Burton leading surprising Childress surge

The feeling hit him during a recent team meeting. The No. 31 Chevrolet team had gathered in its hauler to discuss race-day adjustments, and the confidence combined with the energy in the room created an unshakable feeling of déjà vu for Jeff Burton.

It was as though he were driving the No. 99 Ford for Roush Racing back in the late 1990s -- back when he was knocking on the door of winning a title. That feeling -- that fleeting sense of legitimate hope and faith in your car's ability to win on Sunday and your team's ability to help you finish in the top five -- is not so rare in NASCAR's elite, well-funded teams. But for Burton, it has been a long time coming.

"The way to be in the top 10 and the way to win a championship is to run well," Burton said. "Our team meetings are more productive today because we talk about fine-tuning our cars rather than trying to get from A to Z. Today, we're a whole lot closer. So our team meetings are much more productive, much more focused."

After finishing fourth, fifth, fifth and third in the points standings from 1997 through 2000, Burton began a downward spiral that led to his voluntary departure from the Roush Racing conglomerate and his undertaking a rebuilding project with Richard Childress Racing. When Burton first signed on to drive Childress' 31 car, though, some believed it was Childress who had taken on a rebuilding project.

Burton's 10th-place points finish in 2001 marked his highest finish in the 2001-05 span. Since then, he has finished 12th, 12th, 18th and 18th. This season, he's on pace to qualify for his first Chase for the Nextel Cup.

And Burton isn't the only driver eyeing his first Chase. Burton's teammate, Kevin Harvick, ranks 10th and is on pace for his first appearance after finishing 14th in the past two seasons. Third-year racer Kasey Kahne (sixth) and second-year driver
Kyle Busch (ninth) are surprises among the top 10, too. And although veteran driver Mark Martin qualified for the first two Chases, his sitting in third now is remarkable considering at this point last year he had planned to retire -- before team owner Jack Roush asked him to stick around for just one more go-around.

"I'm just so proud of this team and everything they're doing to keep us up there," Martin said. "It's unbelievable the effort they're putting in right now."

Harvick and his team know what it's like to be struggling -- which makes the taste of success all the sweeter.

"It's been very fun to be a part of," Harvick said. "I think the last time I went on a roll like this in racing was racing late models. The team has done a great job. Everybody has put great race cars together, and we've been able to capitalize on situations whether we had the best car or not. We've put ourselves in a position to win races and do the things we need to do to give ourselves a chance to win.

"It's been a lot of fun. You know the downside of it, so the upside of it makes it enjoyable."

But nobody can be as ecstatic as Richard Childress, who was in a deep trench trying to dig his way back to the top of the sport after the death of his longtime driver and friend, Dale Earnhardt. In the year Earnhardt died, in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick stepped into the role of driver for Earnhardt's old team and, with one less race than everyone else on the circuit, managed to finish ninth. Only once since then, in 2003, has Childress had a top-10 points finish -- also by Harvick. But in 2003, there was no Chase format and neither Harvick nor any of the three drivers directly ahead of him in the final standings ever had a chance to close the enormous gap Matt Kenseth built on his way to his first title.

Now, nearly halfway through the first 26 races, Childress is on his way to loading two bullets in the title chase gun. His third bullet, rookie Clint Bowyer, is 15th.

"We're able to discuss things between all three teams that are relative, as opposed to last year," Burton said. "Last year, even though we worked well together, on a lot of occasions we had three different directions. This year, we're much closer in our aerodynamics and our chassis, so it's much more productive and meaningful, without a doubt."

Burton said it was an incredible feeling to be back in a consistently top-10 car. In a world where numbers matter most -- particularly the number signifying where a driver finishes a race -- Burton finally has regained a sense of belonging in the competitive world of elite stock car racing.

"We are a competitive sport, obviously, and at the end of the day, results are what matter," he said. "When we look at how we've run this year, what we look at is in what position did we run in the race? How do our pit stops compare to our competitors'? Do we run best at the beginning of runs or at the end of runs? How is our overall speed? All of those things are better than last year. Obviously, we're higher in points than we were last year. And, we've had a whole lot more trouble this year than we did last year.

"So when you look at the tools we use to measure, we certainly have made improvements."

That's not to say that there isn't room for more improvement, though.

"We do still need some speed," Burton said. "We're certainly a fifth- to 10th-place team, there's no question about that. But there are three to five cars that seem, on a weekly basis, to be consistently better than we are. So we're striving to get there. We're striving to narrow that gap."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.