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Burton wants to join the fun

After two lackluster seasons, Jeff Burton is ready for a resurgence.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003

Any one of the drivers from Roush Racing could be at the front of the pack today when the Winston Cup series races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Even Jeff Burton.

Remember him?

The one-time championship contender was the only Roush Racing driver not to join the multi-car team's resurgence party last season. And Burton yearns to get in on the fun.

"You never want to be the worst performing team in a multi-car team," said Burton, coming off consecutive disappointing seasons in the No. 99 Ford. "It is not a position I enjoyed. That's why we ended up making our changes. We look a lot different than we did a year ago."

Like a contender.

Energized by new crew chief Paul Andrews and several new team members, Burton is seventh in the standings with finishes of 11th and 12th in the first two races. Always strong at Las Vegas, today could be the day Burton snaps a 42-race winless streak.

"I really like Las Vegas," said Burton, the 1.5-mile track's only two-time winner with victories in 1999 and 2000. "Las Vegas is a one-groove track and handling is important, so if we can get the car handling good we'll be fine. We've had success at Las Vegas in the past, so the team is definitely looking to build on that this year."

Burton was a career-best third in the championship standings in 2000, one of three drivers in a late battle for the title. He was not a title contender in 2001, but won twice. Last season, Burton failed to win a race for the first time since 1996 and was 12th in the standings, snapping a five-year run of top-10 finishes.

Meanwhile, Roush Racing teammates Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch were grabbing headlines. Martin was the championship runner-up, finishing 38 points behind Tony Stewart. Kenseth led the series with five victories. Busch won four times, including three of the last five races.

The organization thrived.

Except for Burton.

To shake things up, crew chief Frank Stoddard, who won 12 times in four seasons with Burton, was released with 11 races left, and Andrews was hired from Dale Earnhardt Inc. During the offseason, the shock specialist, several shop employees and four members of the pit crew were replaced.

"I wanted totally new energy, a totally new environment," said Burton, 35, who has 17 career victories. "It's like I went to drive for another team and I didn't have to leave."

Though the split with Stoddard was awkward, Burton responded immediately to Andrews. He began to qualify better and had four top-10 finishes.

"I think Paul will be able to settle Jeff down some and get him better cars than he's had recently," owner Jack Roush said. "I think the team chemistry is going to improve and the fact is that Jeff went immediately to qualifying better. Even though they weren't able to win a race at the end of the season, they certainly were a factor in many races."

Andrews, a 15-year veteran with 12 victories and one championship with the late Neil Bonnett in 1992, is car-oriented. For Las Vegas he built a new car for Burton that he hopes will hug the bottom of the single-groove track.

"You definitely need to turn good up off the corners, and if you're tight then you are going to have problems the whole race," said Andrews, who spent the past three-plus seasons with driver Steve Park. "We need to make sure the car handles well on the bottom of the track. If you move up, you will get passed."

Roush Racing should again be a force today. Busch, a Las Vegas native, is leading the points for the first time in his three-year career. Martin was the inaugural Las Vegas winner in 1998 and is the only driver to complete every lap of the five races there.

Burton is tired of being left out.

"Whenever you do anything in front of the public, you lay it out there, and when you are not doing well everybody knows that," Burton said. "We certainly were not doing a good job last year. As you can see from the changes we made and the dedication that our car owner has, we are going to make it better."

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