Jeff Burton has long been known for being a straight shooter. While younger drivers like Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin try to find the perfect balance between honesty and tact, Burton carries with him an aura of respect. When he speaks, his fellow drivers and NASCAR listen attentively.
His tenure and respect has led to his being called "The Mayor," and it's a shame Burton hasn't contended for victories over the last two seasons, because it means he gets less press than he had in previous seasons. Burton's a driver who gets the competitive and business side of the industry, and if he has it his way, he will return to relevance and get back to victory lane in 2013.
The following is the full transcript of an interview SB Nation conducted with Jeff Burton via telephone on Wednesday afternoon.
SB Nation: Thanks for chatting with us today, Jeff. You've had a pretty solid start to the season, especially when you compare yourself to some of the guys who are still sitting outside of the top-30. You're coming off a top-10 at Phoenix, and you're 15th in the standings. Is it too early to start thinking about the Chase cutoff?
Jeff Burton: "I think we all think about getting off to a good start. It's not that we can't recover from a poor start; it's just that we'd rather not have to. It paralyzes you and makes you feel like you just can't do anything right. It makes you conservative and you can't attack on the race track because you get worried that you're going to make a mistake.
"I'm not a fan of that style of driving. It's just not a fun place to be. When you're playing defense, there's just no future in that. There was one season where we entered as the preseason favorites (2001), and we struggled at Daytona (finished 19th) and followed that up with three finishes outside of the top-30. We had a great team that year but found ourselves out of the championship hunt just like that. So getting off to a good start is definitely something we think about.
"Things change quickly in this sport. We didn't have a great car at Phoenix, but we were able to get a good finish out of it. At Daytona, I thought we had a pretty good car, and we got caught up in an accident. This weekend (at Las Vegas) will tell us a lot. The downforce tracks were our weakness last season, and this will give us a good measure of how far we've improved."
SBN: With all the internal changes at Richard Childress Racing, the contract status of you and Kevin, and the Dillons waiting in development, do you feel any added pressure to find more success this year?
JB: "I think it's fair to say we're under extra pressure this season but not necessarily because of internal forces. We need to win. Our fans expect it, our sponsors expect it and most of all, we expect it. We need to crank it up to a higher level. When you haven't won in a while, it's disappointing for everyone.
"Every team has its low points but you can't stay there forever and you have to start digging out of it eventually."
SBN: Several drivers remarked after Phoenix that the new car was even more difficult to drive in traffic than the Car of Tomorrow, and that passing was even more difficult. The new car was supposed to make it easier, right?
JB: "It's never easy to pass when you have 12-15 cars going at the same speed. The sport has progressed to the point where so many teams are within the same tenth of a second that it makes passing all the more difficult. Back in the day, with only 5-6 fast cars, we were able to pass and make it look easier than in races today. So it's only harder to pass today because the competition is so tough. People talk as if we have a downforce problem, but I don't think that's the case.
"I think the Gen-6 car is mostly hype. You're never going to get these cars to pass as long as we're running 200 mph on speedways where it's easy to get spread out. People just have to understand that it's not meant to be easy to pass. I think increasing the downforce and adding grip will improve the racing but only marginally."
SBN: At Charlotte, you commented that NASCAR has to find a way to get the cars racing closer together, that NASCAR was founded on side-by-side racing. How much of that is the sport moving away from short tracks? Is NASCAR doing itself a disservice by getting away from short track racing?
JB: "I believe that having more short tracks would mean an increase in more entertaining races. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that short tracks represent a better quality of racing. You see that every Saturday night at your local speedway.
"The driver with the best car doesn't always win because of contact, lap traffic and other determining factors. I don't know if we've necessarily done ourselves a disservice, but we can't forget that we don't have as many short tracks on the schedule. We lost some tracks, the schedule expanded and we've added some tracks where cars get spread out.
"That's where the Gen-6 was conceived. We have to put on better races. Cars that are harder to drive slide all over the place and get spread out a lot more easily. The true test for these cars will be this weekend at Las Vegas, Fontana and Charlotte. I think it's too early to judge these cars based on their performance at Daytona, Phoenix or on a track like Martinsville."
SBN: You've been reunited with Luke Lambert as your crew chief this season, after he spent a year working with Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series. How is your relationship with Luke?
JB: "People seem to forget that Luke and I have worked with each other for a long time. We're very comfortable working around each other. We have an open and honest relationship, and I respect him a great deal. The least of my concerns this season is Luke Lambert. I really enjoy his attitude -- he never panics, and that confidence has spread over the whole team.
When he came on over at the end of 2011, he was named the crew chief of a struggling Cup team. That's a heavy burden. That was his first crew chief job and he ran with it and really impressed everyone."
SBN: Has working with Elliott Sadler and competing for a championship changed him at all?
JB: "Working with a guy like Elliott was huge for him. He's been through a lot over the last year and it's really made him stronger. While I would have loved to work with him last year, I think it was better for him to be in the Nationwide Series.
The Cup Series program was behind and we wanted to put him in a position where he would succeed. I think he would have been a really frustrated crew chief if he were in the Cup Series last year. We just weren't where we needed to be last year and I really think it worked out for the better.
He's so young and so talented that it must have been easy to look at us moving him down last year as a step back. But we made it clear to him that we believe in him and that it really was a step up. We think highly of Luke, and I think his experience in the Nationwide Series is really going to benefit us this year."
SBN: Do you have any expectations entering the season or is this a deal where you take it one race at a time?
JB: "We've had a lot of changes at RCR in an effort to improve and I believe we will. I won't sit here and make any bold statements, but we're going to work our asses off this year. We have goals and we're going to put ourselves in position to become contenders.
We don't have the same lofty expectations that Jimmie Johnson and that bunch has -- that would be ridiculous. But we first have to make strides to be relevant again. We have work our way out of this hole and it's not going to happen overnight. Our first goal is to make the Chase and we're going to go from there."
SBN: You've been doing this for a long time. Outside of winning a championship or a Daytona 500, what do you have left to prove?
JB: "There's a lot for me to prove. I don't want to end my career coming off these last two seasons. Brad Keselowski hasn't raced me when I've had my stuff together. Several guys haven't. I have a lot of pride and these last two seasons have tested it.
I haven't let a lot of wins fall through my fingers over the years and history has shown that. But I haven't had a chance to show that to the younger guys. Jeff Gordon has seen it, Tony Stewart knows it and so does Jimmie Johnson. They know what I can do when I'm at the top of game but the same can't be said for guys like Brad and Ricky (Stenhouse.)
It's not that I hate or resent those guys -- I don't. I just want them to get in the ring with me, when I'm at my best, and show them that I'm still capable of kicking their ass. It's all about pride and I still have a lot to prove."