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WINSTON CUP Burton shows positive signs in 10th season



Published: Sun, April 6, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



A new crew chief is trying to make the road less bumpy for Jeff Burton.

By STEPHEN HAWKINS

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Before the so-called "Young Guns" like Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman were having such an impact in NASCAR, Jeff Burton was one of Winston Cup's up-and-coming stars.

The last couple of seasons have been a little bumpy. Burton was hired by Jack Roush in 1996 after two seasons with another team, and quickly shot to No. 13 in the point standings. The next year, Burton won his first race, starting a stretch of four straight seasons finishing in the top five.

Now 35 and in his 10th full Cup season, Burton finds himself No. 18 in the standings. And 1-2 in points for the second straight week are his Roush Racing teammates: Matt Kenseth, in his fourth season, and the 24-year-old Busch.

"I'm proud of them for how they've done. I'm not one of those people that looks at what Matt and Kurt have done and feel bad about it," Burton said. "I feel good about it because I've helped that.

"That helps us, gives us some things to look at and to emulate from time to time," he said. "It's not my intention to be a team at Roush that isn't as competitive as all of the other teams."

Newman won last week at Texas, where three Roush entries finished in the top 10 -- Mark Martin (fifth), Kenseth (sixth) and Busch (ninth). Burton, at the track where the first of his 17 wins came in 1997, was 20 and Roush rookie Greg Biffle was 28.

Through seven races this season, Burton is below Kenseth, Busch and Martin (13), Roush's original driver in 1988 and the only one for the owner until 1992.

Optimism

Still, there have been signs of promise for Burton's team, revamped during the winter after Paul Andrews took over as crew chief for the No. 99 Ford late last season.

Burton wasn't able to finish consecutive races at Atlanta and Darlington last month because of engine failure, but those came after he finished sixth at Las Vegas. He was no lower than 13 in the other three races before Texas.

"Our performance, I'm not totally disappointed," Burton said. "I'm not overjoyed with it, we need to do a little better, but we are not in left field right now. We're on the cusp of really doing some good things. This is a whole brand new team. We are starting from scratch and feel good about where we are heading."

Roush does as well, knowing that Burton is also adapting to NASCAR-mandated changes in the car.

"Jeff has got enough experience not to be a junior, but his greatest years are still ahead of him," Roush said. "He is going to be a factor in a championship. We haven't had the results we're looking for, but there have been parts of every races he's run good. We're real close."

Burton had four of his 14 top-10s last season -- and two of his five top-fives -- after Andrews took over the final 11 races. Andrews used that time to evaluate needs within the team, and numerous changes were made.

"Pit crew was one of the things we needed to work on, the pit stops last year were really inconsistent," said Andrews, the crew chief for Alan Kulwicki's 1982 Cup championship. "We've brought in people that fit my style and my design, you might say."

Burton is encouraged by the progress being made early in a season of transition, but refuses to put a timetable on when there will be more substantial results, such as a victory or a top five finish.




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