NASCAR Media Conference
January 11, 2006
JEFF BURTON: Good morning. Actually I feel really good about this year. Last year we pretty much took an ass-whipping all year and didn't run very well. It forced our company to take a look at itself, and in an effort to become better, I think that we've -- since I've been there, which is about 18 months, we have changed immensely. There's really no department that hasn't been changed in a big way, especially around the performance. So I think we come into this year with much better engines; we come into this year with much better cars; we come into the year with much better engineering support. I honestly believe that you will see an increase in performance on the racetrack.
Q. When you say RCR needs to get back over the hump to be competitive again, to use that cliche, the question becomes how does that hump develop? Where do you get off track, and in a business where -- if you need to go set springs and shocks up like everybody else is setting them up, you go hire a shock guy. If you're down on power you go hire somebody's engine guy. How do you get that far behind and then how do you get back?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think that's a great question, and you have to understand, one thing that I don't understand is I don't have a full understanding of how it got to where it was because when I got there, it was what it was. I believe that a lot of it had to do with Richard's being a nice guy. I think that he was really nice, almost was too nice, to a lot of -- not individual people but to the groups. I think he gave a lot of groups the benefit of the doubt, that they were doing the right thing, and wasn't dropping the hammer when things weren't what they needed to be. I mean, that's the only thing I can tell you is that he's a highly competitive person. He wants to win races. At the end of the day when I stepped in there after being there about six months -- really the eye-opener for me was how we prepared for '05. The way we went into '05 was not acceptable with the amount of R & D work done in our engine department, the amount of R & D done on the cars, chassises, bodies, aero program was lagging behind. That really opened my eyes, and when I went into '05, I knew if we ran well, it was more because we were lucky than that we had put a good plan together. I think it kind of lacked a plan. I think each department, whether it be engines or engineering or chassis or whatever didn't have that goal. This is what we have to do, this is how we're going to do it, and it just wasn't all pulled together. I don't know how it got there, I just know that's how it was, and I also know that all of it has been -- I'll tell you that -- just for example, if you were here testing last year, I'd love to pull up a time sheet of where we were last year with the 31 car, but I would imagine we were maybe 25th fastest with one car and probably 35th fastest, and yesterday we were 10th. The day before that I think we were 11th. So 10th and 11th isn't where we want to be, but for a year's time for a restricted plate program, to go from 25th, which is essentially 50th, to 11th and 10th, which is essentially 20th or 22nd, that's a major jump in a restricted plate program. Richard totally redid -- hired a lot of people, totally redid the structure around the engine department and totally redid the structure around the aero department, and those are the two biggest things at Daytona. It's taken a year to happen, but we're seeing results, and I think you'll see that in the open motors, too.
Q. There have been about 19 or 20 driver changes this year. When you're out there drafting, are you going to have to think at all about who's in the 43 car, who's in the 21 car, who's in the 40 car, who's in the 41 car?
JEFF BURTON: The 41 and the 40, and I'm still not real clear on who's driving what over there to be honest, they keep changing their mind, but you get used to those things. It is a lot of changing this year. I think even more than that, I think if you look at -- if you look at what's gone on in racing this year, I think there's been more restructuring within teams than we've ever seen before. You look at the teams that ran well, you don't see a lot of movement. The 48 didn't move a lot. They had a lot of people in the shop that went other places. But the 24 made a change, Petty Enterprises obviously made in my opinion -- they made the biggest, best moves of anybody. The Evernham organization, the Yates organization, the Childress organization, in an effort to answer the bell, everybody stepped up to the plate. I think competition is going to be unbelievable this year. And the driver changes went into that, too. When you look at all the driver changes and you look at all the crew changes and all the engineering and all the changes that have gone on, it's all due to trying to answer the call of what Roush did and what the competitive teams did last year.
Q. To take David's question a step further, and you've just alluded to it, basically everybody improved, so doesn't it make then your task even that much more difficult?
JEFF BURTON: Well, exactly. Every year it happens. You know, every year every team tries to become a better team, and you've got to become -- we were where we were to our competition. If we made improvements, we're just going to stay the same. We have to make improvements and some more improvements. We feel like we've done that. We feel like we didn't just step into the year and say, "Well, we just need a better engine package or a better aero package." We have addressed every single part of what makes the cars go fast, with people, with hardware, with engineering, with a lot of things. Yes, just an improvement keeps you the same; we had to make a leap.
Q. When you have -- when you're with a team that has an off year, a disappointing year, as the driver, how difficult is it to know what role you had in that and critique yourself, and how difficult is it to be honest about what did I do? And then to what extent does that ever shake your confidence as a driver?
JEFF BURTON: Well, it's a really good question, and it's a question that's, to be quite honest, hard to answer. I consider myself to be very open-minded when it comes to my own performance. I try to grade myself after every practice session, I grade myself after every qualifying session and every race. I will tell you that unlike football where you can put another quarterback in and see if he can move the ball, you can't do that here, so it is hard to test yourself, it really is. You have to really be willing to be very open-minded. Although in many cases it's not time to be open-minded. You have an hour and a half of practice. This is how I'm going to drive the car, we've got to make it work. It's a difficult thing to do. I will tell you that as stupid as this sounds, because we finished 18th in points last year, I think I did my best job driving that I've ever done. I think I managed the year very well, I think I managed races very well. I thought I got everything I could get out of most races. But do I really 100 percent know that? I'm pretty confident of that, but there's no way you can ever really know, the same way that Peyton Manning can't really know that maybe somebody else could be doing as well as he is right now. You don't ever really know. When I stepped into Childress, I knew I was stepping into something that needed a lot of work. I took that responsibility, I took that -- stepped into it knowing that you don't hire drivers and you don't hire crew chiefs and you're not making changes in your company if everything is going well. The results spoke for themselves. The 29 car has pretty much been the car that's led that group, and they hadn't done as well as they needed to do. So I knew that I was stepping into something that needed a lot of work, needed a lot of attention.Unfortunately that wasn't a down year; that's the thing right there that you have to understand. If you look at where the 31 car finished in points and those kind of things, that wasn't a down year, and that's the problem. If that was a down year, then they would be, well -- you could rationalize it out. For that to be a better than average year, that's totally unacceptable. When I stepped into that, I knew that. I knew that we had major things we had to do; I knew we had major changes that had to happen. I'm not patient with it, but I'm understanding of it. I will tell you this: It's time for that to go away. We can't be -- last year we were rebuilding; this year we have to perform. You cannot continually have to be rebuilding, rebuilding; it's time to get it done.
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think a lot of people confuse confidence with arrogance, I really do. I think a lot of drivers and a lot of professional athletes have false confidence, which is arrogance. It's not confidence, it's arrogance. Confidence is something that you earn; confidence is something that -- results speak for confidence. Sometimes the result is 15th, and that's something that you guys and the fans and other people can't see, but you get out of your car, and I can't tell you the number of times I was in my rental car going to the airport leaving a race, thinking, "Damn, I did good today but nobody will ever know it," and I knew it. I still had my confidence, but I don't have the same level of confidence that a Greg Biffle may have or that a Tony Stewart has because if I did, that would be arrogant. That wouldn't be confidence, that would be arrogance.
Q. Jeff, what are the different skills that you are having to develop over the last couple years as the sport evolves? Here drivers talk about on the track it's quicker pace, more aggression. What does that mean? With the aerodynamics, more reliance on that, are you having to become more of an engineer or can you just ignore that aspect? Some of the other drivers have said drivers can't carry a car as much, so does that mean in this evolving duty of the driver that maybe he's more of a cheerleader to the team as opposed to some other things?
JEFF BURTON: The hardest thing that I've had to deal with is the understanding that I can't do everything. My personality is such that I don't want to leave for chance that something was done right; I want to be in there helping make sure it's done right. I happen to think that a 17-race winner that hadn't won in three years didn't forget how to win, but maybe the way he was winning doesn't work anymore. And when I say that, from a driving standpoint, a 17-race winner can still get it done. But from a how-do-you-prepare-to-go-to-the-racetrack, maybe he can't. When I had my success, I was an integral part of what are we building, how are we building it, when are we building it, how are we setting it up, what are we doing to it. I was a big part of that. And today, with engineering, with -- when I had my success, we had maybe 20 people working, 25 people. We have 300 working now. That's been the hardest thing for me is learning to -- I still want to help because I think I'm really good at that, I think I'm good at saying this is where we're weak, and instead of me saying this is how we're going to fix it, now I try to get a group together and say, okay, how are we going to fix this, and try to help build the plan rather than me making the plan. That's been my biggest adjustment. That is a big reason that Scott Miller will be our crew chief this year, because he is an engineer-minded guy that's going to -- he just takes control. This is how we're going to do it. He talks to me about it, but he just takes control and says this is how we're going to do it, this is why we're going to do it, and he wants me involved but doesn't want me there every minute of the day. That's why we made that change, because it's a better fit with what it takes to be successful today. We actually had this conversation yesterday in our trailer. A crew chief also has had to change. A crew chief 20 years ago, if the clutch was broken, he'd fix it. If the brakes weren't working, he would fix it. But he might not necessarily have been the guy -- the other driver was more involved in this is what we need to do to the car. Today the crew chief might not know a damn thing about the brakes. It's a totally different mindset of how to race versus how it was in the past. That also goes for the driver. I just don't think that the driver can run the team anymore; I think he needs to be able to concentrate on driving. The competition level is so big now, I need to focus on racing, not on the logistics part of it.
JEFF BURTON: Well, there's no good drivers that run bad. I mean, there's no good drivers -- there's no bad drivers that run good. You've got to be a good driver to run well. But you have to have good equipment, too. And in an era where we have a lot of really good drivers, the equipment becomes more important. So the main thing you have to have is speed, and to go fast, you have to have good equipment and a good driver. What we haven't had in my opinion over the last -- since my time at Childress was good enough equipment to compete on the level that we need to compete at.
Q. The test at Daytona has been much discussed. Besides your team, what do you make of what you've seen so far? Early in the session here, I think it was Dale, Jr., who was joking that the test is so long that it's too long and it allows time for people to start cheating, and beyond that you only need to test so much. And the new testing policy and what effect you think that will have on the young guys or whatever?
JEFF BURTON: The thing about testing being too long, there's always something to do. I will tell you that at the end of three days, you've probably gotten done all you need to get done. But hey, without that we couldn't have Fan Fest, right (laughing)? I'm up in the air about the new test procedure. The thing that I don't like about it is this year in particular, there's some teams that have 300 sets of tires stockpiled, and there's some teams that have four. So some teams are still going to be able to go to Kentucky and to Memphis and Nashville and those kind of places and be tested and there's other teams that aren't. I don't like that. I think that we should find a way -- we should have found a way to give everybody an opportunity this year to go to Kentucky and places to test, and then next year try to eliminate that. What we've got now is who has stockpiled tires and who has not stockpiled tires, and some of that is dumb luck. Some of it was planning and some was just dumb luck. That's the only thing I don't like about it. I think what we ought to do is give us tires to go test at those places, give you like four times or five times that you can go do those kind of tests and give you tires to do that. I don't like the fact that some people can go 20 times and some people can only go twice.
Q. How do you think it will affect the rookies coming up?
JEFF BURTON: I think the testing for rookies has been way unequal. In an era -- we've got to change the rules as the sport changes. When I came into the sport, rookies didn't drive good race cars; you drove junk and you were justified being able to test more. But in today's time, rookies don't step in driving junk anymore, they step in driving top -- because there is no junk. They step in driving really, really good stuff. The amount of tests that they got was not proportioned to the amount of -- to the equipment that they had. I think they ought to still get a little bit extra testing, but where we had it was way too much. It was way too much in my opinion.
Q. Who do you see stepping into the leadership role in the garage like Dale Earnhardt used to have?
JEFF BURTON: I don't know. I honestly don't know that. I think that there's -- Dale was a huge influence to Bill and to Mike, and he had a direct relationship with those guys. I think now it's more done by committee. I think there's five or six guys, and I'd like to think that I'm one of them, that have a rapport with NASCAR and with the media that can help make things happen. But I think it's done more by committee today than it was when Dale was here.
Q. As we go into the season, obviously we all are asked by our bosses to pick the top-10 and all that stuff and predict. With Roush having five drivers in last year and Hendrick has got four cars that you think maybe three of those are going to be in it, we were talking the other day, if we got to the end of the chase and there weren't at least six and maybe seven Roush and Hendrick cars, we would all be stunned. What's the outlook for the rest of the teams? I mean, do you sort of see yourself fighting for fewer positions or can you take that mindset going into a season and not worry about them and worry about yourself?
JEFF BURTON: When I'm racing against the 16, I'm not thinking about him being a Roush car; I'm thinking about him being the 16. The same with the 17 or the same with the 24. I think about those individual teams. Roush last year unprecedented had more cars that ran well than we've ever seen before. Not talking bad about Roush or Hendrick or anybody else, Hendrick only put one car in the chase last year, and I suspect they'll put more than one and I suspect Roush will put less than five. But those two teams will make up a portion of -- you don't race Hendrick and you don't race Roush, you race those individual teams. What I talked about before, I think a lot of people have made their programs better. I think a lot of people have stepped their programs up, and the question is did those guys step theirs up. I actually think you will see -- I feel good about our chances of being in the top-10, I feel really good about it. There's probably 25 teams that do, and only 10 will be right. But I think you'll see a tighter race this year for the top-10. But I don't think that you'll see -- I think you'll see Hendrick with more than one. I'll be shocked if they don't have more than one. But I have a hard time believing that Roush will have five. I think we can put one or two in there. It'll be interesting to see. You never know what's going to happen. Things have a way of -- big circle, it rolls, and things have a way of coming back around.
Q. Jeff, you articulate well. Did you acquire that or did you bring that with you?
JEFF BURTON: I don't know. I like to talk. You know, everybody grows up at a different rate, and one of the things that I think helped me enjoy speaking and enjoy seeing different stuff and forming opinions was quite honestly moving away from home. I moved away from Virginia 12 years ago or something, and it just was like, the light switch went off and there's all these things out there that I didn't know were out there. Not that I don't miss home, but I think that just -- I broadened my horizons so to speak, but I like talking. I like talking about things that I know about or things I think I know about. I enjoy having conversation and argument and agreement and disagreement and I don't mind doing that in front of people. I don't know if I do it well or I don't, but I enjoy doing it.
Q. What advice would you give the rookies coming in about public speaking and dealing with the media?
JEFF BURTON: When I came in, there was this -- somebody wanted me to go to Dale Carnegie, and I said I'm not going to that crap. I am who I am, and I think that at the end of the day, you just need to be who you are. I think if you try to become something that you're not that that's a bad thing. You certainly need to represent your sponsors in the way that they want to be represented, but I've never had any pressure from any sponsor or car owner or from anybody -- I had one person tell me once that I needed to develop a radio voice. Guess what he did for a living? He did commercials on radio. I said, "Well, I don't do commercials on radio." I am who I am, and I try to present myself in a fashion that my mother would be proud of me. That's all you can do is be yourself and understand that people are watching you, and I think it's important that we represent our sport, we represent ourselves, our sponsors in the right way. I think we've lost a little bit of that with a lot of the youth movement, that when you're 22 years old you might not have quite the appreciation of that that you do when you're 38. The NBA struggles with it and the NFL struggles with it. I try to conduct myself in a fashion that when I watch myself on TV, I won't be disappointed, and I think that's good advice for rookies or for anybody.
Q. Jeff, for the teams that don't have a lot of tires stockpiled, do you go to Hoosier and see if they can come up with a compound that can contest at Kentucky, or is there a way to get out there more and test?
JEFF BURTON: It's been discussed. There's certainly teams that have talked to other tire manufacturers in an effort to get tires. I don't know how all that is going to work out. We haven't gone that route. I don't know what will happen. It really depends on what you're testing. There's some things that you can put four bricks on the car to go test; there's other things that you really need a tire that we race to test. So it really depends on what you're testing. But if you're doing engine testing or hardware testing, you might go to another manufacturer. I don't think that you'd want to do that. Goodyear is what we race on, and to really get the proper feedback you need the tire that they build. But I wouldn't be surprised to see teams -- see a few more Arca teams popping up, to see some testing going on that otherwise you wouldn't be able to do.
Q. And the new Chevys so far, it might be hard to tell here, but do you expect it to be much better with the new nose and tail?
JEFF BURTON: I'm not a good person to answer that question because we didn't have enough equipment that we felt good about to throw a Chevy nose and tail and hood on and say how is it. We got all brand new stuff, so I don't know. I can tell you that my cars and Childress cars in general are a hell of a lot better than they were last year. Part of that is a new nose and a new tail and a new hood, but the majority of that is the fact that we realized that what we had was not near good enough, and we set out for the last six months to do it better. I honestly don't know the impact of the new Monte Carlo because our fleet is all new, it's all different. So I really don't know.
Q. When you were talking earlier about kind of speculating about ways in which RCR had kind of gotten off track, I totally understand that it's hard to talk about because you weren't there forever. But I was wondering if you got the sense when you joined the team that it was -- had been kind of immobilized by grief? I don't know if that's the best way to put it, but did you have any sense that the loss of Earnhardt kept them from moving forward?
JEFF BURTON: Yes and no. I think that Richard knew he needed to move forward, and everybody in there knew they needed to move forward. But I also think that any time they moved away from something that they were doing, they were moving further away from Dale. I don't know that to be fact, but I did sense some of that. My first day at work, Todd Berrier cornered me, and I took a severe tongue lashing about how the company won't do this, they don't change that, we don't have that, we don't do this, and I thought, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?" My first day at work at Childress was interesting. I had three crew chiefs, two engineers in about a four-hour period come to me and say, "What the hell are you doing?" They told me about all the bad stuff and they won't do this and they won't do that. So it took me about four hours to realize that there had to be something major just in -- I'm telling you, and this is the God's honest truth, when I went up there and looked at the hardware and the equipment and the access to technology that RCR has, I will stack it against any team in Cup racing, any team. Now, utilizing that, we obviously were coming up way short. The money was being spent, the effort was -- the dedication was there, but the hard decisions weren't being made. And I think that me coming in and Richard understanding -- he had to initially hire a driver and change things. A driver can only do so much these days. I think that had a major impact, hey, we've got to change a lot of stuff. Again, I don't know how it got where it was, but there's no question that Dale had such a huge influence, and without a doubt, there's been many days when I've heard, "When Dale was here, we didn't have to do it like that." I haven't heard that in the last six months, but I heard that. "When Dale was here, we didn't have to do that." But the reality of it is if Dale was there, they would have to do it in today's time. They were the pinnacle of the sport for a long time doing it a certain way. And in many ways, that can work against you. The hardest thing that we do once you've started having success is knowing when not to do it like that anymore. It's the hardest thing that we do. I think that that kind of sums up how they got where they were. Richard wasn't squirreling money away. You guys have been there; the investment is there. There's a lot of stuff behind closed doors that you don't see. The resources are there, the equipment is there, the hardware is there, the personnel count is there. All that stacks up with the Hendrick and the Roush, period, end of story. But that game plan, how are we going to beat them, it just kind of lacked there. I think that was partially due to their level of success that they had doing it a certain way for so long.
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