ATLANTA -- When it comes to making a late-season charge, nobody does it better on the NASCAR series than Jeff Burton.
Like an NBA game, his season doesn't get interesting until the final two minutes. The rest of the stock car season is a mere formality.
Burton is back in full stride heading into Sunday's Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A victory a week earlier at the Phoenix International Raceway gave him four wins this season one short of series-leading Tony Stewart and it propelled him to third place in the national standings.
If the first 16 races of the season weren't a wash, Burton would be in position to either challenge or lead Bobby Labonte for the Winston Cup Series championship.
''We are very excited about next year,'' Burton said in what's become an annual statement. ''Frank (Stoddard, crew chief) and I are working together better than we ever have. He has matured a great deal as a crew chief.''
The problem is, Burton was saying the same thing a year ago after he dominated the closing stages of the racing season with nine top-10 finishes, including two victories, in the final 11 races. That kind of finish was supposed to ignite the kind of confidence and momentum for a fast start in 2000. But as in seasons past, Burton fell back into his early season funk.
In the first 16 races this year, Burton had one win, six top-fives and nine top-10s. In the past 16 races, he's got three victories, nine top-fives and 13 top-10s. His victory at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 1 has jump-started a second-half rally that's earned him more points than any other drivers in the sport.
Burton has earned a series-best 2,445 points since July 1. That's 40 more than Labonte, who needs to finish 30th or better in each of the final two races to win his first championship.
The reason why Burton is third in the title chase and mathematically eliminated from the championship race is an effort that earned him only 2,134 points in the first 16 races. The difference between his first 16 races and his last 16 races is a staggering 311 points.
So what went wrong?
Labonte has finished every race this year; Burton has failed to finish twice. Labonte also has played the system well, making consistency the mandate of his championship effort. In the first 16 races, Labonte earned 2,400 points. In the past 16 races, Labonte has earned 2,405 points.
Burton clearly has all the ingredients to be a champion. He's a good driver with a knack to adapt to different racing conditions. His victories this year came at the 112-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 212-mile Daytona International Speedway, the 1.058-mile New Hampshire International Speedway and the 1-mile speedway at Phoenix. He's got a good race car, a talented crew chief and a car owner, Jack Roush, with limitless resources.
But if Jeff Burton doesn't get out of the starting blocks quicker in 2001, another late-season charge will be impressive, but not nearly enough. Again.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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