Throughout Jeb Burton’s NASCAR career, all he does is grind. He sets up his own sponsor meetings, sending emails constantly and making cold calls on his own.
Since running his first NASCAR national touring series race in 2012, Burton’s had multiple life-changing deals blow up in his face. In 2013, the Virginia native had a breakout season with Turner Scott Motorsports, scoring seven poles and one checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway. Prior to the 2014 season, the sponsors didn‘t pay the bills for him to remain at Turner, so he moved over to ThorSport Racing to run the full year.
Ahead of the 2015 season, that was gone. Same story different verse in 2016, when he was supposed to run the full Xfinity Series schedule for Richard Petty Motorsports. But that was halted when the sponsor — J. Streicher and Co. — stopped paying the bills.
Starting and stopping has been the story of Burton’s now almost decade-long career.
“2016 really sucked because I had a good deal at Petty, I thought, and that blew up in my face and lost that deal,” Burton recently told Jayski.com. “2017 was really tough, too, because I only had six races at JGL [Racing]. In ‘18, that one was tough, too, because I only had three races at RCR.
“It‘s been a grind. 2019 was getting a little better, I ran seven at [JR Motorsports], and then last year I ran 11 races at JRM, and I was like, ‘Man, this is getting better.‘ We almost won some races, and I was hoping that was going to help me and I think it did.”
When the 2020 Silly Season came around, Burton was left wondering what his NASCAR future held after JR Motorsports announced Sam Mayer would drive the second half of the 2021 season in the No. 8 Chevrolet, then Burton’s primary focus. Later on, it was announced Josh Berry would do the bulk of the first half of the season.
At the same time, Ross Chastain announced he was departing the Xfinity Series to chase his childhood dream, running full time in the Cup Series. That left a vacant No. 10 Chevrolet at Kaulig Racing.
Kaulig has developed a relationship with Nutrien Ag Solutions for the past three years, and they wanted someone to represent their agricultural brand. There was no better option on the market than Burton, who has farmed his whole life.
“I brought a small very group of drivers into the conversation with the recommendation that Jeb be in consideration for the car,” Brett Griffin, owner of SpotOn Activations, a marketing company with Nutrien Ag Solutions as a client, said.” Then, the process becomes Chris [Rice, president of Kaulig Racing] evaluating him from a driver perspective.
“From a Nutrien Ag Solutions perspective, it‘s really easy because Ward Burton is a tagalong; he‘s part of the Jeb Burton legacy. Our growers and farmers across America, they know who Ward Burton is.”
Inside the walls of Kaulig, the decision was made: Burton would be the full-time driver of the No. 10 car for the 2021 season. But to surprise Burton, Griffin wanted to come up with something special. There was only one demand, both Jeb and Ward had to be in attendance.
So come mid-October, the Burtons were brought to the Kaulig campus, in Welcome, N.C.
“Jeb called me and said, ‘Hey, Chris Chris Rice would like us to come to the race shop,”” Ward said. “I was really busy, so then I started thinking, ‘I need Chris to know if this works out for Jeb I‘ll be there.’ I stopped what I was doing, and Chris had pretty much told us that it didn‘t look like it was going to happen.””
The thing was, it was going to happen.
That afternoon, the Burtons, Rice and Griffin gathered together and were on a Zoom call with the management team of Nutrien Ag Solutions. On the spot, Jeb was offered the ride, getting an opportunity he’s worked nine years for.
“When we were in the Zoom meeting and Chris offered the ride to Jeb, it took me a minute to digest it,” Ward stated. “I even asked him again, ‘Is this for real?‘”
Griffin, who‘s been around the sport since the late 1990s, believes that moment with the Burtons is among the most emotional moments he’s ever witnessed firsthand.
“It‘s one of the coolest things I‘ve ever done in my career,” Griffin said. “I‘ve got a little boy, he‘s eight years old, so to fast forward and put myself in Ward‘s shoes and remember what it was like to get my first real shot in NASCAR in my mid-20s, that was one of the most special moments in my career for sure.”
Jeb, too, was nearly speechless.
“They broke the news to me and it was really emotional,” he said. “I‘ve been working really hard to find a situation like this for a long time. It‘s a dream opportunity.”
Since the RPM deal faded away in 2016, Burton has honed in on his marketing skills, something he admittedly still works on “every single day.” Between running partial schedules at JGL in 2017, Richard Childress Racing in 2018 and JR Motorsports each of the last two years, he’s made progress, with partners State Water Heaters, LS Tractor and Rocky Boots. Those three sponsors have also followed him to Kaulig.
“He‘s going to work really hard for all of his partners and make all of them happy,” Ward said. “Jeb is not a guy that‘s interested in people writing checks; he‘s a guy that is interested in making friendships and making partnerships successful.”
Over the last couple of seasons, Jeb said he’s had enough funding to go to smaller Xfinity teams and run 20th on a weekly basis. But if it came down to that, he would have rather not raced at all because he’s played that game before.
Since joining JRM in 2019, Jeb scored five top-five finishes in 18 starts, scoring top 10 finishes 66.6% of the time (12 races). He believes that gamble on himself is why he’s finally scored a full-time opportunity.
“I put all of my eggs in one basket to go run well and try to win races, and hopefully get an opportunity,” Jeb said. “That‘s what we did. We did everything but win at JRM. We ran really well and it helped me get the opportunity that I have now.”
Since Jeb is full time in Xfinity this season, he’s already been on the Chevrolet simulator more than he was the last two seasons combined.
Because of the ride with Kaulig, which had its breakout season in 2020 with four wins, there’s more duress for Jeb on the performance side. Now, it’s about proving that he was worthy of the opportunity, and giving the No. 10 car its first victory as a full-time team.
“The pressure is definitely there,” Jeb said. “In a way I don‘t even think it is because I‘ve shown that I can do it. I‘m definitely not satisfied with where we‘re running; I want to win. I want to win a lot. My goal coming into this deal was to win a bunch of races this year and have a shot at the championship.”
After three races, Burton has been quite solid. He and Austin Cindric are the only drivers to have a trio of top-five finishes through February, and dating back to Martinsville Speedway last fall, Burton has four straight.
For the team, Burton’s early success is a tad stunning.
“For Jeb to have three top fives this early on is very surprising, because anywhere you go and start driving for another race team, it can be tough,” Rice said. “We knew during the first few races he would have a learning curve, but he has learned really fast in the races and has been there at the end.”
But for Jeb, validation doesn’t come until he’s victorious for the first time at the Xfinity level.
And he’s hoping that’s sooner rather than later.
He said, “I‘ve shown I can run in the top five a lot. And when you do that, you put yourself in position and then you win. It‘s just the way it works. We put ourselves in position every week.”
Ward, who is a nine-time NASCAR winner, knows his son has what it takes to get to victory lane.
And when he does, he won’t be surprised.
“If they keep on doing what the team keeps on doing in the last couple races, it‘ll be wonderful,” Ward said. “There is going to be some ups and downs, like with anybody. But Jeb has what it takes.”