Ward Burton: back in the saddle again, trying to launch his son Jeb's career (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
And he's suddenly having to get back up to speed as fast as he can….literally.
Because Ward is now trying to jump start son Jeb's own stock car career, and he's finding it rather tough.
So Ward Burton will trying to put Mike Hillman's Toyota Truck in Friday's 250-miler. Thursday Ward turned his first laps here, on the new smooth asphalt, in this effort to earn more sponsorship support for his son's fledgling operation.
Burton, who joined the Cup tour in 1994, at age 32, almost instantly made a name for himself, as a Neil Bonnett type charger.
And Burton's back-story was quickly well known, how he once took a year off from civilized life and moved into the woods to live off the land, a sort of Henry David Thoreau with bow.
Since leaving NASCAR, Burton has concentrated on a major wildlife conservation project.
Now he's on the comeback…
NASCAR now, versus NASCAR then?
"Technology has found the sport in a big way…which means the depth of resources you need to be successful is much more," Ward says.
"We were a single-car team when we won the 500 (with car owner Bill Davis). And we had no ties to any big team.
"The Woods (a single car team too) won the 500 last year, but they've got ties with Jack Roush."
Burton and Davis were the last single-car, one-owner, do-it-all-yourself team to win the Daytona 500.
The virtual death of NASCAR single-car teams -- in this era of mega-teams with numerous subsidiary teams to draw up and work with – has been painful to watch for many, including Burton.
"The grassroots part of this sport, where you could take a Late Model guy and go run Charlotte in the Busch/Nationwide race and be competitive, those days are gone," Ward says.
"So it all boils down to the resources and knowing all the little things that make a car go fast.
"That part is alarming to me. But there's nothing that's going to change it."
However Burton points to another major change in this sport that he just learned about, a change that he finds quite positive:
"We just had a mandatory rookie meeting with NASCAR Tuesday, and I sat in there all day with Jeb, for seven hours.
"They talked about the health of the sport. They talked about how, when you talk about NASCAR, you're being part of the team, and when NASCAR has something good it's helping you.
"They talked about the importance of always doing what your sponsor needs.
"They talked about safety…
"It was a real positive thing NASCAR did.
"When I was growing up, the only time you talked to inspectors was when you had problems. Not that I didn't have friends, but you really didn't have that good communication.
"I told Mike Helton (the NASCAR president) that it's great the sport is moving this way.
"Safety in this sport is 10 times what it was when I was in the sport."
However one thing hasn't change: this sport is still outrageously expensive, and sponsors are in short supply.
So Burton is finding the need to start building new relationships.
"Because if we don't all get sponsors, you won't be able to do what you do, and we're not going to either," Burton says.
It's all so different now, Burton says, from when he was coming up. Back then, when he was working the market place, "the phone rang every single time.
"My parents did for me the same thing I'm doing for Jeb. Only now the phone doesn't ring as often.
"There are obviously a lot of drivers who have gotten opportunities to launch their careers. But somebody has helped them get to this point.
"And I don't have the financial means to do it (for his son). The amount of money it costs…..
"It winds up to just buying seat time. And buying seat time, with the economy the way it is, is hard.
"In 1993 (when the Burtons were coming up), running the full Busch (Nationwide) tour cost under $400,000. And we won everything that year but the championship.
"And you know what it costs now."
Some Nationwide operations in recent years have been running on budgets of as much $10 million a year. Those giant operations squeezed smaller players all but to extinction.
So Burton, a legend in the sport for his brutal candor as much as his hard driving, will be racing on the new smooth asphalt here for the first time, eh?
"I think the crew chiefs would prefer to have the old surface, with 125 degrees, so that after 25 laps it's about the car handling and the driver getting the car around," he says.
And he will be doing a quick learning lesson in two-car drafting, which is still expected to be a factor in the Truck race, if not in the Cup races.
That means Burton, now 50, will have to be quick to get up to speed on a lot of things that have changed in NASCAR and at Daytona since he last played this game.
He concedes that watching last Saturday's Shootout, and he calls "creative" driving by some drivers, was a bit of a thrill.
While Jeff Burton is still kicking hard on the Cup tour, Ward has all but faded from the scene. He has rarely been seen at a track since his last Cup race, at Martinsville in the fall of 2007.
That final season Burton, a five-time tour winner over his career, ran for Larry McClure, once a powerhouse owner but at that point fading; their best run was a 14th at Indianapolis that summer. McClure closed up shop after the season.
Now Ward Burton is on the comeback trail. Well, sort of. His game plan for the rest of the season is still up in the air, and so is son Jeb's.
Even with a name – ask Trevor Bayne and Brian Vickers – it's hard to make things happen right now. Even defending Nationwide tour championship Ricky Stenhouse is still looking for full-time sponsorship. Veteran Cup operations have been cutting severely, because of sponsorship losses.
Ward Burton says he knows it's a difficult economic climate, but he might not yet really understand just how rough things are at the bargaining table.
"It's tough," Burton concedes. "But we're going to keep working to try to make it happen."
Ward Burton, the 2002 Daytona 500 winner, is in for quite a few thrills on the new Daytona asphalt, in his first NASCAR run in some five years (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)