Burton (and RCR) chasing relevance

CONCORD, N.C. -- It is lunchtime and Jeff Burton is huddled in the back of a Richard Childress Racing hauler with lame-duck teammate Kevin Harvick and several other members of the organization.

They are discussing results from the Wednesday morning test of the 2013 car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. They are looking for ways to find more speed that will help bring the organization back up to speed with the other elite teams in the Sprint Cup garage.

No rest for the weary -- particularly when the weary is playing catch-up.

"This is really big," Burton says of the two-day test that ended early Wednesday because of rain. "We're putting the building blocks together now to try and figure out exactly what we've got. We're trying hard now not to pay attention to the stopwatch.

"We're trying, rather than getting into the year like we did this past year playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey trying all these different things, to leave with, 'OK, here's our baseline.' "

There are a lot of new faces around the three RCR teams, starting with competition director Eric Warren.

But the face that stands out the most is Burton.

With Harvick on the way to Stewart-Haas Racing after the 2013 season and 22-year-old Austin Dillon planning to move up into Cup full time in 2014, the organization needs the 45-year-old Burton to be relevant again.

The organization needs Burton to be winning races like he was in 2008, to be competing in the Chase as he was four out of five years from 2006 to 2010.

It not like Burton's going anywhere. Despite rumors that next year is the last on his contract, despite speculation he'll be out the door if he doesn't show marked signs of improvement from the past two seasons, Burton has no immediate plans to ride off into the sunset.

"I have a long-term contract," he says without revealing how long other than past next season. "When I decide to quit it'll be when I decide to quit. Everybody thinks next year is the last year of my contract. That's not true."

You can hear the determination in his voice, see it in his mannerism. Burton's presence at this test wasn't mandatory. He chose to be here.

He chose to be here because he understands how important it is for him to be relevant again, particularly with the transition RCR will be going through in its driver lineup after 2013.

"No question," Burton says. "Listen, when you're running well, your status is different than it is when you're not. People listen to you, people pay attention to you, you have a voice. When you're not running well, you lose all that. People don't listen to you."

Burton hasn't won since 2008, when he finished sixth in points. He's failed to make the Chase the past two seasons, finishing 19th this past season and 20th in 2011. He had only 11 top 10s combined the past two years after having 15 in 2010.

"His veteran status, he needs to run better on the track so everybody will come to him again to ask some of the questions that Austin needs to learn from, that [brother] Ty needs to learn from," says Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin.

"Quite frankly, it will be good for Kevin to have somebody that is running good like that. For him to be involved like he is right now, and not to be absent from the shop, will make a huge difference."

So Burton is here, as is team owner Richard Childress, who typically would be hunting big game on his ranch in Montana or some exotic land this time of year.

They all understand the importance of this test, of getting ahead of the competition on the new car so they won't be in the mess they were with the old one.

RCR won only one race in 2012 after collecting six in 2011 and five in 2010. Only Harvick made the Chase for the second straight year after three drivers made it in 2010.

"We've got a big hole to climb out of, but we're working hard to do it," Burton says. "And I feel ultimately we will."

Early returns at Charlotte were encouraging. Burton led the first session on Tuesday, with Harvick and Dillon not far behind. Burton was sixth in both sessions on Wednesday, with Harvick and Dillon in the top five.

"I love what I do, but I don't like it when we're not competitive," Burton says.

Burton is confident he can be competitive again. He's rallied before. After going from 2002 to 2005 without winning or being a championship contender, he put together a string of three straight years of winning at least once and making the Chase.

In 2008, after a win at Charlotte, he was second in points with five races to go. He started the 2010 season strong as well, moving to third in points 22 races in.

Little has gone right since.

"It's been a struggle for him," Martin says. "Everybody is saying he's too old, he's this, he's that. He's got a lot to prove, too. But his commitment to the program, what we're doing right now, is showing how hard he and everybody is trying to make it work."

That's why Burton stands out at this December test. He doesn't have to be here.

But he wants RCR to be a powerhouse again. He wants to contend for race wins and a championship.

He wants to be relevant again.

"It's no fun for anybody to run the way we've been running," Burton says. "It's important for me to run well. We can't ignore problems. I've got to be open-minded and we've all got to be smart working together.

"Running bad, nothing good comes from that."

And this is where putting bad days behind begins.