Have you ever through that Ward Burton is a little bit like Abe Lincoln? Just like Honest Abe, Burton spent some time in obscurity living in a log cabin, but then made it to the big time, winning the major race in his line of work.
Burton once spent two years in the log cabin, living off the land, hunting, fishing and trapping for his food. Now he’s the Daytona 500 champ with a stunning win in NASCAR’s crown jewel event back in February.
For a time during the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup racing season, log cabin life might have seemed like an easier way to get by to the Virginia native.
Although Burton picked up his third career win on the circuit and had five top 10 showings, there were also nine races he didn’t finish, many of them early in the schedule.
It was hardly a confidence booster for the personable pilot.
“Coming into this year, the main thing we wanted to do was finish races,” Burton said. “We had so many DNFs last year, we just wanted to focus on one race at a time and try to be in a position to have a shot at the end of the race.”
Those problems appear to be behind the Dodge driver now after the season-opening Daytona 500 and strong runs in other 2002 Winston Cup events. “I think the biggest thing is that (crew chief Tommy Baldwin) and I have matured a lot,” Burton said. “We keep our emotions in check more than we once did. He’s a friend, but he also works extremely hard as a crew chief.”
Last year was the first for Burton and Baldwin in a Dodge, and there were growing pains along the way. Burton managed just one top 10 finish in the first 11 events of the year, and DNFs helped contribute to a slide toward the back of the pack in points.
But after he got used to his Caterpillar-sponsored Intrepid, Burton – and his team – began to turn the corner.
From August through the close of last season Burton posted eight top 10s, won in Darlington in September, and managed to work his way back up to 14th in points.
The second half rally appears to have carried over into 2002.
“The good thing about this year is that we didn’t have any changes,” Burton said. “Bringing in Hut Stricklin as a teammate is nothing but a positive for us, and I think we’re more prepared mentally and physically with cars and equipment than we’ve ever been.
“I know we’re a lot more focused and we’ve got a real good support group for both teams.”
As for the driver-crew chief relationship, Burton suggests that he and Baldwin are able to feed off each other.
“Tommy and I treat each other like family,” Burton said. “He sees the best and worst in me, and vice-versa. But we realize we’re fighting for the same goal. At the end of the day if he makes a bad call or I make a bad call, we’re still on the same team and we just move on.”
Burton began his Winston Cup career in 1994, winning a pole and also logging a second-place finish. A year later he scored his first career victory with a checker at Rockingham, and in 1996 he continued his rise with four top 10 finishes.
By 1999 Burton had a career-best finish of ninth in points, and he earned victories in both 2000 and 2001.
No victory, however, was as big as this year’s Daytona 500. Not only did it help him step away from the shadow of his racing brother, Jeff, but it also served notice that he could be ready to challenge for a title.
“It was a whirlwind from the time we won the race until the time we left Daytona on Tuesday,” Burton said. “I really don’t think it set in until we headed to the track in Atlanta. There was just so much going on, and I think we’re still feeding off of a lot of the energy we got from that win.”
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Las Vegas
Drives the Sharpie/Rubbermaid Ford for Roush Racing.
Kurt Busch, runner-up for NASCAR Winston Cup rookie of the year in 2001, wasted little time making his presence known in the series this year, winning the Bristol race in March.
Busch broke into Winston Cup in a big way last season, finishing in the top-five three times and in the top-10 a total of six times.
A lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who enjoys water-skiing, snow skiing and riding his personal watercraft, Busch has already won more than $2 million in his career.