Jeff Burton: a new adventure.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jeff Burton, gone?
Here's the scene:
Richard Childress was once one of the most powerful team owners in stock car racing.
Over his 40 years in the sport, since that first run in 1969 at Talladega at age 23, he's been to victory lane 103 times, and won six championships -- 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994 -- and finished second in the title run three times, in 1989, 1995 and 2000.
However last season things slowed abruptly. He was forced to cut back from four Sprint Cup teams to three.
Now Burton and Kevin Harvick, long-time Childress drivers, will be leaving at the end of the season, joining Clint Bowyer as ex-Childress racers.
And it's not clear just what is really going on here.
Childress has been in the market for nearly a year now looking for someone to take Harvick's place. Kurt Busch for a while appeared an option, but when Tony Stewart's partner Gene Haas made an offer a month ago, Busch took it...and Childress was still looking.
Now Burton too is set to leave when the season ends.
Yes, it's easy to point out that Burton's last tour win was back in 2008. But, remember, that was one of Burton's greatest seasons; he came out of that fall's Charlotte win sitting second in points and poised to make a championship charge. Burton faded in the year's last five races, though.
And, yes, it's easy to point out that Burton is now 46, in a sport where most drivers lose their edge when past 40.
Still Burton has been a solid piece in Childress' structure, ever since he joined in mid-2004. And always a polished voice of common sense and sanity.
Jeff Burton and crew chief Luke Lambert (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So the story line is Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, now Jeff Burton: Going, going, gone.
For 2014 Richard Childress's operation will have a decidedly different look.
But just what it may look like still isn't clear.
Paul Menard will be back for a fourth season.
Austin Dillon, 23, and Childress' grandson, is expected to step up to Cup as a rookie. He has 11 Cup starts under his belt, with a best of 11th at Michigan in June.
But the other two rides, well, they both look up for grabs.
Ryan Newman might well get one of them. He's a logical pick, and he just won the Brickyard 400.
However Newman has been a free agent for nearly two months now, and Childress has yet to make any official deal.
So with Burton's surprise announcement that he won't be back next year, after nearly 10 years with Childress, and with no word about who might fill that seat too, well, maybe it's time to reassess the team that was once a NASCAR benchmark.
Dale Earnhardt's sixth championship with Childress was way back in 1994. But Earnhardt and Childress together were almost always in the championship picture down the stretch. Remember, they not only won six titles together but finished second three times, in some memorable battles.
Since Earnhardt's death Childress teams have won 34 times, with Robby Gordon (3), Harvick (21), Menard (1), Burton (4), and Bowyer (5).
After a dismal, winless 2009, Childress men bounced back with five wins in 2010 and six in 2011.
Then Bowyer, just before winning October Talladega in the fall of 2011, announced he'd be leaving at the end of that season, and joining Michael Waltrip, along with Childress' veteran competition director Scott Miller, for 2012.
And last season Harvick's November Phoenix win was the lone victory, and that came the weekend that it was revealed that Harvick would be leaving Childress at the end of 2013 and joining Tony Stewart.
Bowyer and Miller proved even stronger at Waltrip's winning three times and finishing second in the championship, Bowyer's best season ever.
Since taking Earnhardt's ride early in 2001, Harvick has been the strongest, most consistent performer for Childress. But after finishing third twice in the playoffs, and still looking for that first championship, Harvick last fall said he was leaving because he felt Stewart could better inspire him.
Luke Lambert's crew: wondering who the new driver might be (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Burton says part of the reasoning behind Childress' decision to cut him loose at the end of this season and look for a new driver is that he'd told Childress that 2014 would be his last full-time season on the Sprint Cup tour.
And sponsorship, Burton says, is tough right now.
How long-time sponsor Caterpillar fits into this picture isn't that clear. And what Caterpillar might be thinking about it all, and about what driver could fill the seat....
"Richard's intention was to have four teams, and his intention was for me to be one of those drivers," Burton says. "It's just the funding is not there to make it happen.
"The sponsorship game has been really tough for everybody. The economic times have had a huge toll on what Richard has had to do.
"It is what it is. Am I one-hundred percent happy about it? Of course not. Is he one-hundred percent happy about it? Of course not.
"But this is a tough business. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made."
Remember when? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So Burton, as eloquently as always, says simply "The timing was right for me to do something different."
But just what, Burton concedes, he doesn't know.
"I'm at a crossroads, there is no denying that. I want to figure something out.
"This is a scary time. It's also an exciting time.
"I have a lot of unknowns. I can't answer all the questions because I don't know. We'll see what happens.
"I've been in situations before where I didn't know what was going to happen, and that's where I am now.
"It's not necessarily the best thing for me in the world, but I'll figure it out.
"In every situation we found a better situation.
"You all know me -- I'm an optimistic person, and I'm a hard worker... and I'm going to go find a way to make this a good situation."
Speculation has been that Burton will move over to Brandon Davis' Swan Racing, a Toyota team that's not been around that long. David Stremme has been that team's driver, with a season-best finish of 12th at Talladega, though with just a 29th-place finishing average. There was also speculation about Caterpillar moving too, but the company says it will stay with Childress.
Davis' team Friday abruptly announced it was replacing Stremme after this race with 22-year-old Cole Whitt, a Nationwide driver with little Cup experience.
Burton says he wants to keep racing, but points out he can do more: "There are other parts of me I haven't had time to explore because I've always been a driver.
"I still want to race, no question. But.... Phoenix (Nov. 10th) will be my 1000th NASCAR start. So I've been blessed, man.
"My career has been longer than I ever thought it would be. I've driven for great car owners, worked with great team members, had great teammates.
"It's not always been fun....but it's been an honor.
"I want to continue to do it. If I never get a chance again, I'll be sad about it...(but) I'm going to look at it and say how lucky I was."
What's really been going on behind the scenes at Childress'?
"Richard and I work exceptionally hard to build a team that could be competitive. And honestly I'm really excited about what we've done this year -- not from our finishing positions but from the way we've performed the last couple months."
Burton says the biggest issue is money -- sponsorship. Or rather, lack of sufficient sponsorship, which he calls "the harsh reality."
"It's been a very difficult situation, no doubt about that," Burton says. "But the harsh realities are that sponsorship is a tough game right now.
"It's a tough time for me because I truly believe in what we're doing. I'm a big, big fan of Luke Lambert, my crew chief. I'm a big fan of our engineers. Matt McCall, the car chief, has been there with me 10 years.
"We're about to blossom. I can feel it, I can see it."
However it looks like it may all come too late....
The powerhouse lineup. But Paul Menard (R) is the only one back for 2014 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)