Published August 12, 2011
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – A decade ago, Jeff Burton chased Jeff Gordon for the victory at Watkins Glen International, trading paint with the four-time NASCAR Cup champion on the final lap but settling for second instead of wrecking Gordon on the last turn of the race.
Don't expect Mr. Nice Guy behind the wheel when NASCAR goes road racing again on Sunday at the storied road course in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York.
"The last 10 laps of the races on road courses at almost every race, someone spins me out," said Burton, who has struggled mightily this year and sits 24th in points with no top-10s in the first 21 races of the season. "After Sonoma this year, I decided that there's a few of them that the next time I get to them I'm sending them around as quick as I get to them. That's what continually happens to me, and it's with the same people over and over. So, it's not happening again."
The Cup series races twice a year on road courses, in June at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and in August at Watkins Glen. Both circuits have 11 turns but are so very different. Sonoma is about a half-mile shorter and more like a short track with tight racing, while The Glen's 2.45-mile layout, with its sweeping turns and long straightaways, produces speeds that make it seem more like a superspeedway.
Burton has proven his mettle turning right and left in his 18-year career. In 35 NASCAR Sprint Cup road course starts, he has three top-five and nine top-10 finishes, including a ninth last year at The Glen.
"We did a nice job of having a fast car and not letting it get taken away from us," he said. "That's been our history on road courses — we run well and finish awful. Last year, we ran well and finished decent. That was big for us. That was a step in the right direction.
"We feel good about running road courses. If you go back and look at our average running position it's pretty competitive, but if you look at the records, they're horrendous."
Mostly from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Burton was 25th at Sonoma this year, a race in which two-time series champion Tony Stewart intentionally wrecked Brian Vickers and then was knocked onto a stack of tires by Vickers later in the race.
"Poor Jeff's been on the receiving end of a lot of bad stuff on the road courses the last three years," said Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer. "I would say his frustration is definitely high."
Stewart also has grown increasingly frustrated with a lack of on-track etiquette, complaining after the race at Michigan in June that drivers were "a bunch of idiots" on restarts.
Burton blames it on the closeness of the competition today and a mindset more akin to the half-mile bullring that is Bristol.
"We've moved into this thing where people just get wrecked," Burton said. "The attitude is that it's just a road course. It's like when people would get wrecked at Bristol. The guy that got wrecked would get out of his car and say, 'That's just Bristol.' Well, that's just not right. We need to take responsibility for our actions."
Especially on double-file restarts late in races, where the bumping and banging often escalate as drivers are desperate to pass and gain valuable spots in the running order.
"Everything that happens always happens on a restart. We as Cup drivers look so unprofessional on road course restarts," Burton said. "We don't look like professional race car drivers, we look like amateurs that have been told, 'It doesn't matter where you finish or what happens.' It's ridiculous.
"We are losing our ability to race each other and race each other with respect and willingness to give an inch in return for an inch later in the race. It's kind of embarrassing for our sport. We could do much better."
"In road course racing, when you get inside that final window you have contact," added five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who had a run-in with Burton last year at The Glen. "It happens. The sport is at the point now where it's so competitive. You race with each other and you want to react."
With the race to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup title winding down — there are five races left before the cutoff — the chances of more mayhem on Sunday are very real.
"The opportunity's there for chaos to happen," said Bowyer, who sits 12th in points and can't afford a slipup if he hopes to make NASCAR's postseason for the third straight year. "That's the biggest thing. There's so much on the line, so much to be gained and so much to be lost on these restarts. It's a tough one to juggle."
The top 10 drivers in the point standings and the two drivers with the most victories in 11th to 20th place earn wild-card spots for the Chase. Right now, the wild cards would go to Brad Keselowski, who sits 18th in points but has two wins, and Denny Hamlin, who is 11th with one win.
Hamlin was 22nd in Friday's first Cup practice but stepped it up a little bit in Happy Hour later in the day. There's no substitute for starting up front on a road course because those drivers can usually get some separation from the rest of the pack. The farther away the better, and Hamlin knows it.
"I think people have a different mind-set," Hamlin said. "Honestly, I think that people think that they can run over guys on road courses and not have repercussions like they do on the ovals. I think on the ovals when it happens, you know you've got one coming, where on a road course people think, 'Oh, that's OK to run over the guy in front of me. He'll get over it.'
"It's true. Guys do not show each other very much courtesy on these tracks, but it's just part of hard racing."
And Hamlin has the perfect solution.
"After the last road course race in Sonoma, I told my crew chief, 'Build me a tank. Build me something I can hit guys and slam into guys and I can be hit without my car falling apart,'" Hamlin said. "You just know that it's part of racing nowadays."