Burton saves his best for big events

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ward Burton is not a perennial power. The Chevy driver has only five victories to his credit. But when he does break through, he does it when the stakes are high.

Among his few credits are victories in the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 -- two of the crown jewels on the Nextel Cup Series circuit.

Which brings us to the Brickyard 400, another elite event for which Burton qualified to start on the outside pole position with a 185.391 mph lap on Saturday.

Burton is realistic about his place in NASCAR right now. His No. 0 Chevy team is a work in progress. Ranked 27th in the points standings and yet to notch even one top five this season, Burton's team is not expecting to make a push for the chase for the championship. Not this season, anyway.

But Burton knows better than anybody that one day, in one race, anybody can win. And he'd love to add this coveted trophy to his prestigous collection.

"You want to go out and be able to win every week, but every team and every driver puts a little bit more emphasis on this race," Burton said. "Getting your name in the record books at this track is quite an accomplishment.

"NASCAR doesn't necessarily have its roots here like the open wheel cars do and a lot of our best drivers never had the chance to race there, but when people think of great racing, they think of Daytona and Indy."

That's why Burton was so excited about his outside pole. He'll start second only to Casey Mears, and that's just the shot in the arm he thinks that his team needed to realize they are headed in the right direction.

"It means a lot," he said of his lap. "Comes at a good time for all of us with the NetZero team. We're trying to, you know, build for the future. We made some changes in the last couple weeks that's definitely getting the light brighter at the end of the tunnel."

Though Burton is proud of his victories at Daytona and Darlington, he says he's not obsessed with rounding out his collection with a Brickyard or even Coca-Cola 600 win. He's more focused on rebuilding and one day contending for a title.

So when he finished qualifying, and finished speaking with reporters, he went back to work. Not only to fight for a win Sunday, but to experiment with strategies that might be useful in 2005.

"It would be nice to have a good run at Indianapolis, but we're looking for consistency as well," he said. "We need to be able to have solid runs at every track we go to, so it's important for us to look at the big picture too."

To him, the big picture's looking pretty good, too. He can tell that from the strides his team made working on his car this weekend. Burton and Co. were unhappy with the way the 0 car unloaded, but they went to work and found a strong qualifying setup.

"I feel we're heading in the right direction," Burton said. "This was obviously a big step for us to run that quick, a second-plus [faster than] what we ran yesterday. It's easy to drive a car when they're right. It's hard to drive a car when they're not right. They made the right changes to the car today, and that allowed me to go fast."

They went back to work after qualifying, and though their Happy Hour lap wasn't among the fastest, Burton is confident his team has some momentum and is confident it can put together a strong package come race day.

"That's a big difference with this team, now," he said. "They work hard and work until they find something that works."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.