Ward Burton will race in Friday night's Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway, marking the former Sprint Cup driver's first NASCAR action since 2007.
The one-off deal is a venture to help his son, Jeb, who will drive a truck this year for Hillman Racing. Jeb Burton hasn't been approved by NASCAR to run on the larger tracks yet, so Ward agreed to step in.
But the 2002 Daytona 500 winner – and brother of current driver Jeff Burton – is still unhappy with the way his career ended.
"I'll never be at peace with how I went out," he said Thursday. "At the end of the day, I was very loyal – and I didn't have the same loyalty repaid to me, and it got me in the situation I'm in right now. If I had a competitive ride, the comradeship, the sponsorship, I could be right there in that (Cup) garage, eating it up."
From 1994-2004, Burton drove in more than 350 Cup races and twice finished among the top 10 in points. He won five races during that time, including the Daytona 500 and at Darlington (twice), Rockingham and New Hampshire.
But with two races left in the 2004 season, Burton was dumped from Haas CNC Racing (the team that later became Stewart-Haas Racing) in favor of Mike Bliss.
Burton never raced a full season in NASCAR again – partly by choice, and partly by circumstance.
"I was not willing to put myself through the mental anguish of just trying to make the race and not be competitive and be successful – which means top-10, top-five, winning races," he said. "I won't go racing that way."
Fortunately for him, Burton had a life outside racing he was just as passionate about: Conservationism. Burton founded the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, which has a mission to "conserve America's land and wildlife through wise stewardship" and education.
"Leaving the sport was hard and watching the Cup guys practice is hard, but I've got a whole 'nother life back there," he said of his home in rural southern Virginia. "Racing is a career, but that's my lifetime endeavor."
But does he ever wish he was out on the track racing?
"I could be 80 years old and still miss it – and I'll think I could go out there and do it," he said. "I still know I could right now. But, you know, there are some things in our lives we can control and some things we can't, and I just couldn't control what was going on behind the scenes that I didn't know about."
So Ward Burton's return to NASCAR will be oh-so-brief. For his son's sake, he wishes it wasn't.
After all, if Ward was still an active Sprint Cup Series driver, getting a ride for his son would be much easier.
"And he knows that, but I can't fix it for him," Ward said. "If the phone rang from the right sponsor, I don't think anybody can do better with sponsor relationships than I do. And I can drive a race car. But you know, I'm 50 years old. So I don't know if that phone will ring."