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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
January 14, 2008
HERB BRANHAM: We now have the driver of the #31 AT & T Mobility Chevrolet, Jeff Burton. You always want to win the Daytona 500. Maybe give us an idea what would it mean to win it this year, 50th running of this great American race.
JEFF BURTON: Over Christmas I went to Ward's house, and his Daytona 500 trophy was in his house there. You know, I don't know what it was about it, but I saw that trophy and it was like it was the first time I had ever seen it. My son was down there, he's seven, and I said, "You know what that is?" He's like, "Yeah, that's the Daytona 500 trophy." It was pretty special seeing that trophy.
As a guy that -- Ward is obviously not in a position to have a ride right now. Having that trophy sitting there, that's the biggest race you can possibly win in our sport. That's something that no one can ever take away from him, and that's something that he'll always cherish and his family will. That's a special thing.
Any win is a big win, but when you can look at -- if you look at a trophy like that and have that sitting in your house, that's a different kind of win. It's one of those that lasts forever, and it has so much meaning, the importance of it.
The 50th anniversary only enlightens and enhances that. It would be really special.
Q. Elliott Sadler last week said the bumpers match up so well that he expects bump drafting to be even more of an issue here than it's been in the past. What's your position on that?
JEFF BURTON: I think he's probably right. The great question is honestly how the car is going to handle. My inclination is that they're going to handle bad enough where I don't think bump drafting is going to be a factor. I think the factor is going to be who can put the car where they want to put them.
Bump drafting really becomes a problem when you have the 43-car packs with no other option to pass somebody other than get the bump draft thing going. I think this is going to be a different kind of race. I think handling is going to be really important.
The other thing about the bump drafting when the bumpers do line up, it doesn't cause the problem that we saw with the other cars. We had a lot of wrecks in the other cars that people said were bump drafting when it was just wrecking. There's a difference. Running into the back of somebody isn't bump drafting, that's running into the back of them. Those mistakes won't show up as much in this car because the bumpers do line up.
You think about Martinsville in the spring, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson racing, Jeff gave me some pretty good shots and nothing happened. Had he done that with the old car, something would have happened. Bump drafting is going to always be an issue. I think it's actually less of a negative with this car because the bumpers do line up, which of course that means we're going to do it more, which of course that means might put us right back in the same spot.
Ultimately the bumpers lining up are a good thing, but I honestly believe that handling is going to be so important after 15, 20 laps that bump drafting is not going to be the major issue.
Q. Bump drafting aside, and it's early, and handling obviously is the issue, your impressions of this car on this racetrack at this point?
JEFF BURTON: Well, it's too early for me to really give an impression. We've been doing single car runs. We haven't done any race runs. I'll be much smarter or more confused tomorrow afternoon, I'll let you know which one it is.
I don't think that any of us right now have enough information to really go on. They certainly drive differently than the other car, and their ride is much more harsh than the other car. But what really matters is how they race. I don't have an impression on that yet.
Q. Much was made last year about the TV ratings being down and live attendance down. Is there an issue with this? Do you see this as something to be concerned about, or is this cyclical, just part of the cyclical world of professional sports?
JEFF BURTON: Well, to be clear, any time that attendance is down or TV ratings are down, we should be concerned about that. I'm not smart enough to know why the ratings are down. I'm not smart enough to know if that's something that's going on throughout television in general. I don't know. It's nothing that I can control, nor is it something I can impact, so I don't spend a lot of time worrying about how to fix it.
You know, I think that we have more competitive teams today than we've ever had. We have more competitive drivers today than we've ever had. You can talk about the good old days all you want. The racing today is better than it's ever been. Those are facts, and those are things that I do know.
If there's something else that has caught the attention of spectators, given time I believe we'll get them back because ultimately we do have good racing. Ultimately we do have competitive racing. And I think that if we continue to do those things, we'll get our fans.
By the way, one thing that is clear to me is that when you're dealing with the fan level that's up here and it comes down a little bit, everybody says, oh, my God, the world is coming to an end, the sky is falling. It's a lot better than dealing with it down here and it falling.
We have great viewership, we have great spectators. We have fans that are passionate about it. We have a high level of expectations from our spectators and our fans, as we should.
I think this sport is pretty solid. The interesting thing to me is when you ask -- and I've done this this fall, I was in a position where I was around a bunch of race fans in some different situations, and I asked them, "What do you think?" None of them ever complained about the quality of racing. It was always other things. It was like, I don't like Toyota being involved, or it's too commercial, or the drivers can't say what they want to say, those kind of things.
All in all, it's the kind of things that really, what are we to do? Our sport has to continue to grow. Our sport has to continue to have sponsorships. Our sport does have to have a sense of responsibility, not in censorship but in -- I don't think using profanity on TV or radio is acceptable.
There's a perception that the drivers are being harnessed in what they can say, and I don't think the fans like that, because I hear that a lot. The reality of it is, what I find really interesting, the reality of it is, our sport is the only major sport which you can question the governing body without being penalized. I've never been told, don't say that. I have been told, don't say that word, and I'm good with that. I think that's how it should be. If my seven-year old turns the TV on, I want him to be able to watch this without me worrying about what people are going to say. I don't think that Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon myself or anybody has been -- I've never been pulled aside and told, don't you talk about this or that. Never.
Some of it is just our sport has grown and some people don't like the way it's grown. At the end of the day, if we have the cast of characters that we have and we have the competition that we're capable of having, we will -- the fans will ultimately be happy. We're not going to make everybody happy, but the majority of them will be happy.
Long answer, sorry.
Q. The prestige around this race, you've been doing this long enough to know how the prestige of this race has built up over the years, but we didn't always start here. Do you think this race would have as much prestige if it were at the end of the year, if it were the final race that decided the championship?
JEFF BURTON: I don't know. I think there's something unique about this being the first race and the biggest race. I've got to tell you, preseason football bores me to death. I can't imagine sitting and watching a preseason NBA ballgame. We just get right at it.
I think there's something to be said for that. I think that the excitement starting, boom, right now, I think is a great thing. To me the Daytona 500 meaning so much, being the first race of the year, all the enthusiasm and excitement, that's something that can't be replicated by other sports.
I wouldn't want to see that change. I think it's in the best interest of our sport to let the championship, the last race of the year, be a great big race no matter where it is because it's the championship. But the first race of the year being the Daytona 500, that's a special thing. I think it would be -- I think that's one of the things that makes our sport different and unique, and I'd hate to see that change.
Q. You guys placed three drivers in the Chase last year and all three of you had your moments and Clinton finished pretty strong, but by and large the RCR cars seemed to tail off as the year went on. Where do you think you fell behind, if, in fact, you did?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I can speak particularly for the AT & T team. We started the year great. I mean, if you go back and think about it, we finished third here, we had a chance to win California, and I missed a shift late in the race. Jimmie Johnson and I were battling with 20 to go in Vegas for the win, and we broke an engine. We went to Bristol and finished second.
We were running as well as any team on the circuit for five, six, seven races, and then we lost it a little bit. Our stuff didn't drive as well as it had earlier in the year, and I think other people got better. Our stuff didn't really drive worse, it's just other people's stuff started getting better. We weren't able to make a step to get our cars better later in the year.
We kind of started the year with really good, fast stuff that compared to our competition was probably better, and then we just weren't able to continue to make improvements, and some of that was -- I think a lot of teams struggled with the Car of Tomorrow and the old car. Having to continue to develop the old car at the same time you were developing the Car of Tomorrow put a tremendous amount of pressure on all of our resources, not only financially but personnel and every resource we had.
We probably didn't do as well as we could have, it wasn't because we didn't try, in taking the old car and moving it forward. And ultimately that affected our Car of Tomorrow program, too.
I feel really good going into this year. We're way behind in getting ready. We've done a tremendous amount of work and obsoleted our fleet of cars, so we have all brand new cars to build, so we're way behind. But that's our job. It's our job to obsolete the current equipment, to make something better. And we didn't get ahead of that quick enough last year. That's my opinion.
Q. As you just said, you finished third last year. What do you think it's going to take to get you in victory lane this year?
JEFF BURTON: It really depends on the kind of race that we get. I think like I said earlier, handling is going to be really important. We're going to focus a great deal on trying to make our cars drive as good as they can drive and then getting the right kind of race so that you're in the position you need to be in with the equipment set up the way it can.
If you look at our stuff right now, we're not showing, exhibiting enough speed to go out and win it by brute force. We're going to have to be smart and we're going to have to have the race go our way. Now, I'm making this assessment after half a day of testing so be careful, I might change my mind in a month.
But right now we're going to have to be smart. We're going to have to have the right kind of race if we're going to take advantage of that race.
There's a tremendous amount of strategy that goes into winning this race. You saw last year, the two cars that finished first and second, at no point did they exhibit the brute force that you would say that's the car to beat, but they put themselves in the right position at the right time and then took advantage of the situation that they were in, and I think that's what we're going to have to do.
Q. A lot of times you react to our story lines and you've done that a little bit today. But what do you think the story line as 2008 kicks off and testing is begun? So far only a half day of testing. Where would you put the story line?
JEFF BURTON: I think the Toyota strength is obvious. We saw that last year at Talladega. The Toyotas were extremely fast obviously. Everybody is talking about Dale Earnhardt, Jr., being fast, the beginning of his time with Hendrick.
But really at the end of the day the Car of Tomorrow, what is the impact of the Car of Tomorrow on the Daytona 500, how is the Car of Tomorrow going to make the race different than what we saw in the past. That's really the question that we all have to answer, what we're going to have to do differently to be successful with the Car of Tomorrow versus what we did with the last car. If you approach this race the same way you approached it with the car we've been racing, I think you're destined to be disappointed. This is a completely different package. It's a completely different mindset. And I think learning what that mindset needs to be is what's really important.
Some people may have already figured that out, but I think the majority of people are still figuring that out, and who can figure that out the quickest, that's going to be -- it might not show up on the speed chart by the end of the testing. You might look at a speed chart and say, well, that Mark Martin, he's only the 50th fastest, but he and his team might have built something that can go win the Daytona 500. I think understanding what you need to do to be successful with this car, that's the big story.
Q. You were kind of addressing earlier where you guys were short a little bit last year. Obviously you guys made tremendous strides to go from where you were in '04 and '05 at RCR to maybe going to the middle of the pack to being Chase contenders, having cars that can win occasionally. But is the step you have to make from there to become a Hendrick, a championship-type team, is that an even greater step to go?
JEFF BURTON: It's every bit an equal step. In some ways it's a harder step. The hardest thing that we do in our sport is knowing when to do something different, and then of course what to do different. It's really easy when you're not having success to look around and say, golly, we need to do a lot different. When you are having some success, it's much harder to change things. I mean, that's just common sense.
So when you get to the point where you're having success and you're running well, how much do you change and what do you change? So it's the same problem that you have when you're not running well. When you're running 20th, what do we need to change and how much do we need to change it, but it's much more easy just to throw -- play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and hope you hit it. When you're running well, it's hard to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey because now if you miss it you go back to running bad again. So in many ways it's a harder step, but it's at the very least an equal step.
Q. You were talking about the Daytona 500 being a technical challenge for the crews and the drivers, but isn't that sport built on entertainment rather than Formula 1 type technology? I would say last year's Daytona 500 he couldn't get any better than that, so why change anything?
JEFF BURTON: Well, the great question is, let's don't forget what last year's Daytona 500 was all about. This is the interesting thing about our sport. The last 50 laps of the Daytona 500 was incredible. The 120 laps getting to that was, what? Nobody remembers. It was single file, not a lot going on. Nobody remembers that. They remember the great finish.
We don't know what this car is going to do, and we don't know what kind of race we're going to get. We had a great race, a really exciting race last year because we had a flurry of cautions that kept bunching everybody back up. Go back and watch last year's race. And we had an enthusiastic finish because we kept having cautions. It was starting to get spread out, it would thin out, caution, bunch them all back up.
So that race had every bit the chance to be what some would call boring as it was exciting. The cautions fell the way they fell and made the race very exciting.
So this car has the opportunity to have every bit as exciting a race as that car, provided things happen the way it needs to happen. Not every race is going to be like we had last year at the Daytona 500, and not every race is going to be like Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch side by side at Darlington. Not every race is going to be that great. The Cowboys-Giants game was a whole lot better than the New England game, right? I mean, to me it was.
I think that we have -- we do everything we can as a sport to make every race as compelling and exciting as it can be, but the reality is not every race is going to be like that. This car doesn't preclude us from having the opportunity to have great races. I can assure you of that.
Q. With this car, I guess RCR is in a position to build as many as it needs, but the supposed benefit was that a smaller team could use the same car at all different types of tracks and everything. Do you see that potential? Did you see that last year? And just in terms of safety, if you could just kind of talk about what you liked about the car from a safety standpoint that you think will play out this year.
JEFF BURTON: Without a doubt. The first thing is the room in the car. I mean, it enables us to do more inside the car with seats, and the energy-absorbing materials in the car is a great thing. I don't think there's any doubt this is a safer race car.
It's kind of funny, six years ago we sat here and NASCAR was on the hot seat for not doing enough. The story was NASCAR was lagging behind in safety compared to other forms of sport. So then NASCAR went and made a tremendous commitment to building a car that was a tremendous amount safer, and they get blasted for that, too. In many ways NASCAR can't win.
I applaud them trying to build a safer car. Without a doubt there's some things I would have done different from an engineering standpoint, not around safety but around the performance of the cars, but everybody would. You're never going to get -- the sanctioning body has got to draw the line somewhere and say this is how we're going to do it. If not, nothing would ever get done, which is what we see with college football and not having a playoff, right? But somebody has got to make a decision and somebody has got to do it, and NASCAR did that.
The safety is a huge step forward. The performance, no matter what NASCAR does, there's always going to be -- you're never going to be in a situation where the teams that take advantage of the box that they're given, that the team that takes advantage of that the best is always going to run the best. End of story. That's what Richard Petty did, that's what Dale Earnhardt did. I'm not saying they weren't great race car drivers because they obviously were. But a great race car driver in a bad car doesn't make great results. A great car and a bad race car driver doesn't make great results. You have to have both.
The box that NASCAR has put us in with this car is a much tighter box than we've had in the past, there's no question. And the opportunity for more teams to have more success I think is there long-term. Short-term it's such a radical difference than what we've had, you're going to be in a position where some teams are just going to, plain and simple, do it better than the others. This car is still in its infancy. I know, we've seen it for a year. We've seen that other stuff for how many years. This car is a baby. And there are so many things they don't know about it.
You look at what Hendrick did last year, it's clear they figured it out, and it showed. Some of the races were like that. Clint at New Hampshire just kicked everybody's butt and the race was boring, if you want to call it that. You're going to have that when you have something new, and when you have something different some people are going to hit it.
The more we have this car and the longer we run it, the more equal it will become. That's the way I view it. But let's be clear. I don't care what NASCAR does, the teams that have the best-run organizations will have the best equipment and therefore will go the fastest around the racetrack. It's just that simple.
I'm not taking the driver out of it, because again, it's not a coincidence that Jimmie Johnson has done what he's done, it's not a coincidence that Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon and those guys have done the things that they've done. That's not a coincidence. They are great race car drivers. But they would sit here and tell you the same thing I'm telling you, that they couldn't do that if they didn't have race cars they could do it in.
It's a combination of driver, car -- people say, is it 70 percent driver, 30 percent car? I don't know. I don't know. But I do know that I didn't forget how to drive in '05 and wake up in '06 and say, hey, I learned how to drive again. Equipment has a great deal to do with it and matching the equipment to the driver -- some drivers like different stuff than other drivers. Matching that equipment to the driver is what makes success, and the better-run teams -- I'm not saying more money because more money doesn't fix problems. The better-organized teams with a game plan, those are the ones that have success.
The only thing NASCAR can do when it comes to lowering costs is make the extra money that teams have mean less. If one team has $10 million and another team has $20 million, the team with that extra $10 million, the only thing NASCAR can do with that extra $10 million is make it so it means less. You might have a prettier trailer, a better pit box, a prettier set of jack stands, at that doesn't make it go faster.
NASCAR can never be in a position, unless we have a salary cap -- I didn't say salary cap. I said it but I didn't mean it. Unless they give us a cap of money, every team has this much money, then at the end of the day they can't control who spends what. They can only control how effective what they spend is. This car has a better chance of doing that than the other car, there's no question about it.
Then the great question is because you have less to do, does that mean those things that you do have to work with, does that mean more? I don't know. Nobody else does, either. But at the end of the day the teams that are effective and are best managed, those are the teams that are going to run the best.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks, as always, to Jeff Burton.
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