Jeff Burton expected to be in the middle of a championship race right now.
He isn't, but he and the rest of his Roush Racing team are finishing up what most organizations in NASCAR would consider a great season.
He has a career-high six wins, yet is a disappointing sixth in the Winston Cup standings heading into the Dura Lube 500 on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
But team owner Jack Roush isn't analyzing results. He's looking ahead, and figures that 2000 could be the year Burton and crew chief Frank Stoddard give him his first championship.
Mechanical trouble and other problems kept Burton's team from establishing a foothold near the top of the standings, Roush says. He doesn't figure it will happen again.
"I look forward to going into the first year of the millennium and being able to enjoy a run at the championship, which, by all rights, they should be having now," Roush said.
Stoddard, completing his second year as crew chief for his old friend, understands the setbacks and takes them in stride.
"Nobody gives you anything in this sport," he said. "You have to earn it. So it's no good to say that we should be doing this or doing that by now. You just have to go out and do it."
Having said that, though, does Stoddard believe the team is ready to make a title run?
"You bet," he said, smiling. "We've got the best driver out there, a great crew, great equipment. But you have to have a lot of consistency and some luck, too. You've got to avoid the kind of problems we've had at times this season."
Burton got his first three career victories in 1997 and finished fourth in points under Buddy Parrott, who then became team manager for Burton and Martin.
Stoddard succeeded Parrott, one of the great crew chiefs in NASCAR history, but the performance didn't fall off much. Burton won twice last year, and wound up fifth in the points.
Martin expected his teammate to be part of the championship fight in 1999. They are extremely close, sharing the same race shop.
"You know," Martin said, pursing his lips and shaking his head, "there isn't any reason other than luck that a team like the 99 isn't in the championship race."
"I don't know if I'll ever win a championship," Martin said. "But I expect Jeff Burton to win more than one. Those guys have what it takes."
Still, he would love another shot at it, and the car number of his principal opponent won't make any difference.
"What I would love to see is for the 6 and the 99 to go right down to the end next year, fighting for the championship," Martin said. "I'd be happy if he won and I'd be happy if I won. Wouldn't that be great?"
It could happen. But Burton, coming off a victory two weeks ago in Rockingham, N.C., and second only to Jeff Gordon in wins this year, has more work to do with three races remaining this season.
"First, we have to try to get a couple more wins to keep the momentum going and to make everybody feel good going into the offseason," he said. "After that, I know Frankie and the rest of the guys on our team are going to do everything they can to get ready for 2000."
Burton expects the team to continue to improve, and he's excited about the new Ford he'll drive next year.
Excited enough to expect even a better run at his first championship?
"What kind of a driver and a team player would I be if I didn't think we had a good chance to win the championship going into every season?" he asked.
©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed