|Burton was strong in New Hampshire|
Prior to Sunday, Burton had managed just one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes this season, ranking no higher than 15th in championship points. He hasn’t visited Victory Lane since 2008, which is also the last time he qualified for NASCAR’s post-season Chase.
A third-place finish in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301at New Hampshire Motor Speedway may help change all that.
The South Boston, VA native qualified ninth at The Magic Mile and ran in the Top-10 throughout the afternoon before trailing winner Brian Vickers to the checkered flag. It was easily his most impressive performance of the year, and highlighted the continuing evolution of his Caterpillar Chevrolet team.
"We are starting to learn each other," said Burton of his relationship with first-time Sprint Cup crew chief Lucas Lambert. “The system that (Competition Director) Eric Warren has been working really hard to put in is also helping. We have a lot of things going on… but the main thing is having time together and understanding each other."
Burton climbed from 21st to 17th in the championship standings Sunday, and now lurks just 25 points from a guaranteed spot in the 2013 Chase. While never one to blow his own horn, the 46-year old Richard Childress Racing driver said he should not be ignored as a possible Chase contender.
"We don't think we are out of the Chase," he
said. "I know everybody else in the world does, but we don't. We feel like
we can still do it. There's a lot of stuff that's going to happen between now
and Richmond. It's so competitive (and) so tight."
|"We feel like we can still do it."|
Recent finishes indicate that he may be right. With five Top-12 finishes in his last eight starts, Burton has begun to show the kind of consistency that made him a title contender as recently as 2008. Sunday’s race was the first time he’s shown the kind of speed that results in trips to Victory Lane, but for the first time in recent memory, Burton feels confident in the direction of the RCR organization.
"We feel good about what we're doing," said Burton Sunday. "We have been running a lot better the last two months. I'm not saying we are the class of the field, but we are definitely making progress. We feel like we are starting to build on something, and we understand what we're looking for. We have a baseline to work off (for the) first time in a couple of years. We are excited about it. We understand why we are running well and think we can improve.
"If we can get on one of those streaks that I used to get on, we can make it,” said Burton. “And we intend to. I know it's a long shot, but I think we can."
He admitted that losing teammate Kevin Harvick to Stewart Haas Racing at season’s end will make RCR’s road more difficult.
"You don't lose that caliber of driver without it having an impact on your organization," said Burton. "But things happen in this sport. People make changes and need to do something different. There should be no hard feelings. What we have to do is embrace the challenge, embrace the opportunity and go out and try to make it work.
“In (Harvick’s) absence, we're going to do stuff to fill that void,” Burton said. He also acknowledged his own role, adding, "I'm going to have to step up in some areas."
After missing NASCAR’s playoffs three times in the last four seasons, Burton remains a longshot for the 2013 Chase. But Sunday’s finish makes him part of the conversation for the first time in recent memory. And that’s a step in the right direction.