Burton gets 3-year deal with Childress

Grateful for fresh start, veteran will take over No. 31 Chevrolet car

Auto Racing

October 31, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

HAMPTON, Ga. - For most of this season, driver Jeff Burton searched for a full-time sponsor as a member of Roush Racing without success. The struggle led him to accept a temporary ride with the Richard Childress organization, which yesterday became permanent.

While everyone here in the Nextel Cup garage remained saddened by last week's plane crash that killed 10 members of their community, life moved on yesterday.

Jeff Gordon, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports, which was devastated by the crash of the Hendrick Motorsports' plane with company officials and friends on board, did a promotion for a new movie comedy called Racing Stripes.

"This movie is about overcoming adversity and fulfilling your dreams," said Gordon, who is not in the film. "We live that message everyday at Hendrick's, overcoming things we could never have imagined."

The movie's premiere Jan. 8 in Los Angeles will raise a six-figure donation for the Jeff Gordon Foundation, which will distribute the funds to the Victory Junction Gang Camp for children with chronic and life-threatening diseases, Speedway Children's Charities and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

And Burton and Childress celebrated their new, three-year deal with Cingular, the largest wireless phone company in the United States.

Next season, Burton will compete in the No. 31 Chevrolet, currently driven by Robby Gordon, who has decided to pursue his own dreams of car ownership.

"It's no fun walking around in a white uniform," said Burton, referring to his old driver's suit that had no major sponsorship logos.

Burton refused to blame the distraction of a sponsorship search at Roush for his fall from being a top competitor in the Cup rankings to an also-ran. But the fall certainly affected his place at the highly competitive Roush race shop, where he had been for eight years.

While Roush was always supportive, Burton said his crew lost confidence in him. "And I don't blame them," he said. "I wasn't doing the job."

Like a head coach who loses the ear of his players, it was time to move on.

"I needed something new in my life," said Burton, who will be the veteran driver among Childress' drivers, who include Kevin Harvick and another driver who will be named before the end of the season.

"I needed an emotional change," he said. "New people. Here we ran well, better than expected from the beginning and that built confidence.

"Now I have a point to prove and that's good for me. I'm stepping out of Roush Racing into an unknown, and the pressure is on me to go succeed. I enjoy that pressure. I enjoy showing people I can do the job."

Since joining the Childress program 11 races ago, Burton has teamed with crew chief Kevin Hamlin for eight top-15 finishes, including one top five and two top 10s while driving the No. 30 car that will start 21st today in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.

Right now, Burton and Childress are like newlyweds. All they see are the positives.

For Burton, that means a new, appreciative boss who is warm where Roush was respectful and businesslike. For Childress it means having a new family member who is bright and cooperative.

"To be able to pick up Jeff Burton is a huge plus," said Childress. "He has experience. He knows what he has to do. He can play a huge role and help us in our structure, and he and Kevin have been getting along great."

How the feisty Harvick would accept Burton was a question. But Burton admires the speed Harvick can generate in his car and Harvick said he can see future benefits that can come from working with Burton, 37, who is nine years older and a 17-time Cup race winner.

That alone is a pleasant change for Childress, who has seen substantial bickering among his drivers. Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner didn't always get along, and Gordon, Harvick and Jeff Green had regular outbursts.

But with Burton he gets a driver known to work well with others and the driver Earnhardt actually approached several years before his death about stepping into his famous No. 3 Chevrolet when he retired.

"It was at Daytona and I couldn't believe he asked me," Burton said. "As soon as I got back to my garage I called my wife and said, `Listen to what just happened to me! I can't believe it.' Dale was persistent about pushing the idea, too, over the next couple years. But I had commitments at Roush and Richard had commitments and the timing was never right until now."

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