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Jeff Burton to leave RCR at season end

South Boston native Jeff Burton will be leaving his ride in the No. 31 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season.

Sponsorship concerns and a desire to cut back on his racing schedule in 2015 led to the move, Burton explained during a national press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“The harsh realities are we’ve gone into next year, Caterpillar has been a huge supporter of mine and RCR’s in the past and also next year, but there was a lot of funding that wasn’t in place,” Burton explained.

“I had gone to Richard a while ago and told him that at the end of 2014 that I was going to step back and probably not run a full schedule anymore and look at maybe running some partial schedules or look at other opportunities. Out of respect for Richard, and Richard’s respect for me, we came to an agreement, and I decided, agreed and decided to step aside and let the team continue to grow.

“We’re just accelerating it a year early to give Richard Childress Racing an opportunity to continue to move that team forward,” Burton continued, “and to put the funding in place with a really good driver that can go out and be successful. The timing was right for me to do something different.”

Burton said he, his team and RCR have had “tremendous support” from sponsors Caterpillar, General Mills, Kwikset and Chevrolet. “But the reality is we didn’t have it all in place for next year,” Burton said, “so it just makes sense. The timing was right to make a change.”

Burton’s current contract with RCR was good through the end of the 2014 season. So, why choose to step out of the car now?

“Well, because the long-term health of Richard Childress Racing is really important,” Burton replied when the question was asked.

“To ask Richard to run a year underfunded is -- he can’t do that.  I mean, the economic times and the sponsorship game has been really tough for everybody, and the economic times have had a huge toll on what Richard has had to do.  I mean, it’s just -- the man can only do so much.  He doesn’t have a money tree growing in the backyard.”

In making the move to step aside from his seat in the No. 31 RCR car at the end of the season Burton is throwing himself into a sea of uncertainty as he has no plans in place for 2014.

“I’m at a crossroads,” Burton said.

“There is no denying that. And I want to figure something out. I’m going to look at all my options.  I don’t know what else is out there. I’ll look at my options and listen to what people have to say. 

“There is a place for me in this sport,” he continued.

“I want to be part of it and contributing to this sport means a great deal to me. I’d like to believe that me being here has made it better from a safety standpoint, and I’d like to think I’ve done some things on the track and off the track that have made the sport better, and I want to continue to do that.  

“This is a scary time,” he added.

“It’s also an exciting time. It’s a little bit of both. I’m just going to have a good time in the next 11 weeks, go race my ass off and see what happens.”

Burton said this is not the first time he faced a situation like this.

“I’ve been in situations before where I didn’t know what was going to happen, and that’s where I am now,” Burton pointed out.

“I’m an optimistic person and I’m a hard worker, and I’m going to go find a way to make this a good situation for us.  I don’t know what that is right now. I care about the sport a great deal and there is a place for me in it.  So we’ll figure it out, but I don’t know what it is right now.”

Childress originally had plans for a four-car team for the 2014 season. RCR is fielding three teams this season with Burton, Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard. Harvick announced earlier in the season he is leaving RCR at the end of this season to move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. 

Austin Dillon, a grandson of Childress, a former NASCAR Truck Series champion and current Nationwide Series competitor, is expected to step up to the Cup Series next season. Dillon’s likely move to Cup, Menard, Burton and a replacement for Harvick, would have given RCR four teams next season. However, funding is not on the table at this point to make that happen.

Published reports have mentioned Burton as a possible candidate for the TV broadcast booth. Both NBC and FOX will begin new extended television deals with NASCAR beginning in 2015. 

Also, there are a few Cup rides still available. One possibility for Burton could be Furniture Row Racing, the team with which Kurt Busch is competing with this season. Busch, who is in the thick of the competition for a spot in The Chase, is leaving the team at the end of the season to move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Burton is in 22nd place in the Sprint Cup Series points standings heading into Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond International Raceway. He has recorded five top-10 finishes this season, with his best finish, a third-place result coming in the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

While those numbers are not at the top of the list, Burton says he believes in his race team and feels it is headed in the right direction.

“It’s a tough time for me because I truly believe in what we’re doing,” Burton said.

“When I say we, I mean, I’m still part of it.  I’m a big, big fan of Luke (Lambert), my crew chief.  I’m a big fan of our engineers and body people. Matt McCall, the car chief, has been there with me for about 10 years. 

“We’ve got really, really good people on that team, “ Burton continued, “and we’re starting to perform. Truly, I’m walking away from it when I believe we’re about to blossom. I can feel it. I can see it. Listen, I’ll tell you right now, don’t be surprised in the next several weeks we don’t pop us a win somewhere. We’re starting to run well enough to do it.” 

Burton, 46, joined RCR late in the 2004 season. He has scored 21 wins at the Cup level. 

The South Boston native Burton is slated to make his 1,000th career NASCAR start when the Cup series moves to Phoenix International Raceway in November. Along with his current 680 starts in Cup, Burton has 27 wins in 306 Nationwide series starts and four starts in the NASCAR Truck series.