Ward Burton believes he has the team, the crew chief and the equipment to become a serious contender to win races and perhaps even a Winston Cup championship.
Ward Burton's lone Winston Cup victory -- at Rockingham in 1995 -- seems long ago.
And some might think nearly four years without a win would dampen a driver's competitiveness. But not Burton -- he's just now beginning to enjoy his years of hard work.
Burton is ninth in the Winston Cup points race -- the highest standing of his career. His previous best finish was 16th, which came last season. He is, however, the only driver in the top 10 this season without a victory.
Clearly, though, Burton believes now more than ever he has the team, the crew chief and the equipment to become a serious contender to win races and perhaps even a Winston Cup championship.
"It's going real well compared to prior years,'' said Burton, a 37-year-old native of Danville, Va. "We got some areas where we're really strong and we got some areas where we're not so strong. All in all, we have a great team, a great bunch of guys.
"We still got some areas we're weak on, and we got to some way or another fix them quick. It's the same problem everywhere we go -- at the same type of track. We're working really hard, not only to build on what we got but to get stronger, too.''
Since joining Bill Davis Racing late in the 1995 season, Burton has progressed steadily through the Winston Cup ranks. He picked up his first win seven races after joining Davis but slipped to 33rd in the points by the next season.
Since then he's picked up steam, and in the last two seasons he has been knocking on the door to Victory Lane -- sometimes having his younger brother, Jeff Burton, there blocking his way.
Twice this season Ward has finished second to Jeff. The first time was after a side-by-side battle at Las Vegas. The second was at the rain-shortened Southern 500 at Darlington in early September.
"We've been real close. We've had cars at Michigan, Pocono, Texas and Darlington, Las Vegas. We've had some shots,'' Ward Burton said. "For one reason or another, we've not been able to capitalize on it. Since Charlotte last season (the October race), we've had three second-place finishes. I think we can win any given week.
"Naturally, if you're a 10th-place car, you always want to be a fifth-place car. If you're a fifth-place car you want to be in first place. So, we are continually trying to build this team to get the kind of depth we need to be a first-place car.''
Entering last weekend's NAPA 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Ward Burton had three top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Even more remarkable, Burton has achieved his success working with a single-car team -- the most successful of the few remaining single-car teams still in operation.
"I kind of like being a single-car team,'' he said. "I like all the focus being put on the (No. 22 Pontiac). I don't ever have to question if I'm getting the best stuff.''
But he also realizes some of the advantages multi-car teams have. He need look only at the success of his brother, Jeff, and his teammate, Mark Martin, to illustrate the benefits of teams sharing information.
Davis will bring up Dave Blaney from NASCAR's Grand National series as a Burton teammate next season.
Blaney is running five Winston Cup events this season and has made the field in each of three races he's attempted. His best finish was 28th at Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in May.
"One of the advantages the multi-car teams have is you get so much more input every time the car makes a lap. But the two teams or three teams need to work together,'' Ward Burton said. "Obviously (Jeff Gordon's team) isn't helping Terry Labonte and Wally Dallenbach. Obviously, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin help each other.
"Just because a car owner is going to have multi-car teams doesn't mean it will help one or the other driver,'' he said. "What it does mean is he'll have more financial backing and hopefully he'll have more depth to his race team, which allows him (to have) the kind of engineers and have the kind of research and development program that will enable him to make both teams strong.''
Ward Burton believes his team has already taken a step in that direction. He and the team's sponsor agreed earlier this season to three-year contract extensions with Davis, as did Burton's crew chief, Tommy Baldwin Jr. -- considered one of the up-and-coming stars in that field.
"It took Larry McReynolds almost eight or nine races to start communicating with Mike Skinner. I think my gap was a little bit shorter with Ward,'' Baldwin said. "He had a little bit of the same driving style as Dick Trickle (whom Baldwin worked for last season) as far as the setup went, and that went a little bit easier on the transition.
"The most important thing is the seat of his pants. That's what he is feeling with the race car. He has to come in and pretty much tell me what the car is doing in parts of the corner,'' Baldwin said. "What's real good with me and Ward right now is the way Ward drives, making it easier to see what the car is doing.
"We have a good communication. I understand what he is talking about more and more each week. He has trusted me since the very beginning. We're at the point now where he's not even looking at what I'm doing.''