LAS VEGAS -- It was truly a team effort last weekend that helped Jeff Burton record his first top-10 finish of this season. Two engineers and a competition director sat on the pit box, crunching numbers and recommending changes to the car. A substitute crew chief made strategy calls. And the regular crew chief monitored radio communication back home in North Carolina, using instant messenger to send in recommendations.
The result was a 10th-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway, Burton's first top-10 on a venue other than a restrictor-plate track since Richmond in September of last season. And with crew chief Luke Lambert's wife still expecting the couple's second child, the No. 31 Sprint Cup Series team could end up employing the same group approach this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Lambert and Burton flew to Las Vegas together on Wednesday, and the crew chief was at the speedway as on-track activity began. But with his wife Jamie still expecting, the chance remains that he could once again fly home on short notice, as he did last Saturday night when she began having contractions and birth seemed imminent. It proved a false alarm, so Lambert came to Las Vegas.
"He intends to stay," Burton said. "Now if something starts, we're going to support Luke being at home. I got some questions from fans, you must not be committed to racing, you say your crew chief should be at home. Yeah, he should be home with his wife. And if anybody questions that, I don't give a damn. Because racing is important, but being a father, there are things that are more important. And if things get going at home, we'll get him home as quick as we can."
If that happens, Burton said his team will employ the same setup as it did last week. Ernie Cope, crew chief for Richard Childress Racing's No. 33 Nationwide Series car -- driven this week at Las Vegas by Ty Dillon -- worked in that same capacity Sunday on the No. 31 team and called the race. Engineers Matt McCall and Ryan Baldi, as well as RCR competition director Eric Warren, sat on the box making decisions on the car. And Lambert watched from home, following team audio and the race leaderboard via NASCAR.com, and using instant messenger to make suggestions.
Cope is a veteran crew chief who has won eight races on each of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits, including Tony Stewart's Nationwide victory in the No. 33 car two weeks ago at Daytona. Burton said RCR teammate Kevin Harvick is a big proponent of Cope -- understandably, given that the two have won seven times together -- and Lambert was comfortable with him on the pit box calling the race. The possibility exists that Cope could do the same again Sunday, should Lambert's wife go into labor.
"That's a tough situation to walk into," Burton said. "We went to dinner Saturday night, and (Cope) said, 'How do you want me to call this race?' I said, 'I want you to call the race the way you want to call it. You can't second-guess yourself. If you're going to do a good job as a crew chief, you've just got to call it and do what you think is best.'
"Our goal was to put ourselves in position to try to win the race, and have a solid day. Don't do something trying to win the race that's crazy, but try to win the race and have a good solid day. He called the race based on that, and that's difficult, to step in and call a race for a team that's trying to make the Chase. And he did an admirable job, he really did."
That Phoenix performance was a needed rebound for a team whose Daytona 500 ended in a wreck not of their making. Now Burton comes to a Las Vegas track where he's won twice, reasonably content with how he's trending in the Sprint Cup point standings, and ready to once again lean on a team effort if need be.
"Things are heading in the right direction," Burton said. "I'm not going to proclaim that we're exactly where we need to be right now, but I feel like we're headed in the right direction."
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