Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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March 14, 2013

Burton visits Bluefield on eve of race weekend in Bristol

BLUEFIELD, Va. — Jeff Burton walked through the back of the new Ollie’s Bargain Outlet on Wednesday morning and was greeted by a long line of race fans, hoping to get an autograph and photo with the NASCAR driver.

He was happy to oblige.

“It is always a humbling experience when you come into a store and people are waiting in line to see you or get your autograph,” Burton said. “It makes us think about things and makes you appreciate that fans are willing to do that.

“I think this is the best sport in the country and what makes it work is the fans and drivers spending time together and that is what separates our sport from all the other sports.”

Burton was in Bluefield for Ollie’s, making an appearance just days before climbing into his No. 31 Caterpillar/Cheerios Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.

The 45-year-old Burton, who is now in his 20th season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, enjoys meeting the fans that have made his sport one of the most popular in America.  

“We are here to visit fans at Ollie’s,” Burton said. “It is a great opportunity for us. Ollie’s does a great job of putting these events on with myself and (fellow NASCAR driver) Kevin Harvick.

 “It just gives the fans a chance to come out and say hi and spend some time with the drivers and check out the store. It is really a neat way to meet the fans. You can tell this is the grand opening so you can get people to come in and check the new store out so it is a fun event for everybody.”

 So is a drive around the .0533 mile oval track at Bristol Motor Speedway, which has long been voted the most popular track in NASCAR.

“I really enjoy Bristol, to me it is one of the most fun events of the year,” said Burton said, a native of South Boston, Va., who now lives in Huntersville, N.C. “It is a difficult track when you are racing for points.”

Burton is currently 20th in points through three races, finishing 30th at Daytona, 10th at Phoenix, and he was 26th last Sunday in Las Vegas.

“We haven’t gotten off to a good start in points,” said Burton, during a short break before signing autographs for more than 100 race fans. “We have run well, but we have had a couple of bad finishes that we really didn’t deserve, but none the less, we are 20th in points so we need to crawl out of that.”

 The problem with that is Bristol isn’t a forgiving track and it doesn’t do any favors to the drivers, who race in tight quarters with 36-degree banking that takes cars around the oval in about 14 seconds, all while surrounded by nearly 160,000 fans.  

Burton has had success at Bristol, winning the Food City 500 in 2008, and has recorded eight top 5 and 15 top 10 finishes in 38 races on the track. He finished sixth in the March race last season, and was 33rd in the fall.

“We need a good solid finish at Bristol and Bristol is not one of those places that you think about when you think good solid finish,” said Burton, who has 21 Sprint Cup series wins, but none since winning at Bristol and Charlotte, N.C. in 2008. “Typically we get a lot of cautions and a lot of incidents, but we have run really well at Bristol. It is one of the places I feel the most comfortable at so it is a good place to go.”

 Burton has long been one of the more consistent drivers on the circuit. In addition to 21 wins at the highest level of the sport, he also has 130 top-five and 242 top-10 finishes. He also has 27 wins on the Nationwide series.

He won 17 races from 1997-2001 with Roush Racing, including six in 1999 and four in 2000. He finished in the top five in the points standings four years in a row, including third in 2000.

Yet, it’s been nearly five years since Burton last won a race. His best finishes last year were twice in the top-five and five in the top-10.  

“The last year or so hasn’t gone like we are accustomed to,” said Burton, who has made more than $81 million in his career. “Honestly we have been accustomed to making the chase and being in the hunt for championships, but last year didn’t go like that at all.”

 Still, like any NASCAR driver knows, the turnaround could be at the next turn.

“Last year was really a disappointing year, but you can’t ever have comebacks if don’t ever get behind,” said Burton, who was rookie of the year on the circuit in 1994. “That is the way I have looked at it. We have worked really hard to get ourselves in position to have a good year this year and I feel good about what we have done.”

He has done fine on some tracks, but longer drives such as Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead, Fla. have been an issue that Burton and the Richard Childress racing team have been trying to fix.

“The biggest thing that hurt us last year was the mile-and-a-half race tracks,” Burton said. “We didn’t run well on them, we ran very well at Daytona and Talladega, we ran well at the short tracks and the one mile tracks, but the mile-and-a-half tracks we really struggled on.

“That is what we have to turn around. We have to find a way to perform well on the mile-and-a-half.”

Bristol has long been a favorites of fans and drivers alike, but changes to the track over the last few years had taken away some of the bumping and grinding that made the track famous, and resulted in a rarity; empty seats at Bristol.

BMS owner Bruton Smith noticed, and tore the track up after last spring’s race and tried to bring back some of the past.

Burton is torn on which way is better.

“I think it is always a debate, ‘Is the new track better?’,” Burton said. “I think the racing is better at the new track, but the wrecking is better at the old track.

 “If you like watching the wrecks, you might like the old track, but if you like side by side battles and good racing I think the new track is better.”  

—Contact Brian Woodson



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