When former NASCAR Cup Series star and 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton briefly took his place behind the wheel of a late model stock car last Thursday at South Boston Speedway, the car wasn’t sponsored by Wonder Bread, Fig Newton or Mellow Yellow.
As a retired racer, those days are gone.
Instead, the car was sponsored by his son NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Jeb Burton, and H.C. Sellers as a new co-business venture Sellers-Burton Racing.
Sellers and Jeb spent the day at South Boston Speedway testing their car with driver Andrew Patterson who is scheduled to pilot the car in the twin 75-lap Sentara Healthcare Late Model Stock Car Division races that will headline the Danville Toyota’s ’23 Opener racing program March 18 at South Boston Speedway. The green flag on the first race will fall at 2 p.m.
Patterson and Burton are teammates on Jordan Anderson Racing Team of the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
It was an idea with the humblest of roots.
“A couple of years ago, I reached out to them and thought it would be a good partnership for us,” Jeb said. “We’re about to announce a new driver that’s going to run about 10 races for us this year so we’re excited about that.”
Patterson and Jeb will both be driving the car, meaning he’ll both get to compete in the car and help bring Patterson who is younger along a bit.
“It’s pretty cool, I get to run it and it finished eighth a couple of weeks ago but it’s a brand new car so we’re missing a couple of little things on it,” Jeb said. “It’s pretty cool. We tested it yesterday. We had [Patterson] there, he’s younger than me so I can get in and teach him some things and he can get in and try to catch on so it’s pretty neat.”
With all involved learning, here’s been some of the things they’ve been picking up.
“I think the biggest thing is to help him figure out what the car’s doing and stuff like that,” Jeb said. “That way we can get good feedback so we can get the car faster. That’s the biggest thing. If the car is loose or tight, what kind of changes can we make to make the car better. So, it’s been making sure the car is driving correctly and will fit his driving style.”
Being a professional racer from a small town comes with having certain responsibilities with serving as a role model to the youths being right at the top of the list. When asked what advice he would give to someone looking to fill his shoes, he stressed the importance of perseverance.
“It’s a tough game buddy,” Jeb said. “It’s all about sponsorship and trying to find the right partners to make that happen and that’s what it’s all about to be honest so I spend a lot of my time working on that and trying to make those things happen to be honest. It’s tough. It’s a constant battle between sponsorships and having the money to get the car where it needs to be.”
Not too long ago, however, it was Jeb who was looking for advice and a bit of guidance.
Tradition off the highway, humble beginnings
Not far off James D. Hagood Highway on US-360, sits an oval concrete building with grandstands sitting high in the sky known as South Boston Speedway. It’s a place that’s got a lot of history especially for the Burton’s as Jeff and Ward spent their early careers in the NASCAR Late Model Stock Division at the speedway.
Jeb followed in their footsteps, beginning his career in 2008 at the age of 16 at the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at South Boston Speedway.
Fourteen years after making that first start, Jeb returned to the speedway last week a bit calmer than the last few times.
“I started there in late model and that’s where I got my start, I put a lot of pressure on myself as a kid to perform, probably too much honestly but it was great to start there,” he said laughing. “When we were there yesterday to test, it was pretty cool to come back and have some fun.”
South Boston Speedway isn’t the only nearby track Jeb has raced at Bristol, Charlotte, Martinsville and Richmond. He turned in a second-place finish in 2020 at Richmond and checked in a fourth in Martinsville in 2020. He also finished ninth at Bristol in 2020, giving him three Top-10 finishes at the nearby tracks and two Top-5 showings.
“It’s really neat,” Jeb said. “I just want to win at them and that’s what I really want to have happen and I’m working really hard to try to get in the best situations I can every year so I can try to reach that goal. Being there and racing there is one thing, but being in equipment you can win in week in and week out is the real goal. It’s really tough to make that happen. It takes a lot of funding. I’ve been really lucky to have the partners I have. State Farm has been with me for 15 years so it’s been really neat to have a partnership with them and have it go on that long.”
A seasoned racer, Jeb knows wins aren’t just going to hop into the passenger seat with him and that he’s going to have to take the necessary steps to achieve his goal of adding a few more wins to his resume. In fact, he’s already taken the first few steps towards his goal.
“Man, we’ve been doing a lot of simulation stuff to get ready for a lot of these tracks,” Jeb said. “Doing a lot of that and that’s pretty much the name of the game right now is doing that stuff so we can be ready when the time comes and that’s how we figure out setups and stuff is through simulation.”
First win, successful season
It’s April 24, 2021. The scene is Talladega Speedway. Jeb and the rest of the field are driving under caution after a seven-car wreck on the backstretch. A slow-building rain that’s been falling all evening is now turning into a downpour. NASCAR officials give Mother Nature a few minutes to lighten up but she never does, leading them to postpone the race with Jeb in front, making a first-time winner of the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet driver.
While some might try to cheapen Jeb’s win by crediting it to Mother Nature, they would be wrong as he led most of the race. But even if he hadn’t, the day still would’ve been a special one.
“You know that was a big day for us,” Jeb said. “We needed that, my friends, my family, my sponsors, we all needed that and we need to do it again. We’ve been really close to winning some races the last couple of years and just didn’t quite pull it off so I’m hoping we can get another win this year, that would be great.”
And while he would love to win a few this year for himself and his family and friends, he’s also hoping he can bring home Jordan Anderson’s first win.
“The team I’m with is a newer team and they’re trying to build their notebook,” Jeb said. “Jordan Anderson Racing has never won before but if I could be the guy to take them to Victory Lane for the first time, that would be pretty special.”
Overall, 2021 turned out to be one of the most successful seasons of his career. Along with the win at Talladega, he turned in eight Top-5 performances with two fifth place finishes at Darlington and Daytona, three fourth place finishes with two coming at Daytona and the other at Miami and second at Atlanta.
For Jeb, the success came down to the adage, “teamwork makes the dream work.”
“Just teamwork, we have a really great team and they led us that year,” Jeb said.
Father like son
Some might say the Burton’s are racing royalty as Ward won two of NASCAR’s most prestigious Cup races, the 2002 Daytona 500 and the 2001 Southern 500 at Darlington.
Ward’s brother, Jeff, won 21 Cup Series races and 27 Xfinity Series wins, making him one of 10 drivers to have at least 20 wins in each series and was named the 1994 Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
Jeff’s son, Harrison, has raced professionally since 2016 and is currently in his second consecutive season in the Cup Series. He garnered four wins in the Xfinity Series in 2020 while finishing in the Top-5 15 times and Top-10 22.
Needless to say, having such a wealth of experience not far from his doorstep hasn’t hurt Jeb one bit.
“Without dad, I wouldn’t be where I’m at for sure,” Jeb said. “He’s helped me a ton with sponsors and just learning how to develop my driving style and all kinds of things to help me get where I am today. So, anytime he can help me, I try to take advantage of it.”
However, once Jeb climbs into the car and starts the engine, his family ties are rendered irrelevant.
“It doesn’t really do anything for the face but it’s a feather in our cap to be honest,” Jeb said. “But it doesn’t really change how I look at the race or approach the race or anything like that, it’s just a neat thing but once you put the helmet on, it’s not doing anything for you. You have to have your stuff together, your team has to be working together, everybody needs to be on the same page so you can perform at the highest level.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for Jeb who’s had to fight for every inch he’s gained. However, his struggles have given him perspective and it’s that outlook he hopes to pass on to local youths aspiring to be in his shoes.
“Man, I would just say don’t give up on your dreams, just keep plugging, racing is not easy, there are a lot of things that happen out of your control on and off the track and if it’s something you really want to do, you need to try to make it happen and plug away,” Jeb said. “That’s really all you can do. That and focus on things that are within your control and at the end of the day, that’s all you can do.”