AVONDALE, Ariz. – How exactly does team owner Larry McClure characterize his No. 4 Cup team?
"It's been great," he said. "It's getting better and better."
Fans of driver Ward Burton may soon characterize the NASCAR season the same way.
Cars and drivers outside the top 35 in owner points are not guaranteed starting spots in the race, and the No. 4 team sits 39th in the standings. For the Checker Auto Parts 500 here at Phoenix, Burton posted a solid qualifying lap that puts him 24th on the grid for Sunday's race.
In the garage, it was almost as if the team had won the lottery, as mechanics and officials dropped by to congratulate the car owner on his driver's solid run. That qualifying lap also confirmed something for the car owner that almost is official.
After a long hiatus, Burton is slated to be the full-time driver of the No. 4 next year.
"We haven't completely signed the deal, but we've agreed on one," McClure said. "So it looks like he'll have a good shot at being back in the car next year."
Burton's last gig as a full-time driver ended here at Phoenix back in 2004 when he broke a rear end about two-thirds of the way through the event and finished a disappointing 40th in Gene Haas' No. 0 Chevy. To the consternation of his fans, Burton fell off the NASCAR landscape for a time after that.
Offers came Burton's way for rides that would have been less than competitive, and he has admitted in the past that perhaps he was a little too picky when he turned them down. When McClure and Wimmer agreed to part ways this fall, an outcry from Burton's fans was answered. McClure put the Virginia native behind the wheel of the No. 4 Chevy for a one-off race at Burton's hometown track in Martinsville in October.
Burton started 35th in the Subway 500 and ran respectably all afternoon. Simply staying on the lead lap is an accomplishment on the half-mile Virginia bullring, and Burton kept the Chevy on the same circuit as the leaders to go the full 500-lap distance and finish 26th.
Todd Bodine already was slated to start in the No. 4 car at Atlanta the following week, so Burton's rabid fans had to wait a little while longer to see if he would return. He did just that at Texas Motor Speedway, qualifying in the back of the pack in 37th and finishing one lap off the pace in 25th.
Burton's fan base is a big part of the reason why the team is about to put him behind the wheel for the 2007 season.
The trait that will keep him there, however, is communication.
"Right now, we are going off of what they know and the little bit of information I can give them," Burton said. "They're doing a pretty good job for me; we just have to be able to step it up a lot for next year."
McClure echoes that sentiment
"We're making the car better for him every time he gets in it and communication is getting better," he said. "He gives really good feedback, so it's easy for us to work on the race car."
It's been more than 50 races since the once powerhouse Morgan-McClure team has scored a top-10. That came when Mike Wallace finished eighth in the 2005 Pepsi 400. Since then, Scott Wimmer posted three top-20s and Bodine added one more 19th-place finish at Lowe's four weeks ago, but the excitement those finishes generated is a dim shade of what may be to come.
Burton sees a bright future for the team if they can make the final small adjustments that are needed to go from contender to challenger.
"There was one run at Martinsville we were really good; we just couldn't keep backing it up," Burton said. "There was one run at Texas last week when we were within a tenth [of a second] of the 20 car [of race winner Tony Stewart]. We just have to learn together."
Learning, and a little more backing.
"We hope to try to find the resources to help us run," Burton said. "That's what these race cars need, and then I'll be able to go as fast as anyone."
- Larry McClure