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California Uncertainty: No testing creates anxieties


Jeff Burton: NASCAR's great philosopher (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.

   Jeff Burton says there is a large cloud of anxiety hanging over teams coming into Sunday's California 500, in part because of no testing here during the off-season.
   "Every team in here still has a lot of questions," Burton says of the season ahead.
   "A lot of people say that the real season starts today, but I don't believe that. The real season started two weeks ago at Daytona…but the way you succeed at Daytona is not the same way you succeed here.
    "The whole garage is anxious about it. If they're not, they're foolish.  You have no idea what you have until this race is over. 
   "You could run terrible today and run well on Sunday, you could run great today and run terrible on Sunday. 
   "But success here doesn't guarantee success in the future. Some teams will leave here that didn't run well…and then run very well at Vegas.
   "And vice versa. 
    "This is a very unique track, different than any track we run on -- real low grip, very flat corners, and a lot of speed.
   "It's completely different than Atlanta, it's completely different than Vegas. 
    "Vegas is high-grip.
    "When you get done with this three-race stretch, you can say 'Okay, this is where we're strong,' or 'this is where we're weak.' 
   "This race starts to paint the picture, but it doesn't paint the whole picture."

   Burton left Daytona angry with Dale Earnhardt Jr., but not for the big crash that Earnhardt triggered.
   "I thought that was just a typical Daytona/Talladega wreck, where one guy tries to protect his spot and the other guy needs that spot and you misjudge by six inches and there's a wreck," Burton said of the Vickers-Earnhardt crash.
   "Brian Vickers put a big block on him, Junior had to come back across, to get above the yellow line…and when he did, he caught him. 
   "You can say that Vickers shouldn't have done that. You can say that Earnhardt shouldn't have hit him. But I don't think either one meant to cause a wreck. 
   "Vickers was protecting his spot, and blocking is part of speedway racing.
   "Junior just misjudged it, and he just made a mistake.
    "On TV it's like 'Well, I wouldn't have done that if I was driving the car.' But you have to understand that in real life, those things happen at a really high rate. 
   "It was a wreck that was avoidable…but it wasn't an intentional wreck.
   "We all make mistakes. There's not a driver in this garage that hasn't caused a wreck.
    "We are people-- we make mistakes, because we are trying exceptionally hard to succeed.
   "I don't think people ought to be critical of him. It's not like Junior is a constant problem, or causes a bunch of wrecks. He's one of the most respectful drivers out there.
   "He and I had an incident in the 500, and I was upset about it. He and I had a great conversation, because I respect him and he respects me.
    "We all make mistakes…and the question is 'how many do you make?'  Junior doesn't make a lot of them."
   Earnhardt's take on the Burton incident:
  "I think I was a lap down and trying to get back up there toward the front, and I come off turn two and had a good run.
   "He (Burton) was on the inside of somebody, and I made it three-wide  -- and we'd just had a restart, so everybody's tires were pretty good, so I thought it was okay.
    "Hell, we'd been going three-wide a lot, and there was big sense of urgency at that point, due to the weather.
   "He was shuffled back, and several laps later he wrecked.
    "He was 'Man, you doing what you did put me in that position ten laps later.'
    "I'm like 'What? I can't be responsible for that.'
    "He was upset when he first got out of the car when the rain came. I didn't even really remember what he was talking about.
     "He was like 'Why did you take me three-wide,' and I'm like 'I can't remember everybody I took three-wide.'
   "I walked down pit road and thought about it, and then I remembered. So I walked back down there and said 'Look, man, I know what happened. I remember what happened, and I can't be responsible for your wreck five laps later. That's not my responsibility. How can you pin that on me?'
    "We sat there and debated my ethics and my values and all those things, and ended up agreeing that I'm not a jerk and don't race like a jerk.
   "He was just hot under the collar.
    "He's a good guy. We've got a good friendship too.
    "I've always been too nice…and that was the Daytona 500, and I felt I had the car to win. I felt if I could get my lap back, I could get it done.
    "I was racing everybody as smart as I could, but I was racing as hard as I could."

   And what about that rainy finish?
   "There have been a lot of comments about the race ending under rain and that that wasn’t the right thing to do," Burton said. "But that's the rules. The competitors haven't complained about the race ending under caution, or under red, under rain, is because we all knew the rain was coming.
   It’s not like it just popped up and it was raining. We all knew it was coming.
  "We didn't know what lap it was going to rain, but we all knew it was coming, and we were all fighting to get the best position we could.
  "I understand why the fans want to see the race end under green. But the rules are the rules, and we have to abide by the rules."
   And Burton's own 500 performance?
   "Obviously we were disappointed with our finish. We thought we did a good job all night. I honestly thought I had a car fast enough to win, and I thought we were good enough to win it --- and sitting there fourth, restarting fourth, and not knowing when it’s going to rain...I thought I put myself in position to win the Daytona 500.
   "And then I ended up getting called in the middle of something...which was ultimately my fault. I should have never let somebody get under me.
   "Once we got in the middle, we just got in trouble, and I wrecked, and took some other people with me.
   "It was a disappointing finish to a solid day. We had good pit stops, we did a lot of things right. But I was extremely disappointed with the race."

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