Kentucky Speedway

NASCAR's Burton bleeds the 'other' blue

Jeff Burton signed a shirt for Donnie Wilson of Winchester as he greeted fans at the new Sam's Club in Nicholasville on Thursday.
Jeff Burton signed a shirt for Donnie Wilson of Winchester as he greeted fans at the new Sam's Club in Nicholasville on Thursday.

When the Sprint Cup Series at last comes to Kentucky Speedway next summer, it seems uncertain whether any drivers actually from the commonwealth will be in the race.

If not, maybe Kentuckians looking for a rooting interest will latch onto a NASCAR star every bit as passionate about college basketball as our state is.

Jeff Burton can talk hoops all day. The 43-year-old Virginia native is a longtime college basketball season-ticket holder.


In Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A Duke man.

Burton was in town Thursday to make an appearance for one of his sponsors, Prilosec OTC, at the grand opening of Sam's Club in Nicholasville. The driver laughed when asked what reception he, as a fan of Mike Krzyzewski and the reigning NCAA champions, was expecting in Kentucky.

"Hopefully, we won't do a lot of basketball talk," he said. "Of course, this year, nobody can say much to me, can they?"

Bear with me, and you'll see that Burton has a Coach K story that a lot of Kentucky fans might enjoy.

On Saturday night, when the green flag drops again on the famed night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Burton will enter the event standing seventh in the Sprint Cup points standings.

With only three races left in NASCAR's "regular season," the Richard Childress Racing driver is 164 points ahead of 13th-place Mark Martin. The top 12 in the standings after the first 26 races of the season qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the stock-car playoffs.

Barring disaster, Burton should be in solid shape to make the Chase for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

What the winner of 21 career Cup races does not have yet this season is a victory. Once the Chase starts, drivers in the playoffs get 10 bonus points for each regular-season race they've won.

"We're not going to change our approach at all these last three races," Burton said. "Obviously, the points are absolutely critical at this point, but I think the way you handle the pressure of these last three races is to do what you've done to get (a good place) in the standings in the first place."

A year ago, Burton finished 17th in the points. His bounce-back season is part of a larger resurgence at RCR. Kevin Harvick, Burton's teammate, is the Cup points leader.

"NASCAR changed some things before last year and we didn't adjust and we got behind," Burton said. "Once that happens, it's really difficult to make up that ground. I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm surprised, pleasantly surprised, that we've been able to get things back on track this quickly."

The Sprint Cup Series coming to Kentucky next year "should be a boon to the area," Burton said. "And I think it will be good for NASCAR. We need to have our races in venues where the fans have proven they want to attend. I think Kentucky is one of those places."

Burton has never raced at the Sparta track, though he has tested there in the past.

The knock on many of the mile-and-a-half "cookie cutter tracks" (like Kentucky Speedway) is that they don't always produce the most scintillating racing. However, the racing surface in Sparta has been a multi-groove track in recent years in the Nationwide Series.

Burton says that there should be even more side-by-side racing possible when the Cup Series arrives because 1.) there are more competitive teams in NASCAR's big league and 2.) Goodyear will likely put an emphasis on bringing a tire that will allow for a high-quality show.

Whether fans in Kentucky can embrace a driver whose basketball passion runs for Duke will be fun to watch. A lot of Kentuckians can probably relate to this, however.

With his four NCAA titles, Krzyzewski may now be one of the all-time greats in the history of college basketball coaching, but in his first three years at Duke his teams went 17-13, 10-17 and 11-17.

In those early days, Coach K was on his radio talk show one night when "John from South Boston, Va." called in with a little advice.

A young Jeff Burton was sitting in his family's kitchen as his dad upbraided Coach K, a former head man at Army, for his insistence on only playing man-to-man defense.

"Dad said, 'That may have worked at Army, but this is the ACC and you've got to play zone,' " Burton said.

Many years later, Burton had a chance to share that story with Krzyzewski.

"He just laughed and said my dad wasn't the only one back then with a lot of advice for him," Burton said.