JOLIET, Ill. -- Nine races stand between Jeff Burton and redemption. The top-10 drivers after 26 races, and any others within 400 points of the leader, will be invited to dance a 10-race waltz to the NASCAR Nextel Cup title. Burton's on the bubble, which given his recent record is not such a bad place to be.
The former Roush Racing star, who legitimately contended for the 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 crowns, has not won a race in 132 tries. He hasn't won a pole position since 2000. And it's been three seasons since Burton has competed for a championship.
Now in 15th place in the points standings, just the second driver out if the cut for the playoffs were made today, some wonder if Burton even remembers what it's like to be a contender. The questions don't bother Burton too much, though. Impolite? Maybe. Shocking? No. Burton's asked himself all the questions already. He grills himself harder than anyone else ever could. And after years of soul searching and months of facing the cold, hard questions and forcing honest answers, Burton believes he's got a shot once more.
"I believe in my heart that I'm a better race car driver today than I was when everybody was picking me to win the championship," Burton said. " What has happened to me and what has happened to my level of success going down has more to do with technology and the way that we had success in the past compared to the way we have success today."
Technology has changed the sport entirely in the past few years. And those with the engineers and those quicker and better at adapting have prospered. Those, like Burton, who at first resisted change and then was confounded by it, have faltered. But after leaving Roush Racing and joining Richard Childress Racing, an entire racing organization that knew it needed to close the gap, Burton figured out -- with the entire RCR stable, he says -- how to compete in today's NASCAR.
"I don't think we can do it any better than we're doing it now as far as effort goes," Burton said. "We don't always get the results that we want, but as far as effort, we're putting all the effort we know how into it, and I wouldn't know how to change that."
Burton and Co. have moved on to concentrating on getting the job done this season. They believe they have the grasp on the technology now, and with information from the other two RCR teams, Burton is confident that the No. 31 squad can figure out what it will take to close the gap on the competition before leaving Richmond, Va. (the last race before the cutoff) in September.
"We've just got to finish races well," he said. "We could overanalyze it, but at the end of the day what we have to do is start knocking off top-10 and top-five finishes and not have bad races. That's as simple as it gets."
In an effort to make that happen, the team has saved most of its testing sessions for this final stretch of season. The advance preparation, Burton said, will give the team a read out on how different setups will complement the racetracks. And now that the technology is in place, he's confident that the crew can take it from there and provide the cars necessary for a championship run.
"All along we tried to hold tests back to concentrate on the last 12 to 15 races," Burton said. "I believe the way we have it set up, we will test for about half of the last 10 races, but that was our plan all along. We hoped to be a little closer in points to be able to capitalize on that, but actually being farther behind in points than we want to be makes testing that much more important. We've got to have good tests and take advantage of them so we can go back and use that information wisely for the race."
Sunday, Burton will start 35th in the USG Sheetrock 400. That's lower than he's wanted. In fact, the team has finished just lower than it's wanted in almost every race this year. The expectations ran high once everyone got the feeling that the pieces were in place, and now anything short of a top-10 run is a little disappointing. But Burton said the team is in striking distance, and the ultimate goal is still there for the taking.
"We have fallen a little short of most of our goals, unfortunately," Burton said. "We've been addressing all along why we are falling short, but our overall goal is to get into the top 10 in points to make the Chase. What we have to do is go back and look at each race and say how do we do the best we can each race and that will give us our best chance to get into the top 10."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.