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NASCAR: Burton back in title contension

By Mike Harris
Associated PressLOUDON, N.H. ó If consistency can still win a championship in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, Jeff Burton is a serious contender to win his first title.
In 16 races this season, the Richard Childress Racing driver has one win, four top-fives, 10 top-10s and has not finished worse than 15th.
“I’m good with it, if it yields results,” Burton said. “At the end of the day, though, our goal wasn’t having an aferage finish of 8.9 or whatever. Our goal was to lead more laps than we did last year, to win more races than we did last year, to be solidly in the top 12 in points … and, when the Chase starts, to be a real contender.”
Still, it remains to be seen if consistency can get the job done.
After Matt Kenseth won the 2003 Cup championship in ho-hum fashion, winning just once and walking away with the title without making many headlines, NASCAR changed the points format in an effort to insure some excitement.
The 10-race Chase for the championship was born in 2004, meaning a consistent performance in the first 26 races only earns a driver a spot in the top 12 and the opportunity to compete for the title at the end of the season.
That’s just fine with Burton.
“If this process and the way that we’re doing it right now works out, then I’m extremely comfortable with it,” said Burton, who goes into Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway second in the standings, 103 points behind five-time winner Kyle Busch.
He will have his work cut out, starting 31st in the 43-car field. But Burton is determined to stay near the front in the points battle.
“I don’t really care how we do it,” Burton said. “It doesn’t matter to me if we do it by winning 10 races or if we do it by winning two or winning none. The key is to win the championship. I just don’t have in my head that we’re doing it the wrong way or the right way.
“I know areas that we need to improve in, and my team obviously knows areas that we need to improve in, and that’s our focus. The results are what matters.”
From 1997 through 2000, Burton was a perennial contender driving for Jack Roush. He finished in the top five in the points each season, topped by a third-place finish in 2000. Fifteen of his 20 career victories, including four on the 1.058-mile New Hampshire oval, came during that stretch.
But Burton faded into the pack and out of the title picture for dhe next few years and didn’t regain contender status until 2006, his second year with Childress.
He made the Chase and finished seventh that year, then made the postseason again, turning in an eighth-place finish, in 2007.
So far this season, Burton, who will celebrate his 41st birthday Sunday, has quietly gone about the business of putting himself in position to race for that first Cup championship, and the first one for Childress since the late Dale Earnhardt took the Cup in 1994.
With three more races in a grueling stretch of 12 straight weeks of racing ó including the all-star event ó and 10 more races before the start of the Chase, Burton understands the hardest part of the season is still ahead.
“You’ve got a lot of people looking and saying, `Oh my God, I’m 15th. I’ve got to find my way to 12th.’ You’ve got people who are third that say, `I’ve got to find a way to stay here.’ It’s pressure for everybody.”
“We have three more races to try to perform … well in and then we get to kind of catch our breath,” Burton added. “We’ve tested a lot, we’ve asked a lot out of our team. We’ve done that in hopes that when the summer gets here, we can, not relax, but we can take a little bit of time, recharge, re-energize, because when that little recharge is over, it’s going to get big. We’re going to hit it really hard. That’s our strategy.”
Rookie Patrick Carpentier will start from the pole for the first time, with 2001 Cup champion Bobby Labonte alongside on the front row. Series leader Busch, coming off a victory last Sunday at Sonoma, starts just ahead of Burton in 27th.

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