What started out as an “Ask the Insiders” question from reader Rob, took a strange turn while I was doing some research for the post. Rob emailed us and wanted to know if we could offer some insight as to what happened to Ward Burton’s career and why he couldn’t secure a decent ride. I immediately thought about comparing him to Jeremy Mayfield because on the surface the two had somewhat similar situations. As I started digging into their careers, I discovered they share an eerily similar rise and fall.
Neither driver at this point in the 2008 season has a seat in the Cup Series. Mayfield started the year with Haas CNC Racing but was released after seven races. He later subbed for the injured Dario Franchitti at Dover in the #40 Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing. Burton last raced in 2007 at Martinsville for the now defunct Morgan-McClure Motorsports. It seems reasonable to predict that both drivers may never again secure a full time in the Cup Series.
While Burton is older then Mayfield by eight years, they both entered the Cup Series around the same time; Mayfield in 1993 and Burton in 1994. They would both shortly secure rides with well established teams and spend a majority of their careers with that team. Their career statistics are also very similar. Mayfield has five Cup Series wins and nine poles in 428 starts. Burton also has five wins with seven poles in 375 starts.
After making his debut in 1993, Mayfield would earn a seat with Michael Kranefuss’ team in 1996 (which later became Penske/Kranefuss and then Penske Racing). He would stay with the team until he was released from the #12 car in 2001 and replaced by Mike Wallace for the final eight races. The following season in 2002, newcomer Ryan Newman would take over the #12 Alltel Dodge. Mayfield then moved to Ray Evernham’s team replacing Casey Atwood. Atwood, who was to be the next Jeff Gordon under Ray Evernham, was replaced by the veteran Mayfield after struggling throughout his Cup career. Mayfield drove the #19 Dodge until 2006 when he was released from Evernham Motorsports and promptly sued for breach of contract. The proceeding lawsuit was very bitter and it revealed to the public Ray Evernham’s relationship with driver Erin Crocker. Mayfield followed his time at Evernham up with short tenures at Bill Davis Racing and Haas CNC Racing.
Ward Burton made his debut in 1994 and towards the end of the 1995 season signed with Bill Davis Racing. Burton would get all of his career wins in the #22 for BDR, including the 2002 Daytona 500. He left the team during the 2003 season and would finish out the year in the Netzero #0 for Gene Haas. Burton stayed with the team through 2004, but sat out the 2005 season after he couldn’t secure a ride. Late in 2006, Morgan-McClure Motorsports signed Burton to take over their famous #4 Chevy. After struggling for most of the 2007 season, MMM shut down and Burton was left without a ride. He hasn’t driven since.
Besides having similar career paths and statistics, both drivers drove at various points in their careers for owners Bill Davis and Gene Haas. They both sit at home now on Sundays hoping, and waiting for their phones to ring.
Both of these drivers did have success at various points in their careers, but neither was ever really a contender to win a title. Without continued success year after year, it was only a matter of time until the music stopped and these drivers were left without a chair. The same can be said about many drivers who currently occupy less then spectacular cars. Their time will come and they will fade into obscurity.
I believe now that these two are victims of their age. In today’s NASCAR, the big team owners want young, fearless, charismatic drivers that they can sell to corporate America. Or, they want big name veterans with a long list of big victories and large fan bases. Burton and Mayfield don’t fall into either category. I think another thing that hurt Mayfield was the suit with Ray Evernham and his race team. The ugliness that ensued certainly didn’t win Mayfield any points with other owners.
Barring some sort of miracle, neither driver will probably ever strap into the seat of a Cup car full time, let alone a competitive one. They may be able to continue their driving careers in the Nationwide or Truck Series, but their glory days are over. The downfall is an unfortunate, but very real part of any career. These two weren’t the first to suffer such an end, and they certainly won’t be the last.