If you would have asked Jeff Burton, driver of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, at the beginning of the 2011 season if he thought the first three races would bring him bad luck, his answer would have been ‘No.’ Same with crew chief Todd Berrier, director of competition Scott Miller and the entire Cat Racing team.
Unfortunately, it did. And, with those three races now in the record books, Burton heads to Bristol Motor Speedway, the site of the fourth race on the 2011 Sprint Cup Series schedule, 32nd in the championship point standings and with one thing on his mind – redemption.
The South Boston, Va., native started off the year with a win in the Duel 150 qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway that secured him and the No. 31 Caterpillar team the fourth starting spot for the 53rd running of the Daytona 500. But, that high soon led to the first of three lows.
After showcasing a strong and fast No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet during the first half of the Great American Race and leading a total of five laps on two separate occasions, the engine expired on the RCR entry, forcing the team to call it a day and leave the historic speedway with a 36th-place finish.
The Berrier-led squad, again, produced a fast black and yellow Chevrolet for the 312-lap at Phoenix International Raceway the following weekend, but a wrong place, wrong time circumstance accumulated the veteran driver in a multi-car incident just 60 circuits in. Speedy work by the crew to repair the damaged machine to the best of their abilities sent Burton back on track in order to gain as many valuable positions as he could before the checkered flag waved and, because of that, he was able to salvage a 26th-place result.
Most recently, handling woes and ever-changing track conditions at Las Vegas Motor Speedway got the best of the Cat Racing team that left them leaving Sin City with a 21st-place finish.
Alas, the off weekend – a few days for the driver, crew chief and gang to clear their heads and erase the misfortunes that plagued them early in the season.
“It’s very disappointing to have the finishes that we had in these first three races,” commented Berrier. “Obviously, this isn’t how we pictured our season to start out, but it’s the situation we’re in and we’ll do everything we can to dig ourselves out from underneath it. Our team is strong and we’ll recover. I don’t like losing, so you can believe that we’re doing everything we can to turn this ship around.”
The next four races on the schedule – Bristol Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway – couldn’t have come at a better time for the 21-time Sprint Cup Series winner. After all, he has found Victory Lane at three of those four tracks in his career.
In 2008, Burton beat his RCR teammates to the line, claiming his first victory at the Bristol bullring. A third-place finish last year at Auto Club Speedway has the Cat Racing team wanting more when they return to the West Coast and numerous laps led at both Martinsville Speedway events last year has Burton hungry for a win at his home track. And, how can you forget Texas – not only the site of Burton’s first Sprint Cup Series victory, but the Fort Worth facility’s first repeat winner.
“It’s, obviously, disappointing to be where we are in the point standings,” stated Burton. “With as much preparation that we, as a company, did over the off season, it’s something that we couldn’t have done any different. Some of the situations we were involved in were out of our control while some were in our control. I’ve said all along that the new points structure will hurt those with poor finishes and we’re a classic example of that. Yes, we have a hole to dig out of, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. I believe in this team, wholeheartedly, and I really believe that over these next few races, you’ll see us have a complete turnaround.”
The boys in black and yellow will head to the World’s Fastest Half Mile next Thursday, looking for that turnaround. An hour-and-a-half practice session commences all Sprint Cup Series activity on Friday followed by qualifying. Then, the Cat Racing team will have two more chances on Saturday to fine tune their No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Sunday’s 500-lap showdown.
Live coverage of the Jeff Byrd 500 presented by Food City from Bristol Motor Speedway will be televised on FOX Sunday, March 20, beginning at 12 noon Eastern Daylight Time and will also be broadcast worldwide on the Performance Racing Network and Sirius XM Satellite Radio. Qualifying for the fifth of 36 points-paying races will be televised on SPEED Friday, March 18, beginning at 3:30 p.m. EDT.