The native of South Boston, Va., who competes for Richard Childress Racing, will tell you he hoped his 2010 season could have been better. After firmly establishing himself in the top 10 in points during the year, through the Chase for the Sprint Cup he slumped to 12th in the final standings.
For the season he didn’t win and had six finishes among the top five and 15 among the top 10 – good, but he expected more.
No matter. That is all about Burton the competitor and has nothing to do with Burton the man.
See, another thing that is easily acknowledged about Burton is that he is NASCAR’s most able statesman and diplomat. His opinions are valued because they are logical and based on solid reasoning. He has earned respect throughout the garage area. His candor has long since made him a media magnet.
It’s been said, more than once, that Burton would make an excellent public servant. He thinks so too. He once said that Senator Jeff Burton has a nice ring to it.
But if indeed Mr. Burton goes to Washington, it’s not going to happen for a long time.
“Whenever I’ve talked about it, I’ve always wanted to make it clear that it’s a long way off,” said the 43-year-old Burton. “We’re talking about 20 years from now. I love what I am doing and there are goals I want to achieve while I’m in NASCAR.”
Burton certainly views NASCAR as his livelihood. But he also has a unique perspective on it – one that helps define his status.
“I really don’t view being a part of NASCAR as any different from being part of a community,” said Burton. “You have to understand that you are going to spend a lot of time with the people in NASCAR and if you want to earn their respect, you have to respect them.
“You have to understand that you have to do your part and you have to understand that there are going to be disagreements and the way you handle them is important. To me that just is being part of a community. It’s not politics, which is a word I think is overused.”
During his career Burton has had his share of disagreements. But, as he said, it’s all part of being a member of a community. And he likes it that way.
“I like to be involved in what I’m doing,” said Burton. “I don’t like to sit on the sidelines. I’m going to be involved all the way and that includes with other drivers and NASCAR itself.”
Involvement does include arguments.
“I really enjoy debate,” said Burton. “I like for someone to disagree with me and make some arguments that make me think. When it comes to the things I care about, like racing, well, I want to hear opinions. The things I don’t care about I don’t even want to hear about them.
“I value people’s opinions and I don’t take it personal when they disagree with me. In so doing, I believe being around the people I have in NASCAR has made me a better person.”
It’s a given that the majority of the garage area is staunchly Republican. But Burton says that politics goes well beyond being a member of a party and following its lines. The issues should be judged separately on their faults and merits.
“The deal is that it has to be issue by issue, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I’ve always considered myself a conservative – I’m definitely a fiscal conservative – but over the last five, six or seven years I have tried to look at the issues for what they are, make some decisions and not care about what color jersey I’m supposed to have on.
“The problem with a lot of politics is that it’s thought that once you vote for a guy people think you can no longer disagree with him. That’s not the case. You can and, if you feel the need to do so, you should.
“It’s the same in NASCAR. You have to look at the issues and make some decisions. And you can disagree.”
While Burton enjoys debate, the opinions of others and maintains politics is best served one issue at a time – and not necessarily along party lines – he is firmly entrenched in the overall American ideal.
“We live in a free country,” he said. “Our freedoms apply to everyone and, for some people, that’s difficult to accept.
“But in this country you can’t walk a fence. You can say you want about freedoms but you can never say you want them only for yourself.
“That’s not how it works.”
If, years from now, if Mr. Burton indeed goes to Washington, it appears he will serve very well.