Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with Jeff Burton, the well-respected veteran driver at Richard Childress Racing. Burton, nicknamed "The Mayor," spoke with us last weekend at Dover.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
JB: You know, this is going to sound like a silly answer, but I really believe that Jeff Gordon is an underrated driver.
SBN: Wow, really?
JB: I know that sounds ridiculous. But what Jimmie (Johnson) has done the past five years has overshadowed Jeff. He's better than what people in the garage want to give him credit for.
He gets a lot of credit from the (broadcasting) booth, he gets a lot of credit from the grandstands, but he doesn't get as much credit down here. When you have a list and say, 'OK, give me the top three drivers,' he's not on that list. That's hard for me to understand. In my opinion, he doesn't get what he deserves in the garage.
SBN: What's a race in your career you didn't win and it still bugs you because you didn't win it?
JB: A Nationwide race at Darlington (in 1997). Last lap, got underneath Randy LaJoie and didn't protect the bottom getting into (Turn) 1 and let him cross me over. Lost that race. Darlington means a lot to me, and we had the best car. I made a mistake and let it get away, and that one has bugged me since the day it happened.
SBN: If you could be on a four-car Sprint Cup Series team and pick your teammates – but you can't choose anyone you're currently associated with – who would you pick?
JB: Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and...that's a hard one. The first two are pretty easy. (Thinks for a moment) Jimmie Johnson.
SBN: For obvious reasons, I take it?
JB: Well, Mark and Matt and I always just got along great and had a lot of mutual respect for each other. And I think Jimmie would be cool to be around, because not only is he really good, but he's a good person, too. I think he'd be a really good teammate.
SBN: What driver did you want to emulate when you were coming up through the ranks?
JB: Well, I grew up watching Sam Ard and Tommy Ellis, Jack Ingram, Sonny Hutchins – that group of guys battle it out at South Boston (Va.). Those guys, to me, were kind of who I looked up to.
The guy on the Cup level I liked was Cale (Yarborough), because every time I watched him, he was up front. I liked the way he drove. He was aggressive – he wasn't dirty, he was aggressive. Cale was my man.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you've made from the track to the airport?
JB: Oh, that's every week (laughs). I pride myself on being the first to the airport. That's a trick I learned from Earnhardt: Plan well and make it happen.
I like to get home. And to me, it's not productive after the race to sit around and talk. There's too much emotion. For me, you're better off getting away from it and coming back Monday – or even Sunday night – and having a conversation. But when the race is over, I need to get away from it and sit down and calm down and think about it, because I'm better then than if I try to attack things right after the race.
SBN: Who is somebody famous you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
JB: That is a really, really hard one. My answer would change every week, but right now, I'd say Cam Newton would be interesting to sit down with and talk to. Watching what he went through last year, he overcame that. And then going into this year, all the experts said, 'He's not an NFL starting quarterback.' So he overcomes. And I have a lot of respect for people who overcome.
SBN: Last year, there were two types of seasons – Jamie McMurray won a few huge races but missed the Chase; Jeff Gordon didn't win any races but made the Chase and contended. If you had to choose for yourself, which would you rather have?
JB: I think making the Chase is always important, because if you make the Chase, you're in a position to win the championship. Now, it's easy to say after the fact, 'Well, you didn't contend...' but you don't know that when it's going down. You don't get that opportunity (for hindsight), so I don't even think in those terms. Winning races is very important, and it means a great deal. But so does the Chase. I don't like to choose between the two.
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from?
JB: I think it's genetics, some of it. My father (John) is a highly competitive person and an amateur athlete. He just won the Virginia Senior State Tennis Tournament a few months ago – and he trains at it. You know what I mean? And I think I got that from him. I'm a competitive person and I'm willing do what it takes to be competitive; I'm willing to put the time in. So genetically, it comes from him.
I have a passion for competing. I really do. But I don't like to compete in everything, because when I start competing, I kind of go over the top. When I'm playing golf, I don't get real competitive about it – I don't want that in my life on top of everything else.
But if I'm racing or I'm in a gym, I'm just a very competitive person. It's genetics, but it's also something in my heart where I like to compete.
SBN: How much does your personality differ from standing here talking to when you're inside the car?
JB: It's a lot different – and I think that's important. When you read about athletes having domestic trouble or struggling in life, they're not able to be one person on the field and another person off it.
When you're competing, you have to have a personality that's not an endearing personality in everyday life. You have to do and feel things that aren't acceptable in everyday life. I think my morals and my values are the same on and off the track – but you're so much more aggressive and so much more selfish, egotistical and rude when you're in that situation. There's a lot of things that don't serve you well in everyday life that do serve you well in a race car or in any competitive sport.
So I'm very different, but I think most people are. The ones who aren't are the ones you see who are constantly in trouble.
SBN: If you could take a year away from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted but know you had a ride guaranteed when you came back, would you want to do that?
JB: I wouldn't be interested in that. This is what I do. It's not all of who I am, but this a large portion of who I am, and I just wouldn't be interested in doing that.
I believe that to be good, it's a building process. And if you interrupt that building process, it could make it very difficult. I also had the advantage of watching Mark (Martin) take off part of a year because he thought he wanted to, and once he got it, he realized maybe it wasn't all it was cut out to be. (Laughs)
Short of doing things with my kids or my family, there's nothing else I would really rather be doing. It's hard for me when my kids are competing on weekends – my daughter shows horses and my son races Quarter Midgets – and I'm here (at the track). But we've found ways technologically to keep me involved and know what's going on.
SBN: If you could switch lives with an athlete from another sport, who would you want to be?
JB: One of the cool things about football and basketball is those guys train together, they prepare together. The way this is laid out, a driver really prepares by himself. I sometimes look at stick-and-ball sports and envy how they're able to be a team Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. That's not possible here because I'm off traveling and the guys are in the shop; it's more separate.
So I'd pick somebody like Tom Brady who is really, really good and plays for a great organization.
SBN: Someday, when you eventually quit driving, what do you want your retirement story to say about you?
JB: I want a championship and I want to be someone who helped advance the sport – who wasn't just here, but was participating and contributing to this sport – and someone who did it the right way. All those things mean a great deal to me. I've worked hard on all of those things, and that's ultimately what I'd like to be able to do.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship. You can either clinch it after Phoenix or win it on Turn 4 of the last lap of the season. Which would you rather have?
JB: Turn 4, last lap. The stress of that would be a whole lot more, but when it was all said and done, it would be a helluva lot more dramatic. Watching Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison in Atlanta (in 1992) – three guys with a chance to win, and it essentially came down to the last lap – that's what sports are about.