Jeff Burton: Late Season Resurgence Brings Promise for 2012

Jeff Burton, sponsored by Catepillar

For race fans, the start of any new season provides optimism that their favorite driver can win races and put themselves into championship contention at seasons’ end. Jeff Burton fans, felt good about 2011 being a successful season. Jeff had just come off of a season that saw him make the chase and earn fifteen top-ten’s and six top-five’s to go along with a 12th place points finish. This team had several chances to win races along the way only to fall short, but their competitiveness was obvious. Despite a struggle at the 2010 seasons’ end, it seemed apparent the #31 team would be back stronger and ready to go in 2011.Back with veteran crew chief Todd Berrier, the team began with a strong run in the Budweiser Shootout and a win in their Gatorade 150 qualifying race. Although only a non-points event, it gave Burton fans optimism for a strong run in the Daytona 500 season opener and biggest race. When the race began, it started out well but an engine failure at the halfway point relegated Jeff to a dismal 36th place finish. Despite the outcome, the team had a fast car, making fans feel as though the bad luck wouldn’t last long in the coming weeks. However, accidents, pit road miscues, ill-handling cars, and engine failures were the norm continuing into the season, putting the #31 team in a hole they could never get out of as mid-season approached. It got to a point where it appeared more than bad luck was plaguing the team and they were in need of some changes.

Despite previous success and support of Todd Berrier, he was replaced by team engineer Luke Lambert for the second half of the season. For the team and fans, it was time for a change. Looking back, it seems success began to fall short at the end of the 2010 season with poor finishes to close out the year. And when that carried over to 2011, there was a sense of remoteness within the team. As fans listened to the scanner each week, it seemed that Jeff had fallen out of touch with what the team was doing during the course of races. Many team discussions were on a private digital channel that apparently Jeff did not have access. What adjustments were being made to the cars was almost a mystery.

Pit strategy became an issue as well, which was very evident in Todd’s final race with the #31 at the July Loudon event. In that race, the team had a top-five car, easily one of Jeff’s best runs of the season, only to finish 16th due to questionable pit strategy. As fans watched that day, it was difficult to see a good finish vanish. Although fans felt bad for Todd, and hoped the pairing would be successful, it became painfully apparent it wasn’t meant to be, at this point.

Jeff Burton came this close
to a win in Talladega

When Luke took over after that Loudon event, it was a new direction for the team allowing Jeff to become more involved in what was happening during races. Although it took several weeks, the #31 team began to show signs of life nearing the end of 2011. With a near win at Talladega, the #31 team began a string of good finishes that saw them close out 2011 with four top-ten’s in the final five races. Not bad when you consider the team had a total of five top-ten’s in the 2011 season. Another bright spot for this season was the addition of spotter Brett Griffin, who did his best to bring new energy to the team, despite the on track struggles.

So what will 2012 bring? Fans are anticipating good things for Jeff next season. Richard Childress Racing will downsize from four to three full-time Cup teams, which seems to be the best scenario for this organization. *Whether or not Jeff will have Luke atop the pit box remains to be seen, but there is a renewed sense of optimism for Jeff Burton fans, given his promising end to a dismal 2011 season. The 2009 season ended much the same way, propelling Jeff to a solid 2010 campaign to become a contender in the chase. Fans 2012 predictions include the #31 team getting back to victory lane at least a couple of times on their way to once again contending for a championship in the chase. Next year looks to be an improved season for Jeff Burton and his fans!

*Late afternoon Monday, Nov 28th, RCR announced Drew Blickensderfer as crew chief for the #31 team of Jeff Burton.  Luke Lambert will be reassigned to a position within the RCR organization, TBD.

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