LOUISVILLE — In Jeff Burton's long career (1994-2013) as a Sprint Cup driver, he was not a superstar in the manner of Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson. With 21 career Cup wins, Burton was a cut below the mega-stars.
Yet now that the South Boston, Va., native is moving into full-time work as Sprint Cup race analyst for NBC, many are projecting stardom for Burton.
"I think Jeff Burton is going to be terrific on TV," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said, "don't you?"
Well, actually, yes. If anything, the loquacious Burton — whose nickname in the Sprint Cup garage was "The Mayor" — may need to be a little less verbal to thrive on TV.
"We're going to tell it like we see it. It's not our job to wear rose-colored glasses," Burton said Thursday at a Kentucky Speedway media event at Fourth Street Live in downtown Louisville. "The fans deserve to know the real story, the facts, the truth about what is going on. We intend to do it that way."
We're two weeks from the green flag dropping on the 2015 Sprint Cup season with the running of the Daytona 500. That means we are two weeks away from the first race of what will be NASCAR icon Gordon's final full-time year racing in the Cup Series.
"He brought a lot to this sport — but he's not a good fighter, I do know that," Burton joked of Gordon. "But you have to love (Gordon's) competitiveness, his fire. He's done this for 23 years now (including 2015), and done it at a very high level. (Yet) he still wants to win badly."
Burton said he believes Tony Stewart will bounce back in 2015 after experiencing a brutal year in 2014 both on (25th in Sprint Cup points) and off the racetrack.
Stewart began last season still recovering from a severely broken leg suffered in a 2013 sprint-car wreck that required five surgeries. Then, mid-summer, Stewart was involved in an incident that led to the on-track death of 20-year-old sprint-car driver Kevin Ward Jr.
"At the beginning of (last) year, people don't realize how serious Tony Stewart's injury was," Burton said. "He had a life-threatening injury that was a big, big deal. Then he had the incident (with Ward Jr.) last summer. All that stuff weighed on Tony a great deal. I think Tony, emotionally, is going to be a whole lot better than he was last year. How much success he'll have, I don't know. But he'll be better."
One of the biggest changes for NASCAR fans in 2015 will be how the races are telecast. Unlike in recent years, when the Cup season was split into three segments among FOX, TNT and ESPN, this year it will be divided in two.
The first half of the season will still be handled by FOX. Starting with the July 5th race at Daytona, however, the second half of the Cup schedule will now be broadcast by NBC.
For the new NBC broadcast team of play-by-play man Rick Allen and analysts Steve Letarte (crew chief last year for Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Kyle Petty and Burton, the second Cup event they will work will be the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (the broadcast will be on cable channel NBC Sports Network).
In three career Cup starts in Sparta, Burton ran 19th (2011), 24th (2012) and 19th (2013).
Kentucky Speedway's famously bumpy racing surface makes "it a hard racetrack," Burton said. "But that doesn't make it wrong. That it is harder for the teams, in my eyes, that's a good thing.
"To me, when you have unique situations like Kentucky, it creates an opportunity. The best teams, the most motivated people, they look at 'It's going to be hard. It's going to be difficult. That gives me a chance to be better than the next guy.' Well, the bumps do that."
Going into his first year in TV, Burton says he believes there are two main keys to succeeding as a color analyst.
Start with being authentic. "I'm a sports fan. I like sports," he said. "You can't watch any more racing on TV than I do, and I watch a lot of college basketball, NFL. So what I have tried to do is listen to a lot of people. But, honestly, I'm going to be me. I think NBC hired me to be me, not to be Troy Aikman. So my goal is to be me."
Burton said the second factor he must stay on top of is NASCAR's constantly-changing technology.
"I have to learn how to be informed and up to date even though I'm not now driving the car," he said. "To me, that's the biggest challenge, I have to stay current even though I won't be in the car."