Burton stayed classy with runner-up finish

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- On April 11 at Texas Motor Speedway, Jeff Burton will receive the annual Sportsmanship Award from the Texas Motor Sports Hall of Fame.

Sunday at Bristol, he proved why he deserves it.

Burton did the right thing. He did the honorable thing at a time in professional sports when the rarity of it surprises us.

Burton could have won the Food City 500 and he knows it. All it would have taken was a little tap on Kyle Busch's rear bumper on the final lap, something that's become a signature move on the half-mile oval.

Busch would have skated up the track and Burton would have raced by in the No. 31 Chevy. But Burton's conscience wouldn't let him do it.

"My mother always told me to do unto others as you would have them do to you," Burton said. "I try to race everybody clean."

Burton got inside of Busch exiting the final turn, but fell a few feet short of passing him at the final line.

Some might say Burton was simply playing the points game, not wanting to risk a wreck when he was headed for a strong finish. Burton now ranks second in the Nextel Cup standings, only three points behind Jeff Gordon.

But the points situation wasn't on his mind in those final moments Sunday. Burton wanted to win, but he didn't want to win at the expense of a driver who always raced him fairly.

Burton doesn't want sainthood for his gallant act. He said he might have handled the situation differently had someone else been ahead of him.

"I always try to let the guys I'm racing with set the rules," Burton said. "Kyle is a hard racer, but he's always raced me with respect, so that's how I was going to race him."

Maybe Burton learned some of those lessons from Mark Martin, a man known for his fairness on the racetrack. Martin and Burton were teammates for nine years while both men drove for Jack Roush.

Burton finished in the top five in the Cup standings for four consecutive years (1997-2000). He was a career-best third in 2000 at age 33. He entered the next season as one of the favorites to win the championship.

But Burton wouldn't get that close again in his final four years at Roush. He left at midseason in 2004, ranking a career-low 18th.

Burton was 37 when he went to Richard Childress Racing, a team that was struggling. Most people thought Burton's best days were behind him.

Most people were wrong. Burton helped Childress turn around his operation from the inside out with fresh ideas and new approaches. Those changes also helped Burton revitalize his career.

He made the Chase last year and finished seventh in the standings. Burton was first halfway through the 10-race Chase before some bad breaks dropped him out of contention at the end.

But Burton proved he still could wheel a race car when he had a competitive car.

"I was disappointed that we couldn't give Jeff better equipment his first year here," Childress said. "Jeff is as focused as any individual I've met. He has talent and he has experience. I really believe he can win a championship."

RCR has taken up where it left off in 2006. All three RCR drivers -- Burton, Kevin Harvick (fifth) and Clint Bowyer (eighth) are racing up front. All three also finished in the top eight at Bristol in the first race for the Car of Tomorrow.

"I always try to let the guys I'm racing with set the rules. Kyle is a hard racer, but he's always raced me with respect, so that's how I was going to race him."
-- Jeff Burton

But it was Burton who had a chance to win it. He made a move near the end that few drivers can pull off at Bristol, going outside on a restart to pass Gordon and move to second behind Busch.

Burton has four top-5s in five starts this season. That top-5 Sunday could have been a victory had Burton wanted to race to the finish from a different perspective.

We've seen the other side already this season. Juan Pablo Montoya's first NASCAR victory came at the expense of teammate Scott Pruett. Montoya punted Pruett out of the way with eight laps to go in the Busch race at Mexico City.

Tony Stewart did the same to Kyle Busch in the Bud Shootout at Daytona last month. It's a common practice these days.

Had Burton gone for the bump-and-run, no one other than Busch would have complained. It's part of the game, but it isn't part of Burton's style.

If Burton goes on to win the Cup crown in November, think back to the day at Bristol when he showed us who he really is.

In the heat of a competitive moment, Burton opted for class and integrity over getting into Victory Lane.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.