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A teenage son of a Daytona 500 winning driver is developing a NASCAR career of his own. His dad is keeping a watchful eye, and likes what he’s been seeing.
Jeb Burton, 17, of Halifax, Va., is competing in his first full season of Limited Late Model competition at South Boston (Va.) Speedway, a long-time NASCAR Whelen All-American Series paved track. His dad, 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, is the car owner and mentor to his son.
Young Burton is currently second in division points standings at South Boston, leads the division’s rookie standings and has finished as high as second in feature event competition. He’s also won three pole awards.
“Maybe we should have won a couple of features already,” Jeb said. “I wanted to win, but I didn’t want to tear up some real good race cars to do it.”
When your dad is also your car owner, you try to take extra good care of your equipment.
“If it wasn’t for dad, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Jeb said. “It’s a great job and I’d like to drive my whole career for him.”
Not that racing is his only job. He’s also working for the family construction business this summer and at his race car shop in the evenings.
“It’s a long process to learn the cars inside and out, but we’re committed to racing and eventually the wins will come,” Jeb said.
His son’s talents are progressing nicely, Ward said.
“I’m really ecstatic with his natural ability and the amount of progress he’s made,” said the proud father said. “He’s done a really good job of keeping the car out of trouble, trying to finish the races.
“When you look at the control factor he has … it has really amazed me. That’s just complete instinct. He was born with that.
“It’s my responsibility to try to give him the backing that my parents (John and Meredith Burton) gave me and my brothers (Jeff and Brian) when we were kids. Dad was the foundation of our racing. He started me in go-carts when I was eight.
“Jeb is better than me when I was starting out racing,” Ward continued. “Next year we might start out with the Limited Late Model and then move up to Late Models. We’ll see how the rest of this year goes, but that’s our plan. Hopefully he’ll get the chance to move up the ladder in NASCAR like we did.”
On most South Boston race nights, three generations of the Burton family are in attendance, along with several hundred other Burton family friends.
Jeb has a sister, Sarah, who is a Development Assistant for The NASCAR Foundation, and a brother, Ashton.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until recent years that Jeb Burton decided to give racing a try.
“I always liked going to the races, but it took a while for me to get interested in the driving part. Then I decided to race go-carts and I finished second in my first race. Then I got interested in driving stock cars. Then I really wanted to race stock cars.”
Jeb’s Limited Late Model arrived in December 2007, and competed at South Boston for the first time after his 16th birthday in 2008.
South Boston track operator Cathy Rice said Jeb’s talent is obvious.
“It’s his first season of racing and he’s won poles and is second in points,” Rice said. “Ward and Jeb are a good combination. It’s got to be fun for both of them.”
Rice points out that the track has changed since the days Ward and Jeff Burton competed there.
“Ward is on a learning curve when it comes to the track. It was enlarged to .400-mile (from .250-mile, in 1994), so it’s different from when he drove here,” Rice said.
Burton’s State Water Heaters Chevrolet carries associate sponsorship from Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, South Boston Graphics and Fry, Jordan & Wilson.
Ward and his wife, Tabitha, serve as car owners. Jeremy Ratliff is the crew chief. Team members include Wes Davis, Eddie Hatcher and Will Nichols. Hatcher was a mechanic for Ward Burton during his Late Model Stock Car racing days.
“This is a great bunch of guys and I very much appreciate what every one of them does,” Ward said. “They have worked hard and done a great job. If you look at the races we ran last year, we were all learning about the car. It wasn’t perfect. The guys have done a very good job on that. We’ve learned a lot more about what the car needs. Jeb’s ability to tell us what the car is doing has improved night and day as well.”
Jeb also shares a family history at the .400-mile oval. His dad, along with his uncle, Jeff Burton, launched their successful careers at South Boston Speedway. In one season, the brothers were named as co-winners of the Late Model division’s Most Popular Driver Award.
Elliott and Hermie Sadler also launched their careers at South Boston, as did NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series veteran Stacey Compton.
In fact, South Boston Speedway fans consider Burton’s 2002 Daytona 500 win to be a top-three sweep for their drivers. Elliott Sadler, the track’s 1995 champion placed second, while 1981 champion Geoff Bodine finished third. Burton’s victory was the first for a Virginian in the “Great American Race.”
Jeb was nine years old when his dad won the Daytona 500, but he recalls the magic of his dad’s Victory Lane.
“He had a fast car the year before, but he got wrecked,” Jeb recalled.
Ward Burton led 53 laps of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Jeb gives the impression that expectations were high for his dad’s 2002 Daytona 500 performance. And his dad didn’t disappoint.
“The next year, he only led a few laps (the final five), and he won,” Jeb said.
Although he was only a boy, he knew his dad winning the Daytona 500 was special.
“It’s unexplainable how it felt,” Jeb said of being with the rest of his family in Daytona’s Victory Lane. “Not many people can say they raced in the Daytona 500, and even fewer can say they won it. It was an experience of a lifetime.”
Ward Burton is likewise enjoying the special experience of mentoring his son’s racing career.
“We ran Jeb over 2,000 laps of practice before he ran his first race,” Ward said. “He’s come a long way since then. He’s come a long way in just the last three months.
“During practice, he’ll get in the car and run it, then I’ll get in and run it, then we’ll compare notes on what the car is doing and what we need to do to make it better.
“Everything we do at the shop, with our sponsor State Water Heaters, and at the track is to give Jeb the best opportunity possible,” Ward said. “That’s what my parents gave me. That’s what all parents want for their kids.”
Below, former Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton (right) is guiding the racing career of his son, Jeb, at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. Alan Moore/Turn One Photography