NASCAR’s new “Boys Have At It” policy seems to be standing the test of time, and recently, it gave NASCAR Nation an unprecedented look inside the heart and mind of veteran driver Jeff Burton.
In January, the sanctioning body responded to criticism that it had become too sterile by giving its drivers freedom to settle their own on-track issues. NASCAR rescinded restrictions on bump-drafting at Daytona and Talladega, vowed to assess fewer penalties for last lap contact and took a distinct “hands off” policy regarding verbal jousting between competitors. While some doubted NASCAR’s sincerity at first, those doubts have almost certainly been erased.
Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski took the gloves off at Atlanta, with Keselowski flying upside-down into the catch fence after an intentional takeout by Edwards. NASCAR levied only a three-race probation to Edwards. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have clashed -- both on and off the racetrack -- with no response from NASCAR, as have Joe Gibbs Racing compatriots Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Busch threatened to “kill Denny Hamlin” on his in-car radio two weeks ago without so much as a peep from the sanctioning body, and Joey Logano had some pointed words for Kevin Harvick (and his wife) following a late-race crash at Pocono yesterday.
Last week, Burton took his turn. The Richard Childress Racing driver got up in Busch’s grille after contact between the two in the final laps of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Burton suffered a flat left-rear tire that spoiled an almost-certain Top-5 finish, and an overheating temper that led him straight to Busch’s pit at race’s end.
“Use your f---ing head, (or) I’ll punt your ass next time” said Burton in a finger-pointing pit road tirade replayed dozens of times by media outlets happy to exploit NASCAR’s newest feud. The blow-up was surprising, coming as it did from one of NASCAR’s most thoughtful, understated veterans. Burton has recorded 21 wins in 18 seasons of Sprint Cup competition, with insufficient angry outbursts to count on the fingers of one hand.
“I was pissed,” said Burton to reporters. “I like racing with Kyle, (but) when he gets overaggressive and I pay the price, I am not going to tolerate it. I don’t mind racing with him, or mind him being aggressive, but I’m not going to be the victim of it.”
“It’s the last restart,” replied Busch. “You’ve got to go.” While eventually taking responsibility for the incident after watching television replays, Busch insisted he had no idea there had been contact between the two, saying, “I didn’t know what (Jeff) was mad about. I thought he still ran sixth or seventh… so I was like, ‘Where did this guy come from?’”
By the time the Sprint Cup Series raised its tents at Pocono Raceway four days later, both drivers were attempting to put the issue behind them. Burton said he has no interest in spawning a feud with Busch, adding, "I'm not interested in a weekly confrontation. I don't like yearly confrontations, much less weekly.”
While admitting that he may have been a bit too animated in expressing his displeasure, Burton stopped short of an apology, saying simply, "I felt better."
"I was a lot madder about it last week than I am today,” said the Caterpillar Chevrolet driver. “(I don’t believe) Kyle set out to ruin my night. He didn't mean to get into me. He was being aggressive and made a mistake. I was mad because we've had great race cars, been in position to win a lot of races… with not a lot to show for it. It's just getting frustrating.
“It's nothing personal,” Burton said. “Like I told you all two weeks ago, I like racing with Kyle. We won't have any problems moving forward. He knows exactly how I feel and we can talk about it. (But) honestly, there's not a whole lot to talk about."
Burton said he and Busch had not spoken since their Charlotte post-race confrontation. “(It’s) not because I'm avoiding him, or I think he's avoiding me,” he explained. “I was at Watkins Glen doing a tire test for Goodyear the last two days and have honestly been really busy.” Burton even complimented Busch on his handling of the situation, saying, “It was heated, (and) to his credit, he handled it pretty well. It's hard when somebody is in your face. He handled it well and his crew handled it well."
“I didn't go looking for a fight,” Burton said. “I was just pissed off. I had 15 laps to get calmed down and I didn't. I felt like I needed to handle it and address it right then. I was just mad and it's not more complicated than that."
Burton vowed that he will race Busch the same in the future as he has in the past, adding, “I'm here to race Pocono and win… and that is what he's here to do, too. I won't race him any differently, and I don't think he'll race me any differently. We're both professionals.”
With his 43rd birthday just days away, there won’t be many more chances for Burton to claim the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. There may never be a better opportunity than he enjoys this season. This is no time to back down in the face of an aggressive youngster intent on pushing himself to the front of the pack, and if that means giving the world a taste of the competitive fire that still burns in his gut, Burton is more than willing to do it.
"This is my best shot ever to win a championship,” said Burton last week. “I really believe that. I work hard at what I do. I don't play golf on Tuesdays, I work. I'm here for a reason and it's not to be part of a game. It's to win it.”
Burton, have at it.