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Jeff Burton looks to rebound after two tough seasons

To say that the past two seasons have been tough, disappointing seasons for Jeff Burton could be something of an understatement.

The South Boston native, who drives the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, making it the fourth straight season he has not made it into The Chase.

After finishing 20th in the Sprint Cup Series points chase in 2011, he did little better last year with his 19th-place finish. His average finish of 19.6 last year was his worst since the 2005 season.

Burton has finished in the top ten only 11 times over the course of the past two seasons after having logged 15 top-ten finishes in 2010.

It all hasn’t been just about Burton.

Richard Childress Racing won only one race last year after having won six races the previous season and having logged five wins in 2010.

With teammate Kevin Harvick slated to leave RCR at the end of the season to join Stewart-Haas Racing and Austin Dillon expected to move up to the Cup Series fulltime in 2014, this is a season in which Burton and RCR need to re-establish a competitive presence in the Sprint Cup Series garage area.

“I feel like we have something to prove, and I’m looking forward for the opportunity to be able to do that,” Burton said.

With the debut of NASCAR’s new Gen-6 racecar and changes that have been made with the RCR organization, this could be a year in which the 45-year-old veteran racer gets back into a more competitive posture.

“I’m excited about what we have going on,” Burton remarked.

 “I think our preparation, what we have done to be ready before we start building cars, is at a different level today than it was last year and even the year before.

“Obviously, we had some work to do based on our performance last year and the year before for that matter,” he continued.

“We made a lot of changes from the very top of the company to a lot of positions within individual teams. I feel good about what we have done.”

When asked what gives him the most optimism about a turnaround in 2013, Burton said “the direction of the company, the mindset of the company in regard to ‘what do we have to do to be better’, the commitment to that, the commitment to, I’m going to call it, a new philosophy.

“Those things are there and those things are real. The philosophy to improve is there. It is a different philosophy; it’s a different way of doing business than we have done it before. It’s what I have believed in, and that is why I’m optimistic.”

Burton said the big thing is that his team and RCR as a whole must show the improvement on the track.

“I won’t sit here and guarantee you that is going to give results,” he said.

“I believe it will. I can tell you that the commitment to improve is there. We will see. It will be a challenge. I believe in my heart things will be a lot better.” 

The new Gen-6 racecar also gives Burton a sense of optimism. With the introduction of the new car, all of the Sprint Cup Series teams are pretty much in the same situation, which makes more something of a more level playing field.

“I think the timing of the (introduction of) the car is good for us as a company,” Burton pointed out.

“I think it’s easier when there is a whole new car with a lot of new rules, a new rear rule package. I think it is easier to start over than it is taking an existing vehicle and starting over.

“It gives us a chance to stop and say ‘okay what is the best way to develop a car’ and through that build a program that works for that,” added Burton.

“I think the timing of that is good for RCR (Richard Childress Racing) in general. Whether that will yield results or not we will see.”

Burton says there is nothing about the new car that has made him feel that it will be an instant benefit to him.

“Honestly, what I pay attention to is what we need to do with the No. 31 to benefit me,” he explained. 

“At the end of the day, us doing a good job with whatever the rules package is that is what it’s about. We’ve got to give me what I need to be successful.  If we do that, then we will be doing the right things we need to do.”

That, Burton says, has been a hard thing to accomplish over the past couple of seasons.

“The thing that has been hard the last two years, and it’s something I haven’t dealt with much in my career, is that the things that Kevin (Harvick) has liked haven’t worked for me,” Burton pointed out.

“That hasn’t always been like that at RCR. It just kind of popped up for some reason. We really felt a lot of the same things before. Although we wouldn’t run the same (chassis) setups, we would have a lot of the same comments, and over the last couple of years we haven’t.

“That has been a difficult thing,” he added.

“It hasn’t been just me either. It’s kind of been throughout the company. One driver likes this, and the other driver likes that. We are not in the same area. That has been very confusing.”

The first opportunity for Burton and RCR to turn the tables comes with Sunday’s Daytona 500. Burton notched only two top-five finishes last season, both coming at Daytona where he finished fifth in the Daytona 500 and second in the July race.

Burton was hoping for a good first step in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 qualifying, but ended up qualifying 20th. Teammate Paul Menard qualified 14th and Harvick, who won last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited race, qualified 25th.

That left the three RCR cars positioned to start somewhere around mid-pack in yesterday’s qualifying races.

“We were really disappointed with it, but it’s just part of the Daytona 500, and we still have the 150’s to get where we need to be,” Burton said.

“We thought we had a lot more than that. We thought we had a solid shot at a top-10 and didn’t get very close to that. We just didn’t pick up from where we ran in practice for some reason. It is what it is.”