Impact Analysis: Jeff Burton, Richard Childress Racing

by C.J. Radune on April 14, 2008 @ 14:09:59 PDT


Jeff Burton has started 2008 on the right foot. He and his crew have put together a solid start to the season, and he is carrying forward the momentum of two straight top-10 points finishes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In fact, with the results he has produced so far, one could say that he is close to emulating his success from 1999, when he also led the championship early in the season.

The main reason behind Burton's success has been Richard Childress Racing working to make the new car fast and adjustable, unlike some other teams on the grid. The team's success with the new car, coupled with Burton's experience, has made them a formidable force so far in 2008.

Year-by-year comparison

Burton's start to the current season has not been much different from his starts in the prior two seasons. He finished eighth in the 2007 points standings and seventh in 2006 after a very similar early season form. His average starting position in 2008 has been 23.6, with an average finish of seventh. Clearly the ability of Burton to finish much better than he started is helped by the ability of the team to adjust the car throughout the race, producing a car that can challenge for a win by the time the checkered flag is set to come out.

While most teams and drivers have been struggling to come to grips with the new car, RCR has joined the front-runners. They've closed the gap on such teams as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing.

Table: Burton's first eight starts (2006-08)

Top 5
Top 10
Laps Led

Burton's best start to a championship was in 1999. He started the first eight races of that season with two wins, six top-fives and one other top-10 finish. He was driving for Roush Racing that year, and he ultimately finished fifth in the championship, despite winning a career-high six races that year. His best points result came the following year, when he finished third. The start to 2008 is somewhat similar to the 1999 season at this point, minus one win. What Burton has missed in top-fives, he has made up in top-10s this year.

Some have said that Burton does not have the character to become a Sprint Cup champion, specifically past driver Jimmy Spencer. Spencer stated that Burton would not win the 2008 championship. He noted that Burton would not go the extra mile to do what it takes to win and that the competition is going to be between drivers in their 20s.

Other critics have said that Burton's nature is not one that can help him overcome a hard-charging competitor consistently enough to take home the Cup. This year, we have seen a somewhat different Burton, though. He has been quiet, but his desire to dominate the competition has become outwardly visible for perhaps the first time. He isn't as vocal as a Kyle Busch, but Burton says that is because he channels his frustration into getting better, not just blowing off steam. He has walked away from post-race interviews after top-10 finishes, which is very uncharacteristic for drivers not named Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick or Robby Gordon. Perhaps that focus on dominating a race is what will get Burton what he needs to win the 2008 Sprint Cup: wins.

Changes for 2008

The only major change for Burton heading into 2008 was the full-time introduction of the new car. Scott Miller has been Burton's crew chief since the end of 2005. Childress Racing brought a number of new engineers to the team to work on the subtle changes that the new car requires to perform well. All teams are now using the same car, and the new car's design has reduced the areas where a team can differentiate itself from the competition.

With this car, the small differences are where the greatest gains are going to be found. No longer can teams spend hours in a wind tunnel to give their drivers more grip. Nearly every car on the grid has the same difficulties with the car, but some teams have shown that they can overcome these issues better than others. RCR is one of those teams that have overcome these difficulties, and they have done so in two areas: their shop equipment and their force of engineers.

Childress Racing is one of the only teams on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit to have a seven-post shaker rig. This rig can simulate the loads placed on a car from each track the series races on. In prior years, Childress has said that the rig was used infrequently. With the old car that statement makes some sense, as most gains were found in the wind tunnels and engine departments. However, with the introduction of the new car, where aerodynamics is a much smaller component of a car's performance, the seven-post rig becomes more important.

The rig allows engineers to simulate conditions as a car goes through turns; it can repeat the process again and again while allowing them to change everything on the car's setup. These changes can vary from the shocks, springs, sway bars, tire pressures, nose weight, suspension settings and chassis movements until the driver receives the best feel and grip. The team can have a good baseline setup before arriving at the track.

Additionally, Childress has brought a number of new engineers to the team. The rig is now almost always booked for testing a new idea the new engineers are bringing to the table. Engineers who are young have no bad habits to revert to because they haven't worked on the old car. The new car is a whole new game, and these shop-based engineers are of a whole new breed.

Certainly RCR has used these things to their advantage. Burton's teammates have all been in and around the top 10 in points in 2008. The only thing RCR, and Burton, are missing are the consistent wins. One win so far is nice to have, but Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing each have multiple wins already. Consistency is necessary to make the Chase, but the Chase is won by race wins and top finishes.

Fantasy outlook

To win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship these days one has to be able to lead laps and win races in the Chase. Burton has some ground to cover before he can dominate the field like Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards has in 2008 with three wins. Since Burton has been consistently near the top, the wins are just the last step to that possible first championship.

As the season carries on, RCR likely will continue to be a step ahead of the pack in finding the strengths of the new car. Fantasy owners can expect Burton to consistently score top-10 finishes, but they should be anxious to see him turn in consistent wins. If he can channel his aggression into productive moves and changes, as well as dominance on the track, he may just make the critics eat their words and win his first Sprint Cup title.

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About C.J. Radune

Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.

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