10 years later, J. Burton wins Texas again

The Baltimore Sun

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jeff Burton had subtly called his shot two days earlier.

"I think it's cool there hasn't been a repeat winner," Burton had said Friday of quirky Texas Motor Speedway, which had produced 12 different winners in its first 12 Nextel Cup races. "I think it would be even cooler if we could stop that this weekend."

His tone made that more than wishful thinking. Burton had won the first race here, in 1997. And somehow he exuded a sense he would win again a decade later. By Saturday his team owner, Richard Childress, caught the notion.

"Just watching the car in practice ... I knew the car was really going to be good," Childress said of their Chevrolet yesterday.

That was soon after Burton had led only one lap of the Samsung 500 - the last lap.

Burton made the finish look wild and dicey, hunting down Matt Kenseth for the final 13 laps, surging and falling back, time and again. Then he made it a side-by-side duel the last two laps before finally clearing Kenseth on the backstretch just moments before the checkered flag.

But when Burton did take the lead, it was with finality.

"It's hard when you get passed on the last lap, but if I had it to do all over again, I couldn't do anything else except wreck," Kenseth said. "I just got beat by a superior car."

"Today was one of those days where you didn't win with brute force," Burton said. "You won with a methodical approach."

That was a lot of confidence for a 39-year-old driver who hadn't won since last September at Dover, Del., and before that had suffered through a five-year winless skid. Burton's win here in '97 was the first of his Cup career.

"We won a lot of races after that, and contended for championships," he said, "and then it got to where we just couldn't contend at all."

He left Roush Racing, where he'd been a teammate of Kenseth, in mid-2004 and joined Childress.

"With what Richard has given me an opportunity to do here, I feel like I'm new at it again," Burton said. "My enthusiasm is higher than it's ever been. ... Some other people forgot that I could drive. Richard Childress didn't."

His skill and patience worked yesterday throughout a race that turned wretched for rival Hendrick Motorsports, which was seeking to become the first team to win five straight Cup races since Petty Enterprises in 1971.

Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson had won three of the previous four Cup races. But, when Juan Pablo Montoya sent Tony Stewart spinning on the 239th of the 334 laps, Johnson slammed into Stewart's spinning car.

Kyle Busch, the other Hendrick winner in the streak, wrecked when Stewart spun a second time on Lap 252. That crash also took out Dale Earnhardt Jr., after he'd led 96 laps. Jeff Gordon appeared to have complete command of the race for the Hendrick task force anyway, leading the most laps, 173, until he scraped the wall with only 23 laps left.

"It was just a stupid mistake," said Gordon, who this time denied himself a clear shot at tying the late Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 76. Gordon did nurse his Chevy home fourth to hang onto a tiny eight-point lead over Burton in the season standings.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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