Jeff Burton is widely regarded as a senior statesman in the garage and his words typically resonate with NASCAR drivers and officials alike. Maybe that's why his frank assessment of his 2011 campaign hit with such emphasis.
"Last year pissed me off and I'm ready to go make something happen," Burton said.
The stark first part of his off-season outlook stems from his worst finish in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series in six years – a 20th-place effort in the final standings and just five top-10 finishes, down from 15 the previous season. Burton enjoyed a slight uptick in performance after crew chief Lucas Lambert replaced Todd Berrier in July, but a third consecutive winless season clearly wore on the 19-year veteran.
"We need to become relevant again," Burton said. "You become relevant by leading races, by winning races and by contending for championships. Last year, I felt like I was an outsider."
To revive Burton's No. 31 team, Richard Childress Racing evaluated all its components but left the key players largely intact, opting to add leadership to a solid team core. To that end, Childress brought in Drew Blickensderfer, an old acquaintance of Burton's from their days together at Roush Fenway Racing, creating a pairing that enchanted both driver and crew chief.
"The first day I talked to him, he was like, 'Man, if I can work with you and Richard, that's something that would be hard to say no to,' " Burton said. "That means a lot to me. I think, number one, he's talented. He has the skill to do it, but he has all the other things, all the intangibles."
Said Blickensderfer: "The thing that really turned me on about Jeff is that he's always optimistic. He looks at tomorrow like the grass is going to be greener tomorrow and the sun's going to be brighter tomorrow, and that's what you want from your racecar driver.... The passion he has to win a championship is greater than anything I've ever seen."
Burton also made a conscious effort in the off-season to become more involved in race setups and the mechanical side of the operation, not just with Blickensderfer but with the entire team. As a result, Burton said he has already felt the difference in his equipment at a Wednesday tire test for Goodyear at Texas Motor Speedway (ABOVE), giving an early indication that the pain of 2011 may soon recede.
"You're going to have bad years. That's just sports," Burton said. "I feel like we've done the things to turn it around."