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For Burton, driving is a shortcut


Ward Burton is a simple man who loves simple things.

He prefers the woods to big cities, and he'd rather be home with his wife, Tabitha, and his two children, Sarah, 8, and Jeb, 3, than running all around the country.

But he is also a Winston Cup stock car driver. If not for that, he probably would spend all his time on the 1,100-acre farm he is buying near South Boston, Va.

"It's all a matter of balance," Burton said. "I have my forestry and wildlife projects and I have my racing. Right now, racing comes first."

Today, at Dover Downs International Speedway, his racing talents will be on full display. After a fine qualifying run Friday, he will start the MBNA 500 (noon, TNN) in fifth place and take aim at his first Winston Cup victory.

He has a long way to go to gain the fame of, say, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, but this week while xTC visiting Baltimore's Inner Harbor, he did get asked for his autograph by 5-year-old David Kelly, who was celebrating his birthday with his mother, Gina, and two friends.

"We didn't actually recognize him at first," said Gina Kelly. "But we were at Richmond last Sunday and we recognized his car number. We'll be rooting for him now."

The Pontiac Grand Prix, with the No. 22 on its side, is owned by Bill Davis, and Burton will be starting for the team for only the fourth time this season.

But the team seems to be clicking, as evidenced by his qualifying spot in today's race, an 11th-place finish at Richmond last week and a top-five finish at Darlington the week before.

"If not for racing," said Burton, 33 and in his second year of Winston Cup racing, "I would probably be a professional trapper."

Burton is a slow-talking Virginian who has a knack for making a stock car go fast. It is something that runs in the family. His father was a drag racer who also raced hydroplane, and his brother, Jeff, was the Winston Cup series Rookie of the Year last season.

As soon as his sons were old enough, John Burton took them go-cart racing. The joy of the sport stuck. But the Burton children's grandfather introduced them to the woods and guns at about the same age, and that took too.

"I don't know what it is," said Burton. "Ever since I was a little kid, every book I could get my hands on or any TV show about conservation, I was interested. My dad and my granddad took me out in the woods and took me hunting all my life. It just comes so easily to me."

These days, race fans and observers of the sport talk about how drivers have become so influenced by Madison Avenue and corporate America that it is difficult to find the old-fashioned race car driver who grew up in the woods and who, perhaps, says little, but always what he really thinks.

Well, Burton is one of those originals. He may have gone to Hargrove Military Academy and attended Elon College for nearly three years, and he may be involved in one of the most advertising-conscious sports going, but he is still his own person.

Perhaps that strength of character developed in the two years he spent in the Halifax County, Virginia, woods, making his living as a trapper.

It's who Ward Burton is, really.

He has a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back. And he has a respect and love for the weapons. He says he is sorry if his views offend anyone, but he gets upset when people in Washington pass laws and talk about limiting their sale.

And he becomes almost speechless when he thinks about politicians talking about relaxing the anti-pollution laws.

"It's, I'm at a loss for words for what that is," he said, and then, after a few moments,"Let's just say it's very unintelligent."

The Staunton River runs through Burton's 1,100 acres in southern Virginia. It's where he goes to get away from it all, from the fast life of stock car racing.

It's where he takes his children fishing and walking in the woods.

"The outdoors is something I grew up knowing a lot about," he said. "It was something I was interested in. . . . And I haven't given it up. What I've done is funneled my energy more into game conservation, proper forest conservation.

"I'm buying this farm. I've got all kinds of game patches planted. I've got 700 acres of over 100-year-old oaks that I plan to put into a trust so that no one can cut them down. They're there for the wildlife and the natural habitat.

"I love animals. We need to adjust more to living around them, than they do to living around us, and game control needs to be understood and practiced."

Burton is a simple man who is planning to drive 500 miles today. It's the next step on a long journey.

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