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THE CHASE Saturday's race crucial for Burton



Published: Fri, September 8, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



He is ranked No. 10 in his bid to make the 10-race Chase for the championship.

By MIKE HARRIS

AP AUTO RACING WRITER

Jeff Burton has been racing long enough to know about luck.

So the longtime NASCAR Nextel Cup driver is only mildly upset that, after enjoying good fortune aplenty for most of the season, things haven't been going his way lately.

"Luck is a factor in anything you do," Burton said, shrugging his shoulders. "Sometimes, you put yourself in a position to have either bad luck or good lose.

"I don't lose any sleep over it. When you start worrying about luck, you are just missing opportunity. You can't wish for [luck] or against it, it's just out there. I'm much more concerned about the things I can control and this team can control. That's where our focus is."

Burton and his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team need to be very focused this week, heading to Richmond for Saturday night's race that will determine the drivers who will take part in the 10-race Chase for the championship.

Burton's position

Burton finds himself in a precarious position at the moment: 10th.

Going to Richmond, Burton is just 30 points ahead of California winner Kasey Kahne. On the other hand, he is also only 72 points behind fourth-place Jeff Gordon, with Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., rookie Denny Hamlin, defending Cup champion Tony Stewart and Mark Martin bunched in between.

After finishing 11th on the road course at Watkins Glen just three weeks ago, Burton was fourth in the season standings and appeared to have a spot in the Chase all but wrapped up.

Then came that dreaded bad luck -- 42nd at Michigan, where he had his only engine failure of the season, and 16th last Sunday night at California, where Burton struggled before finally finding the right balance near the end of the race.

"We got real good at the end," he said. "It was just too late. We had just lost too much track position earlier in the race while we were struggling. We ran a bunch of guys down but we just ran out of time."

Now comes Richmond, a track where Burton earned one of his 17 career wins but has not finished better than 14th since a fourth-place run in September 2003.

Key figure in resurgence

Burton has been a key figure in this year's resurgence by the Childress team. RCR has mostly struggled since Dale Earnhardt, who earned six of his seven championships with the team, was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

But, with better equipment, reassigned personnel and a new attitude -- attributed at least in part to Burton -- the whole team has improved since late last season, with Kevin Harvick solidly in the Chase in third and rookie Clint Bowyer 18th in the points and having a solid year.

"Jeff has helped our entire team to stabilize and focus on the big picture instead of just getting excited about one race," Harvick said.

Childress, excited by the possibility of having two drivers in the Chase after having none in the first two years of NASCAR's playoffs, noted, "Jeff has a lot of leadership. He's helped us in a lot of areas and I'd hate to see him come up short after all the good things that have happened to him and to us this year. He deserves better."

Knows what it takes

Burton, too, wants badly to make it into the Chase. But the 39-year-old driver, in his 13th season in NASCAR's top series, understands what he needs to do at Richmond: stay cool and get the best finish possible.

"You can't get in that panic mode because you can't be effective when you are in a panic," Burton said. "I think when people have pressure, what tends to be the mistake is trying too hard. You see it in every sport."

Will Burton be keeping an eye on Kahne and the drivers just ahead of him in the points?

"If we go out and do our job, it won't matter what our competitors do," he said. "Toward the end of the race I do look around and notice where our competitors are. But I don't pay a lot of attention until it gets down to crunch time."

And don't expect Burton to be overwhelmed by the pressure, either -- luck or no luck.

"I think this is fun," he said. "This is what racing for championships is all about. It is hard and that's how it should be. I relish this opportunity. I think it is a heck of a lot of fun to be part of it."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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