Scott Fowler

Jeff Burton on NASCAR, Jay Bilas and the racer who will win the 2015 title

Jeff Burton, in New Hampshire during his racing days in 2012. Burton won 21 Cup races and finished in the Top 5 four times in the season-ending driver standings before retiring and becoming a TV analyst.
Jeff Burton, in New Hampshire during his racing days in 2012. Burton won 21 Cup races and finished in the Top 5 four times in the season-ending driver standings before retiring and becoming a TV analyst. Getty Images

Known for his honesty and his deep knowledge of NASCAR while he was driving his way to 21 Cup victories, Jeff Burton made the transition in the summer of 2015 to TV analyst. Burton, 48, will team with Rick Allen and Steve Letarte to call Sunday’s race in Kansas at 2 p.m. on NBC. I asked Burton five questions this week. 

Q. What’s both the biggest problem facing NASCAR right now and it’s biggest strength?

A. The biggest problem is that on the mile-and-a-half tracks like Charlotte and even some of the smaller tracks, we haven’t had the kind of racing that NASCAR fans expect.

The great positive is the Chase. This playoff format is spectacular. It creates a scenario where every lap matters and every situation matters.

Hopefully the rule changes next year (the new low-downforce package) will improve the racing and I believe they will. If we had these races in the old points system, it would not be working. So the points system is kind of bailing out the racing. 

Q. Have you said anything yet on live TV that you really wish that you could take back?

A. Oh yeah. Now there’s some things I’ve said that are unpopular to a particular fan base and I don’t care about that. Like I made a comment about Jeff Gordon struggling on restarts. I like going back and reading Twitter – it’s interesting – and you’ll get some people saying nothing but negative (things) spew out of my mouth about Jeff Gordon. And probably five minutes before that I talked about how smart he was ...

You know better than I do, because I just started this, that you’re always going to be criticized by a particular fan base. And that’s OK, that’s the passion. When I say something that’s factually accurate and someone gets mad at me, I don’t care.

So there have been a few things I wish I haven’t said but more just like grammatically incorrect stuff, things I’ll say and my Mom’s like: ‘I raised you better than that.’

Q. In any sport, who do you admire as a broadcaster?

A. Cris Collinsworth is really, really accurate. Very factual. Troy Aikman does a really good job of talking to me. I love football but I’m ‘football ignorant,’ and Aikman does a great job telling me what I just saw so I can understand it.

I really like Jay Bilas on college basketball because he is a college basketball fan and he will tell exactly what he saw no matter what team it is. He’s completely unbiased, and that’s coming from a Duke guy. When he sees something right or wrong, he says it.

I feel like I learn something from all of them, but I don’t feel like they talk to me like an idiot. They should know more than me about their sport, just like I should know more about racing than the people listening, because this is what I’ve done my entire life. If I don’t know more, shame on me, right?

Q. How do you balance telling the truth about what’s happening on the track and remaining friendly with your buddies in the garage?

A. The truth is the truth. In one of my first meetings with NBC, I had this conversation. My concern was will I be able to express myself? Or will I be in a situation where NASCAR, NBC, whoever, handcuffs me and I can’t say what I want to. And I was guaranteed that would never happen to me.

I have no desire to be an antagonist. I have no desire to be a shock jock. That’s not what I’m about. But I am paid to be an analyst. You can say almost anything. What’s important is how you say it.

I have also learned that the racers watch the race (on replay) and they listen to what you say. I’ve had some phone calls. But typically, the phone calls have been, ‘Yeah look, I want to tell you the way that I saw it. I haven’t gotten that ‘Hey you dumb---’ phone call yet. So that’s good.

Q. If you had to bet your house on one racer, who would you pick to win the 2015 championship?

A. Well I picked Joey Logano on TV before it all started. But if I had to bet my house, I’d bet it on Kevin Harvick.