It's been a strange season for Jeff Burton. Perhaps the most unusual of his 17 in the Sprint Cup Series. He's been very competitive, part of a total resurgence at Richard Childress Racing with teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, but he has yet to close the deal. That's very unlike Burton, whose trademark is top-five finishes (124 in 557 starts, including 21 victories). When he's had equipment capable of running at the front, that's where Burton usually finished.
"It's bizarre to run the way we've run and to post the finishes we've posted," Burton said. "I've been a part of a lot of different scenarios, but I've never been part of this scenario where we run this well and finish this poorly."
Well and poorly are relative terms, and compared to Burton's non-Chase performance last year, the No. 31 Chevrolet is leaps and bounds ahead. He's ninth in the points heading into Saturday's 11th race of the season, at Darlington. But what bothers Burton are the missed opportunities, for both wins and top-fives. They've slipped away late more than once this year, maybe more than in his entire career.
Fourth at Richmond last Saturday was vintage Burton, who was thinking big picture. It could be the jumping off point to closing the deal week-after-week, which would make him a contender for his first Cup title.
"Well, we wanted what the No. 18 (winner Kyle Busch) got, but we needed what we got," Burton said. "We've been running really well and we just haven't been knocking finishes off. This is what we needed tonight to try to get some momentum going and laying some advantages down. We were a little conservative there at the end because of the way things have been going. We needed to not turn a good finish into a 25th or something.
"That's one of the things I've done a good job of in my career is getting finishes and not making mistakes. This year, I've looked like a rookie on a lot of occasions and have been really disappointed in myself on a few occasions. Again, I wanted to be more aggressive at the end, but we just couldn't afford to right now."
It also hasn't all been Burton's fault. He had a top-five run ruined at Martinsville when a tire went down from running over debris and he finished 20th. At Talladega, Burton was caught up in a multi-car wreck and a very possible top-five became a 32nd-place finish.
Burton got to the front at Texas with a late-race two-tire stop and led for a restart with 12 laps to go, but faded to 12th. The only thing he was guilty of was trying too hard, scraping the wall as he tried to drive a tight car too hard.
Running fifth with 16 laps to go when the final caution came out, Burton made a four-tire stop that dropped him to 12th for the restart and he was only able to climb to 10th at the finish.
Burton's biggest mistake was at Phoenix, where he pitted outside the pit box and never recovered from a one-lap penalty.
Say this much about Burton: He's always been a stand-up guy who takes responsibility for his actions. It's a trait that makes him a strong leader at RCR.
Burton's best run this year was third at California, where Jimmie Johnson's well-timed pit stop put him in the lead for the final 24 laps. Burton had been the previous leader.
"After California, everybody said Jimmie [Johnson] got lucky and, yes, he had a lucky break," Burton said. "But they executed."
Burton's fourth at Richmond was solid execution, too, and has generated confidence for the No. 31 team. It may be the missing element needed to get him back to victory lane for the first time since 2008.
"I think we're right there [close to winning]," Burton said. "We've put ourselves consistently in position to win races. I've been in the position to win more races this year than I was in all of last year. Most races we've consistently been running in the top five. We consistently have been one of the faster cars in most races.
"I think we certainly had a real shot at California, Martinsville, Texas and Richmond. All those races I felt like we could have done a better job and they were our races. We didn't do that. So, I feel like we're close."