Just one dream unfulfilled for savvy Burton: a Sprint Cup championship

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Burton was cruising the streets in his hometown of South Boston, Va., when a girl he'd never noticed approached on a bicycle. She didn't pay much attention to the young boy in the passenger seat, and wasn't particularly impressed after he did what she called one of those "redneck things where you lean out of the window and holler."

But Burton wasn't done. He called a few friends to find out about this pretty stranger and got her phone number. That led to a two-hour conversation that led to a secretive meeting at a high school football game.

They've been together ever since, although there were a few tense moments convincing the girl's dad that an aspiring race car driver was proper for his daughter.

Jeff was 15. Kim was 14.

"When you see something you want, man, you go for it," Jeff said.

Jeff admittedly is lucky. Almost everything he's wanted in life he's made happen, either through hard work and desire or good fortune.


The one thing that has escaped him is a Sprint Cup title. He's been close a few times, finishing third in 2000, fourth in 1997 and fifth in 1998 and '99. He was leading the points with five races remaining in 2006 before a failed engine at Martinsville took him out of contention.

Now, at 41, he has another chance.

Jeff enters Saturday night's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway (7 p.m., ABC) fourth in the standings, 99 points behind two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Most don't give the elder statesman of Richard Childress Racing a chance, but Jeff doesn't care. He's taking the same approach to the final six races as he did to chasing the girl who became his wife and mother of his two children, Paige and Harrison.

"You've got to go for it," Jeff said. "The first time I saw Kim I was, 'Damn, I have to find out who that is.' If you don't know what you want it's hard to make it happen."

Jeff knew he wanted to drive a race car at the age of 5. He knew when he became NASCAR's Rookie of the Year for the Stavola Brothers in 1994 that he wanted to win a championship.

Kim, who has witnessed almost every lap of her husband's career, understands this passion better than anybody. She laughs when people write him off because of his age or say he should be glad to simply be in the Chase.

She can't imagine anybody who wants, or deserves, the title more.

"He is a completely driven person," said Kim, who married Jeff in 1992. "What he wants in his mind is attainable. Just like Mark Martin, I feel he should have had four championships.

"But I don't think if he doesn't get it he won't be satisfied with what he's accomplished. If he doesn't win it he won't go and be 80 with me in the rocker and not be satisfied with his life."

Trophy room visit
Jeff was down. He hadn't won a race in several years, his Roush Fenway Racing car was not sponsored and there were whispers he'd lost his nerve to keep up with the so-called young guns.

In stepped Kim.

She led him to the basement of their Huntersville, N.C., house, to the room that housed his 17 Cup trophies and countless more from other series.

"What I wanted him to understand was you don't get those number of trophies by not being good, that you don't lose that in a period of 12 months," Kim said.

Jeff doesn't look at that moment -- somewhere between his final full season at Roush Fenway in 2003 and his start with RCR midway through 2004 -- as pivotal to his turnaround.

"But it's nice to have somebody from the outside say you can do it," he said. "A lot of people thought that I had gotten scared or was getting older and didn't want to push the pedal and all that crap they're saying about Jeff Gordon now.

"She knew that wasn't the case because she lived with me. It was more of a reminder that she knew I was still trying and that I still cared a great deal about it. She was just trying to remind me I hadn't forgotten how to drive."

Nobody doubts that now. Jeff ended his four-year winless streak in 2006 with a victory at Dover that gave him the points lead. He finished seventh in the standings that season and came back with another win and trip to the Chase in 2007.

He won again this year at Bristol en route to a third straight appearance in NASCAR's playoff. He has more top-5s (22) and top 10s (54) during the past three seasons than he had the previous five combined.

The only question remaining: Can he win a title?

"I absolutely believe Jeff Burton is a threat for this championship," Johnson said.

Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, coming off a victory at Talladega, agreed.

"His knowledge and experience in this series is the reason he's a threat," he said. "He's a smart racer and he knows when he makes a decision on the track there's a reason he does it and he's very calculated with everything he does. That in itself makes him a threat every week."

But Johnson and Stewart, as do most in the garage, respect Jeff for more than his driving. They respect him for his character, which is such that it has made his opinion one of the most sought after outside of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"His character starts with his relationship with his wife, his kids, what he means for the sport, the way he drives on the track," Johnson said. "He's far from a pushover, but he's respectful.

"You get in there and ruffle his feathers you're going to regret the fact that you've done that. He's a man of his word. He treats everyone with respect."

Big disappointment
Jeff climbed out of his car at Martinsville 217 laps into the 500-lap event and slammed a water bottle against the side of his hauler before disappearing inside.

Seldom does he show such emotion. But seldom, if ever, had he been in such a strong position to win the title.

The 42nd-place finish with four races remaining took him from first and 45 points clear of the field to fifth and 48 behind.

"That was really, really hard," Kim said. "He had been so down on people's radar. People thought, 'Yeah, he's good, but he's old.' He wasn't really old, but people were saying that.

"For him to have that chance and be right there ... it was tough."

But Jeff didn't disappear into the hauler because he wanted to avoid the media, as many drivers do. He wanted to gather his team to remind them they could overcome the setback.

"That's what sets him apart from the guy that comes out and just runs his mouth," Kim said. "He's going to make sure he has control of the situation and be objective and realize that the engine guy was wanting to throw up more than he was.

"That's what I think is so great about him. That's why people respect him within his race team and within the sport. He's going to make sure that no matter what the situation is, he's going to do his best to handle it in the correct way."

That doesn't mean Jeff is immune to anger or throwing water bottles.

"He's human," Kim said. "I wanted to throw a water bottle, too. That just shows that he does care so much and that he's able to manage it and organize it into a positive."

Johnson understands, recalling an incident with Jeff at a 2004 race in Martinsville.

"He absolutely ran me over to pass me and pick up a spot with three laps to go," Johnson said. "I was furious. He comes into our transporter after the race, through all of my guys that are just as mad as I am. He came up to me and said, 'Hey, I'm not making any excuses. I ran over you. I just thought I should be here as a man telling you I meant to move you out of the way. Sorry I was so rough with you.'

"At first I thought he was crazy. Then I thought, 'At least he didn't lie to me and say, 'Hey, buddy, I didn't mean to do that.'"

For her own nerves, Kim would rather see her husband trying to run past Johnson for the points lead instead of in position to lose it as he did in 2004.

Jeff seldom disagrees with his wife, but on that issue he does.

"We'd rather not have a 99-point deficit," said Jeff, who has two wins, seven top-5s and 14 top-10s in 29 trips to LMS. "I can't say that's a good thing, but it's a doable thing. It's attainable. It's not going to be easy. People want to write people off.

"But there's a lot of people that still have a chance. What we have to do is focus on us and pay attention to what we're going, and if we do that we'll have a good shot."

Sharing the load
Paige and Harrison were scurrying in the background as Kim tried to have a phone conversation.

"I'm trying to multitask here," she said. "I don't know if I do it well, but I do it."

More importantly, she doesn't do it alone. Not that Jeff believes he pulls equal weight in household chores. He admits Kim does more at home than he does because so much of his time is taken up by the demands of running a 36-race Cup schedule and part-time Nationwide schedule.

It got even more lopsided a few years ago when Jeff's non-racing business forced him to stop driving the kids to school. But Kim doesn't complain. She appreciates that when her husband's not at the track his focus is on the family.

Racing is his passion, his love. But at the end of the day it's the family that is most important. That actually makes him better on the track.

-- Kim Burton

Sometimes that means Jeff goes to his son's quarter-midget race while Kim goes with her daughter, an aspiring Olympic equestrian, to a horse show. Sometimes they get to go together, as was the case Tuesday when Harrison had a race.

But as Jeff does with his crew chief, husband and wife are always communicating.

"When you love somebody and you have a relationship and know that you're committed to each other and you know what is important to them, then it isn't a question of what does it do to me," Kim said. "It's a question of how do I make it happen for them. I know he does the same for me."

Jeff agreed, saying today's NASCAR -- with all the tests, races and appearances that come with it -- is better suited for a young, single guy than a married man with children.

"She has a lot of appreciation for all the things that make it work," he said. "She's never once said, 'You shouldn't go test, you shouldn't go to the track.' She's never once questioned what it takes to do what I have to do."

One could argue Jeff and Kim live as normal a life as anybody in a sport that creates abnormality.

"Obviously, Jeff and Kim have a great relationship," teammate Kevin Harvick said. "Jeff just knows how to make things work. That's what marriage is all about, making things work.

"I tell everybody Jeff Burton has helped me more as a person than he has as a race car driver."

"Where are we going?"
Jeff didn't hesitate when asked how he would respond if a teenage driver asked his daughter, who is 13, on a date as he asked Kim 26 years ago.

"Where are we going?" he said with a laugh. "I hope we're doing something fun. I'm going with you."

Jeff didn't have a lot of respect for Kim's father back then.

"He thought my dad was a lunatic," Kim said with a chuckle. "Now my dad is the smartest man on the planet."

Jeff is pretty smart as well. He knows there won't be many more opportunities like this to make a run at the title. He knows his team must find a way to lead laps and win races, instead of settling for top-10s, for that to happen.

He also knows there are more important things than the Chase.

"I don't change my life because I'm in the Chase," he said. "That's not to say I don't want to win it as bad as anybody else, but I live the way I live and I'm not going to change that whether we're 50th in points or first.

"We live a lifestyle that we try to live because it's balanced and provides a grounding, the things I think are important."

Kim believes that grounding is why her husband is a threat to win the title at an age when many drivers his age are headed in the opposite direction.

"Racing is his passion, his love," she said. "But at the end of the day it's the family that is most important. That actually makes him better on the track. He can relax and not feel the pressures many young drivers do."

When Jeff is on the track, nobody pulls harder for him than Kim. As she has been almost every step of the way -- including 2000 when she sat, pregnant with Harrison the day before he was born, on the pit box at LMS -- she'll be biting her nails and looking anxious every time the No. 31 crosses the start-finish line.

"I want it so bad for him because I know what it means to him," Kim said. "I also know he deserves it because I know how hard he's worked. He's just so persistent. If he wants it, he goes for it."

He usually makes it happen, with winning the championship the only exception.

"That's it," said Jeff, his voice growing softer. "That's it."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.