A year ago the phone rang, and an unmistakable voice was on the other end.
"Whatcha doin?" Ward Burton asked. This was completely out of the blue. Generally, writers track down drivers; seldom is it the other way around, especially during the holidays.
I assumed he just needed to hear a friendly voice, especially after his tenuous season, which included a breakup with Bill Davis after an eight-plus-year relationship, and a jump to Haas CNC Racing. Whatever the reason, I didn't mind filling in as Dial-a-Yente.
Driving the Haas CNC No. 0 car, Burton was 15th in points after the first five races of 2004. But his team declined steadily until Burton, down to 29th in points after race No. 34, at Phoenix, was released.
Burton worked with three crew chiefs, Tony Furr, Bill Ingle and Bootie Barker, during that period, but nothing helped. Burton became disenchanted with his team, and vice versa.
Rumblings of his departure surfaced as early as the first Pocono race in June, and I approached Burton about the situation. He confirmed that he had heard a similar buzz, so I wrote that Burton knew he was on the hot seat.
Burton was not happy.
I had not wanted to report something on Burton's situation without asking him about it. He assumed our conversation was simply banter and thought I had crossed a line. Consequently, I didn't hear from Burton this holiday season.
Still, inquiring minds want to know. Since the season ended the majority of my mail has been about Burton. What is he doing? Where is he going? Why doesn't he have a ride?
I can't answer what he is doing or where he is going--my guess is he enjoyed the holidays with his wife, Tabitha, and their three children in Virginia.
But as for why he doesn't have a ride, the bottom line is his age: He turned 43 in October. Young, marketable drivers, regardless of whether they can win, are in favor. The replacement at Bill Davis Racing, for instance, was Scott Wimmer, who'll be 29 this month. (Burton's replacement at Haas CNC, though, was Mike Bliss, who's 39 and certainly doesn't have Burton's resume.)
Because of the timing of Burton's dismissal, he was unable to find a Nextel Cup seat once the music stopped. Time also prevented Burton from scrambling to put his own team together.
It will take awhile in 2005 for sponsors to pressure owners and owners to fire crew chiefs and drivers, but Burton's phone eventually will ring.
Burton, though, must face the fact that despite his talent and popularity with fans and sponsors, he is no longer on NASCAR's A list of Cup drivers.
Reggie White's influence will be missed in NASCAR circles. As a founding member of Joe Gibbs Racing's diversity program, White was developing minority drivers at the grassroots of racing.
With three years of experience with Sterling Marlin and the No. 40 Dodge, team engineer Steve Boyer was an excellent choice to be Marlin's new crew chief. He knows the Ganassi Racing system, and the transition to coaching will be a breeze. * Boris Said says he is surprised that a crew chief of Frankie Stoddard's caliber would want to work on his part-time No. 36 Chevrolet team, but I'm not. Although Said's deal is for just a minimum of 10 races in 2005, the phone wasn't ringing off the hook with job offers after Stoddard was released from Bill Davis Racing. Expect Stoddard's trial period at MB/Sutton Motorsports to be just that. My guess is Stoddard has his eye on the No. 10 Chevrolet, which is in need of an overhaul after finishing 29th in points. Scott Riggs is the driver for the No. 10, with Doug Randolph as the crew chief. * Pocono is the latest track to adopt Saturday qualifying for Nextel Cup races. Teams will continue to practice on Friday. After Saturday's qualifying, the cars will be impounded until Sunday. * It will be good to see James Ince back in the Cup garage, as Hermie Sadler's crew chief. Ashton Lewis' Busch team brought Ince in at the midpoint of last season, and he helped Lewis to a career-high eighth-place finish in points. Sources say Sadler will drive a Ford, possibly with support from Robert Yates Racing.
Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch will join two Roush Racing teammates, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, behind the wheel of the No. 49 Ford in the Rolex 24 on February 5 and 6 at Daytona International Speedway. Considering the exposure such Chevrolet drivers as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart have received at the event, it's not surprising Ford called on its star power.
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