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Jeff Burton's Take: One year later....and things are getting better? Time to show it

 Jeff Burton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  By Mike Mulhern

   CONCORD, N.C.      
   One year ago Jeff Burton won here, came out of Lowe's Motor Speedway second in the standings, just 69 points down to eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, and Burton was in excellent shape to win his first NASCAR championship.
   Since that night, however, things have gone downhill. Not just for Burton but for the entire Richard Childress operation.
   And only now, in the last week or so, have things appeared to finally start turning around.
   During the slump, over the summer, teammate Kevin Harvick let it be known he'd just as soon leave at the end of the season, even though he still has a year to go on his contract with Childress. Now Harvick says he'll be back for 2010 but indicates it's time to close the Childress chapter.
   That certainly won't make it easy on the Childress operation, and the four teams, and the loss off sponsor Jack Daniel's has Childress scrambling too to keep all four teams on the track next season. Questions about Casey Mears' returning to the team are being raised too.
    Burton says all those questions make things difficult at the shop, and the Harvick question in particular: "Everyone has to be professional enough that it doesn't matter," Burton says.
   "I don't know that we've always been there, but I think we are there now.
   "It's important for RCR to do everything they can to put all their teams in the best shape to win races…and it's important for Kevin to be in a position to win races.
    "Kevin has been a really good teammate to me. We have a very good working relationship. I have a lot of respect for Kevin, and I believe he has a lot of respect for me.
    "Through this whole process he not changed his attitude toward me and how he works with me in any form or fashion.
    "(But) it is a stressful situation for him and Richard to deal with…and for him and his team to deal with, there's no question about it.
    "At the same time I think the hard part is over.
     "Going through what was gone through last summer, and all that, makes now easier, if that makes sense.
    "Sometimes you are just better off going to the dentist and getting it over with.
    "I think everybody is behaving in a very professional manner, and everybody understands Kevin has a year left on his contract and he's going to do everything in his power to do the best job for RCR…and RCR is going to do everything in their power to do the best job for him.
    "Clint (Bowyer, another teammate) and I are going to continue to work with Kevin the same way we always have.
   "Our teams are going to continue to work together…and, I think, work together better actually not because he's leaving but because we need to.
     "Things change.
     "Kevin may look around eight months or 10 months from now and say 'You know what, things have really changed here, and I really think this is the place that we're going.'
   "By his interview he indicated that wasn't going to happen, but you never know.
    "The reality if you lose a driver the caliber of Kevin Harvick, we have to have a seat available that a Kevin Harvick-caliber driver wants.
     "The only way we're going to do that is to put a race car out there that's highly competitive -- and shows the people who are looking for rides that you need to come here.
    "And, by the way, Kevin is out there looking for his next thing too, so it's in his best interest for owners to be looking at him and saying 'We've got to have him.'"
    However, this season has been woeful for Burton, indeed all the Childress teams. None of the four made the championship chase. Burton's got only six top-10s, a best finish of third at Richmond in May, an average overall finish of 19.6, and his last decent run was at Pocono in June.
   Still, Burton is optimistic.
   Childress, who may be feeling the loss of competition boss Bobby Hutchens (now with Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, both in the chase) more than he anticipated, has made some major changes in management, chiefly promoting engineering veteran Scott Miller to competition director. But Miller is also still Burton's crew chief, so Childress and Burton have to figure out how to fill that crew chief's slot.
    Are things getting better?
   "I think we've made a swing," Burton says.
    "I don't think we are where we need to be, by any means. But if you look individually at our teams, they are starting to run better.
    "Collectively we are starting to run better.
     "On every weekend the last couple of months one of our teams has been a strong top-six or top-seven team.
    "We haven't gotten to the place where we are all doing that yet, but there is certainly a trend toward running better, and getting where we need to be.
    "We're not there yet.
    "We're still not leading laps and doing the things we really need to be able to do on a consistent basis.
    "But I think we're gaining on it, without a doubt.
    "There are a lot of things changing at RCR. There's a new way of doing business."
    And Burton says he hopes to have a new crew chief lined up "fairly soon."
   But, reflecting on last year's title bid, and the sizzling pace the men leading the chase are setting this fall, Burton has to take a deep breath.
   "Right now it feels like you've got to run in the top-three," Burton says, shaking his heads. "Top-five isn't good enough.
    "But it can change. You've got Talladega coming, you've got Martinsville coming, you've got Phoenix.
    "There's a lot of stuff that's going to happen."
   Mostly, though, probably Jimmie Johnson.
    Still, Burton is confident putting Miller at the competition helm will be a major improvement: "Our new management structure is going to allow us to have a much stronger focus on our engineering group, a much stronger focus on our aerodynamic group, much stronger focus on being able to break the company down into departments, and have measurements to determine how each department is doing.
    "By the way, that includes the drivers -- the drivers need to be measured as well.
     "One of the hardest things to do when you're having success is to change. We were the only team to put all its cars in the chase the last three years. We followed that up putting nobody in the chase…which shows we didn't react quickly enough.
    "The no-testing policy this year -- although I supported the policy -- has really hurt us, because we relied on testing a great deal.
    "As things changed in the sport we didn't change quickly enough. And we're all guilty of that.
    "So we're playing catch-up.
     "We will catch up. But we are behind at the moment."

    Scott Miller (L), the guy who has to turn things around at Richard Childress' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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