Jeff Burton will be safely tucked into the NBC broadcast booth Saturday night when the green flag drops on the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
But somewhere in the pit of his stomach, he’ll get that old superspeedway feeling.
“Though I’m not putting myself in harm’s way, I’m emotionally there,” he says.
Burton spent most of his career racing for team owner Jack Roush, who was never shy about expressing his dislike of restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega. His Roush Racing team record reflected that distaste.
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Yes, Jeff Burton did win a race at Daytona – in the summer of 2000. But in 39 other career starts, he left without a trophy. At sister track Talladega, he was 0-for-40.
While he may not have taken home hardware, he left with plenty of respect for the two high-banked, high-speed speedways. It started on Day 1, in February of 1990, when he arrived to drive Sam Ard’s Buick as a Busch Series racer.
“I remember going through the tunnel the very first time, driving for Sam Ard,” he says. “I knew it was different. I knew I was gonna be in situations that I wouldn’t normally be in, because of the race track. Even way back then. As the packs got bigger and closer, then it became even more clear.
“It was treated differently, too. When you’re a rookie and you went to Daytona or went to Talladega, you were spoken to in a way that made it very clear that it was different. That intensity level was right from the start. And that’s appropriate, that’s how it should be done.”
Years removed, Burton admits to something not many drivers would admit while still racing.
“Those are the races . . . I didn’t get nervous before many races, but I was always nervous as a driver at Daytona or Talladega,” he says. “Once the race got going, that would go away.
“But you’d have to be pretty ignorant to not recognize the differences in those tracks. It’s hard to explain. You don’t strap yourself into one of those things being afraid you’re going to get hurt. You respect the fact you can get hurt, but you’re not afraid you can get hurt.”
For about half of Burton’s full-time NASCAR career (1989-2013), racing safety was nowhere near where it is today. But even in modern times, as Kurt Busch’s recent accident hard accidents and injuries can still happen. But there’s always a long line of racers looking for rides in fast race cars.
“Drivers aren’t normal people,” Burton says through a laugh. “Talk about drivers and what they’re willing to do . . . what’s fascinating to me, when I was doing it, I didn’t recognize it as much as I do now.
“But they’re willing to do it, and then they’re willing to do it again . . . and again . . . and again. That’s a different type of person. Most people aren’t cut from that kind of cloth.”
Saturday’s Schedule: A Richard Petty Q&A
12:30 p.m.: Parking lots open.
2:30: Stadium gates open.
3:45-4 p.m.: Kurt Busch Q&A (Midway).
4:15-4:30: Harrison Burton Q&A (FanZone).
4:30-4:45: Martin Truex Q&A (FanZone).
4:30-4:45: William Byron Q&A (Midway).
4:45-5: Kyle Larson Q&A (Midway).
5-5:15: Richard Petty Q&A (Midway).
5:15-6:30: Pre-race concert featuring Better Than Ezra.
7 p.m.: Coke Zero Sugar 400.
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