Jeff Burton reaches out to fans during driver introductions at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, on Nov. 3. (AP Photo)
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Jeff Burton will become the sixth driver to make 1,000 NASCAR national series starts when he competes this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. He plans to add to his total next season, but isn’t saying where.
“I feel that I know what I’m going to be doing, it’s just you all don’t,” Burton said Friday.
The 46-year-old Burton has been one of NASCAR’s most respected drivers during a career that’s spanned three decades.
He will likely gear back next season after an eight-year run with Richard Childress Racing. Burton says he has some plans in place in place for 2014 and is still working out details for the rest of season.
“I will be involved in the sport,” he said. “There is a place for me. I want to be here. I feel like I can contribute, so I would be surprised if five years from now, I wasn’t still involved in the sport.”
Burton has taken his time to sort out what he will do in 2014 and beyond. It will include some part-time racing, but beyond that he wouldn’t elaborate.
“Some things have taken a little longer than I thought they would take and some of that is because of me,” he said. “Some of that is because I slowed some stuff down and wanted to really think about it, some of it is because some situations have popped up that weren’t there a little bit ago. I feel very confident.”
Burton was one of NASCAR’s elite drivers in the late 1990s, winning six races in 1999 and four more in 2000. He wasn’t able to maintain that pace, though, particularly after moving to RCR in 2008.
Four of Burton’s 21 Sprint Cup victories have come with RCR and he is winless since taking the checkers twice in 2008. He has missed the Chase for the championship each of the past three seasons and enters this weekend’s race 19th in the season standings.
Still, Burton believes he still can be a competitive driver as he closes in on 50.
Race car drivers don’t hit an expiration date like athletes in most of the other major sports. Mark Martin is still Cup racing at 54 and James Hylton just called it a career at 79 this year.
“To me, it’s about what you are willing to give up to be in this sport,” Burton said. “I think what happens is the older you get, the more things matter. Racing still means a lot to me, but for me to sit here today and say it means the same thing to me that it means when I had a daughter getting ready to go to college, a son that is racing, those things do play a role.”
With Burton likely cutting back and fellow elder statesman Martin and Bobby Labonte still yet to announce their plans, NASCAR could be reaching the end of an era that bridged four decades, starting with Martin’s debut in 1981.
Labonte won the 2000 Cup championship and has 21 victories in the top series. Martin has 40 Cup victories and finished runner-up in the season championship five times, the last in 2009.
“If you look back at it, it was destined to come,” driver Ryan Newman said. “There’s going to be some waves of that happening and I think those guys are definitely proud of their careers and the things they’ve accomplished. Someday I’ll probably be making the same announcement. I think at this point in the season is where it all becomes kind of vocal.”
Whatever the future holds for Burton, he’s satisfied with where he’s been.
“When I was 7 years old, I wanted to be a race car driver. I’m 46 and a race car driver. I’ve just really been blessed,” he said. “The cool thing is I’ve met so many people and experienced so many things that I never would have been able to do. To be able to compete for a living is a cool thing.”
And he gets to keep doing it, at least for a little while longer.