte and @JeffBurton made seamless transitions from their respective roles as crew chief and driver.

While Burton competed in only four races during 2014 – two for Michael Waltrip Racing and twice for Stewart-Haas – the proclaimed “Mayor” of NASCAR is current. He’s raced successfully against today’s crop of veterans and rising stars.

Burton brings the viewers inside the cockpit and offers them a real perspective of what it’s like behind the wheel. The explanations of a driver changing his line or the components of a good restart are a bonus to the broadcast. His delivery is refreshing.

Steve Letarte is Superman.

He left a championship-caliber pit box, discarded his uniform, put on a suit and flew into the booth like a seasoned broadcaster. His strengths come from applicable experience, being a savvy strategist and paying attention to detail.

During last month’s race at Michigan International Speedway, Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 fell off the jack causing damage that flared-out the side skirt. Letarte caught it and the camera zoomed-in to show it. He explained that while it was accidental – it’s illegal to purposely alter the body – and slowed the pit stop, it would not serve as an aerodynamic advantage. Kenseth, who had scored the pole and led the most laps that day, went on to win the race. That’s just one example but, moreover, proof that relevance matters.

With precise play-by-play from @RickAllenracing, the polished reporting on pit road and engaging pre and post-race shows, NBC is building a new model for the way NASCAR broadcasting should be. They also understand that they have a responsibility to entertain – but it isn’t necessary to do so by telling old tales and performing slapstick comedy.

They’ve done an exceptional job at crafting a broadcast team of legitimate players. They have also made clear that the show isn’t about who’s sitting in a booth high above the grandstands. It’s about those on the ground – the real stars of the sport.

The newcomer, regardless of the realm, is always faced with high expectations and the pressures to perform – it’s an inherent element. There are always bigger shoes to fill.

And now, NBC is wearing them.

 

 

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement. 

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Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Jeff Burton Reminisces on Jeff Gordon Rivalry, Mutual Respect

(EXCLUSIVE) CORDELE, Ga. — Despite winning 92 races and four Sprint Cup championships, there are some within NASCAR who believe Jeff Gordon is actually underrated and under-appreciated in terms of his contributions to the sport.

Chief amongst them is NASCAR veteran and current NBC TV broadcaster Jeff Burton.

Attending the SpeedFest Late Model event with his driver son, Harrison, on Sunday, Burton explained that a recent conversation with Mark Martin led him to believe that it may take time for those in NASCAR to acknowledge everything that Gordon has done.

“Mark brought it up one day,” Burton said. “He said, ‘you know, we in the sport don’t give Jeff enough credit for everything that he has done.’ I started thinking about it and he is absolutely right.

“I see that with Jimmie Johnson and a lot of the current drivers in our sport too. When you’re doing it, people don’t give you the credit that you deserve because you’re doing it against the people that have to give you the credit. Competitors don’t typically speak highly of each other in the moment.”

Burton himself is a former rival of the four-time champion with the intense friction between the two defining the boom period of the late 90s. Especially memorable were historic duels at Darlington, Bristol and Richmond in 1998 and 1999.

And Burton certainly hasn’t forgotten their run-in at Texas Motor Speedway in 2010, which led to a shoving contest on the backstretch.

“He’s exceptionally competitive,” Burton said. “He’s got that pretty boy image but he is such a competitive person and always wants to compete at a high level. And for the most part, and even in his down years, he wasn’t terrible. He was extremely consistent and just one of the greats.”

Despite having several examples to choose from, Burton says his favorite on track moment with Gordon occurred at Richmond in September 1998. Gordon was fresh off two consecutive victories and had won six of the previous eight races. But Burton, driving the Roush Fenway No. 99, would not be denied, exchanging the lead with Gordon several times before leading the final 40 laps.

It’s likely the greatest NASCAR race that never gets talked about, Burton said, due in part to the fact that Gordon didn’t win it.

“If you go back and watch it, that’s one hell of a race,” Burton said. “That is one of the best races ever and it doesn’t receive the accolades for some reason — probably because I won instead of him.

“We ran side-by-side and never touched each other. It was just a good race and one of the best NASCAR races that never makes the ‘best of’ lists, which is ridiculous … even after Richmond we both said some things we regretted and did some things we regretted but we have a great deal of respect for each other.”

That respect leads Burton to believe that Gordon will be a championship contender again, entering his final full season.

“When an icon is retiring it does change the game, so it would be good for everyone involved,” Burton said of the potential fanfare surrounding Gordon in the championship mix. “I thought he was going to win the championship last year. Going into the chase, he was my pick. They was the most consistent team and it goes to show you — because they made a few mistakes coming down the stretch — and they got a little complacent in a few areas, I thought, that little bit can cost you.

“They didn’t go for the jugular in a few areas I think they should have but I think we all learned a lot as well. One great thing about Jeff is that he is really smart. Jeff can step back and look at last year, and as things evolve, they can take better advantage of it. There is no reason why they can’t win the championship. Until someone can topple the Hendrick chassis and the Hendrick engine combination consistently, you have to go with one of those guys.”

With that said, Burton did offer a potential pitfall to his last Drive For Five.

“Is he going to race like it is his last year and with energy and excitement or will he be afraid that he will do something wrong because this is his last chance,” Burton said. “You can’t race scared, or scared that something bad will happen, and eventually take him out. He has to race with enthusiasm and not being afraid that a bad race will end his career on a bad note”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Drivers Asking for Less Downforce and Softer Tires Next Season

By Matt Weaver (BRISTOL, Tenn) — NASCAR and a group of teams tested a collection of possible Gen-6 competition packages on Monday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway. The session resulted in several drivers wanting a high horsepower and low downforce formula that would make the cars harder to driver and perhaps generate additional passing.

In short, NASCAR tested two packages on Monday.

The first was a low downforce formula while the other was a prime package that included the use of dive planes on the nose, a 9-inch spoiler and three different power levels that varied anywhere from 800 to 700 hp.

The power was cut using a restrictor plate on Monday but next season could see the same effects with the use of a modified electronic fuel injector or a tapered spacer. NASCAR also experimented with a driver-adjustable trackbar from inside the cockpit.

Greg Biffle was not one of the drivers at the test but has a very clear stance on the direction that NASCAR should utilize next season.

“It’s the same thing we see over and over again when they take some of the downforce off these cars,” Biffle said. “It creates better racing. This is what I can tell you — when drivers have to lift in the corners, that creates better racing. It creates another chance to catch a guy.

“When you’re barely lifting off the throttle on these intermediate tracks, it doesn’t allow the guy behind you to catch up. So by taking some of the downforce off and softening the tire a little bit, that makes us pit and take four tires and that is how we see some of the best racing every single time.”

NASCAR eliminated the ride height restrictions during the off-season and increased the spoiler size on the Gen-6 car, resulting in additional downforce. The sanctioning body again increased downforce for part of the Monday test and Matt Kenseth opined that the results were not satisfactory from his perspective on the track.

“It was really singled out,” Kenseth said. “You couldn’t pass. You could draft a little bit more on the straightaway but you’re almost wide open in the corners and it was really bad.”

At the end of the test, NASCAR took off the downforce and gave back the horsepower and Kenseth says the package received unanimous praise from the participating drivers.

“It was awesome,” Kenseth said. “It was like going back in time 15 years or something. You could actually pass in the corner instead of worrying about drafting in the straightaway. You could get one guy on the bottom and one guy on the top and the air wasn’t so turbulent that you couldn’t get on the outside of people.

“So the track got really wide and it was like the track aged 10 years and it was awesome.”

His teammate, Denny Hamlin agreed, tweeting that the “2015 aero test was a bit disappointing … Right up until the end. We may have found something that actually moves the needle for passing.”

Jeff Burton has raced in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 1993 and has competed under a variety of different competition packages. On Friday afternoon, he said that the only way less downforce will increase competition is if Goodyear develops a longer lasting softer tire to compensate for the lack of mechanical grip.

“Every time we’ve taken downforce away and not put on a better tire on the car, it’s always been worse,” Burton told Popular Speed. “The one thing we’ve never done is take downforce away and added extra grip with the tires and that’s what the drivers have been clamoring for.

“If Goodyear can build a softer tire — one that will last and stay soft, then it is a viable option. My question is that I don’t know if they can. I feel like that’s something we need to look at if we can. If they don’t feel like they can, then that’s not going to work. If you’re going to take downforce away you have to find a way to get grip in them because history has told that story.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Biffle Sees Light at the End of Dark Roush Tunnel

By Matt Weaver — The struggles at Roush Fenway Racing this year have been well documented but senior driver @GregBiffle believes the turnaround has already started.

Biffle finished 13th in the Brickyard 400, fifth at Pocono and eighth at Watkins Glen — all high speed venues that have given RFR employees fits this season. Even Ricky @StenhouseJr, the oft-struggling two-time Nationwide Series champion has shown additional speed in recent weeks.

Carl Edwards remains the pillar of consistency, advancing to sixth in the Sprint Cup Series championship standings.

All told, the fruit of the team’s labor is starting to pay dividends when it matters most leading up to the Chase.

“I’ve been in the shop every week and we’ve been doing a tremendous amount of work,” Biffle said during the weekly NASCAR teleconference on Wednesday. “Anyone can see it. We certainly can admit that we’re off this season as an organization. We made some choices at the beginning of the season (and) went down a road engineering-wise and car-wise that we thought to be the best — and everybody put 100 percent effort, full focus on that direction — and obviously it turned out to be a little bit of the wrong direction.

“So now we’re trying to backtrack that and see where we made mistakes and trying to back that up and refocus for the end of this season and 2015.”

That echoes the sentiment of long-time Roush driver Jeff Burton, who told Popular Speed in July that his former team likely made a misstep in its technical direction and that it’s going to take a larger amount of time to correct it.

“When you miss on something and you don’t have speed in this sport, that can be awfully hard to overcome,” Burton said. “But they’ll pull through this because they always do.

“We know it’s not the engine so look at (Team) Penske and the success they are having this year. So if it isn’t horsepower, you’ve got to look at the aero and chassis — that’s where they are losing speed. They’ve set down a path this season that hasn’t quite worked out and they are having a hard time getting out of it.”

Biffle says the team took a step back during the summer months and realized some of the mistakes they had made. He also conceded that they did not become apparent until they played itself out.

“It wasn’t blaring out,” Biffle said. “You have to pick a direction and it’s not from a lack of effort. Everybody has been working hard and these things happen to the best of race teams.”

Biffle added that Roush Fenway Racing has “never been down two years in a row” and that the team is starting to again show signs of considerable improvement

“I feel that’s going to continue to show its hand these last races whether we make the Chase or not. I think you’re going to really see our team become more and more and more competitive right up until the end of the season.”

With two wins this season, Edwards is locked into the Chase. Biffle is the first driver on the outside of the provisional Chase Grid, eight points behind Clint Bowyer for the final spot awarded to a driver without a win.

Stenhouse is 27th in the standings and a trip to Victory Lane is his only hope to make the NASCAR playoffs.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Jeff Burton on Roush: Understanding Speed is Tricky

By Matt Weaver (DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.) — Jeff Burton spent nearly a full decade working under the Roush Fenway Racing banner in the late 90s and early 2000s when it was simply known as Roush Racing. During that time span, Burton won 17 races and was a consistent threat to win the championship beneath Jeff Gordon and teammate Mark Martin.

And while he experienced many high tides with the organization, he also experienced numerous struggles, leading the Sprint Cup veteran and NBC color commentator to believe that this is just a brief dip in the path for the storied NASCAR operation.

“Every team has its ups and downs,” Burton told Popular Speed over the phone on Friday morning. “The truth is that no team is immune. What’s unfortunate about this one is that it comes during a time when Carl Edward’s contract came up.

“When you miss on something and you don’t have speed in this sport, that can be awfully hard to overcome but they’ll pull through this because they always do.”

Burton hasn’t worked for Jack Roush since the summer of 2004 and he is still a semi-active participant in the Sprint Cup Series with Michael Waltrip Racing. As a result, he doesn’t have the inside scoop on the RFR’s struggles but has a rough idea of where the team is probably focusing their efforts at this point of the season.

“We know it’s not the engine,” Burton said. “Look at (Team) Penske and the success they are having this year. So if it isn’t horsepower, you’ve got to look at the aero and chassis — that’s where they are losing speed. They’ve set down a path this season that hasn’t quite worked out and they are having a hard time getting out of it.”

Burton has a point, especially upon looking at where they’ve struggled compared to where Edwards has won this season. Edwards took his No. 99 to Victory Lane at the Bristol short track and Sonoma road course, two venues where the driver has a lot more responsibility for success than anywhere else on the schedule.

It is on the intermediate speedways where all three Roush cars have struggled to find balance and speed and those tracks make up the bulk of the schedule.

Burton added that it is more difficult for teams in the Sprint Cup Series to understand, pursue and maintain speed than ever before due to the nuances of working in a more aerodynamically dependent era than ones that came before.

“In today’s world, it’s hard to understand why you don’t have speed,” Burton said. “The driver has a lot less input than ever before and I’ll tell you what — you don’t even know why you have speed more often than not. I don’t care what anyone says. Sometimes you just can’t explain it.”

Burton admitted that losing a driver the caliber of Matt Kenseth last season hurt but believes that one driver ultimately didn’t make a difference in the gradual decline in speed for Roush Fenway Racing.

“There are only a few things that drivers can provide to a team in regards to feedback in today’s NASCAR,” Burton said. “You need the driver to be comfortable and have a feel that he’s happy with but there is just so much that is out of the driver’s hands. I’m not even sure that Carl can provide it.”

Through the first 17 races, Edwards has two victories and is locked into the Chase at sixth in the standings while Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse are winless at 13th and 27th respectively and still hoping to earn a playoff berth over the next three months.

Categories
Editorial

The Mayor Makes His Season Debut This Weekend For MWR – And None Too Soon

By Vito Pugliese – To say that 2013 was a tumultuous year for Michael Waltrip Racing would be a bit of an understatement; tantamount to saying the Hindenburg experienced a bit of a backfire.

The team that was one of the brightest success stories of 2012 was suddenly walking the tightrope over the abyss as 2013 drew to a close. By the time the checkered flag fell as Homestead the team suffered the following:

–          Martin Truex, Jr. forcibly removed from The Chase

–          Clint Bowyer treated for itchy arm syndrome (IAS)

–          Flagship sponsor NAPA promptly departed

–          Brian Vickers hospitalized with a recurring blood clot issue

–          Mark Martin departing mid-season for Stewart-Haas Racing

–          Martin Truex, Jr. leaving to take over the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet

–          Rodney Childers leaving as crew chief of the No. 55 to join SHR

–          Chad Johnston leaving as crew chief of the No. 56 to join SHR

Had it not been for that 2012 season, 2013 very well could have seen MWR dry up and blow away like so much chafe in the wind. Survivor that he is, Michael Waltrip carried on, and has added a new stabilizing force within the team in Jeff Burton, who will make his first start of the season this weekend in Las Vegas, driving the No. 66 Let’s Go Places Toyota Camry. It will be the first start of the season for Burton who was replaced by Ryan Newman at Richard Childress Racing after nearly ten seasons of service.

This year hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts for the company, with Vickers and Waltrip wrecking in the Daytona 500 while Bowyer had an engine go south. This past weekend at Phoenix the No. 55 of Vickers slapped the wall after having a tire go down, while the No. 15 of Clint Bowyer was largely a non-factor leading just one lap and coming home 13th. Albeit third best among Toyotas and just one spot behind corporate compadre Matt Kenseth.

For Burton, it is an opportunity to race a limited schedule before he goes full-time TV guy next year with NBC Sports. This year, he essentially is filling the role vacated by his long-time friend Mark Martin, as the veteran presence on the team. Granted it is in a limited capacity, but having spent the last 18 seasons with two of the largest organizations in the sport with Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing, Burton is not a job hopper and knows what is required to make a team function. It also serves as a reunion of sorts with Scott Miller, competition director at MWR who was Burton’s crew chief during his most productive seasons at RCR.

So should we expect to see “The Mayor” on the pole this weekend? Probably not; give the guy a chance to knock the rust off first. However, with the knockout qualifying in its infancy, a year that has been slow to get going, it’s things in preparation and procedure that Burton can help identify and improve, as well as provide fresh feedback and perspective on car performance. It is a boon as well for NBC Sports, to have a driver still active in the series providing commentary this year on its “NASCAR America” show, and next season in the booth when he clambers out of the car to call the second half of the season. Most former driver commentators today haven’t been in competition for over five years; others a decade or more.

For Burton it’s a chance to remain involved in the sport and slowly back away, rather than going all-out with a farewell tour of sorts. After all, that’s not really his style, plus he has said he’s feared getting out too quickly after having talked to other former drivers, as he told MRN’s Dustin Long.

As he did with the other two super teams he has competed for, Burton will leave MWR in better shape than it was when he arrived. The same will be said for the broadcast booth when he straps into that seat full-time in 2015.

EMAIL VITO AT vito.pugliese@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @vitopugliese