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Thursday, July 4, 2002
Daytona 500 champ winless since

By Rupen Fofaria

Rupen FofariaDAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Maybe Ward Burton realized it was just too soon to celebrate.

The 40-year-old Danville, Va., native had just won the Super Bowl race of NASCAR and he hardly cracked a smile. No hootin'. No hollerin'. Just a trophy presentation, a hat dance and the usual formalities.

Sixteen races later, it's evident there was no real reason to celebrate. After winning the 500, Burton has posted only one other top 10 -- at Atlanta back in March -- and has finished outside the top 20 a remarkable 10 times. All of this leaves him mired in 25th in the points standings as he, along with the rest of the Winston Cup Series, returns to Daytona International Speedway this weekend.

"We can turn things around this weekend and get back to being competitive," Burton said. "We're heading into this weekend without another break until the season ends and I hope this race can give us a good start to that long stretch of races."

Burton called the festivities that surrounded his Daytona 500 victory draining. An intense month of testing in January, two weeks of sweating over every little thing on the race car and four hours of racing in the most anticipated event of the year tends to do that to a guy.

Ward Burton
Bill Davis, top, and Ward Burton have not celebrated much since winning the Daytona 500.

As a result, though, the team had little juice left to carry over to Rockingham the next weekend, where they finished 13th. The team followed that effort up with a 21st-place finish in Las Vegas and what started as a little drift of difficulties here and there snowballed into a confidence problem with the entire No. 22 Dodge team, which has finished 30th, 42nd, 37th, 33rd, 42nd and 40th in its past six points races.

Ironically, this track Burton left surprisingly cool and calm after his big victory is now generating much more excitement for him and the rest of the crew.

"I think this can be the race to get our confidence back and get us heading in the right direction," Burton's crew chief Tommy Baldwin said. "We've been working as hard as ever and we've been plagued by a lot of misfortune. I hope Daytona will give us a good finish and we can take that finish and build some momentum to head into the final stretch of the 2002 season."

Burton is not the first to encounter a slump after winning the Daytona 500. Last year, Michael Waltrip got his first career points victory in the Daytona 500, but has not won a race since. Dale Jarrett won the 500 in 1999, then went most of the rest of the season winless, finally collecting one more checkered in November.

"It's definitely the thrill of a lifetime," Jarrett said of winning the Daytona 500. "But then you have to turn around and run the rest of the season. You spend a month concentrating on one race and then, just like that, it's over and you're supposed to move on to the next race. It's tough."

Still, having won the biggest race of the year made this season a success for Bill Davis Racing and the 22 car's sponsor, Caterpillar, no matter how badly the rest of the season goes.

Because of the million-dollar payday that comes with the 500 victory, Burton has earned the second-most money this year. With more than $2.8 million, Burton is less than $400,000 behind Mark Martin in winnings and 23 places behind him in the points standings.

But Burton isn't content resting on those laurels. Money means a lot to team owners and business folk. Race car drivers want to win.

"I think it will be exciting for us as a team to go back to the place where the season began and where we last visited victory lane," Burton said. "It really is an awesome feeling winning a race, but there is a special feeling that goes along with winning the Daytona 500."

Rupen Fofaria is a beat writer for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer.