Jeb Burton, with a great assist from spotter Kevin Hamlin, Friday night dodged "the big one" midway through the season-opening NASCAR Camping World Truck Series' NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway, and with an astute seventh-place finish in his Truck Series debut for ThorSport Racing in the No. 13 VAMP / VaporBrands International, Inc. Toyota Tundra was ready to pronounce his career back on track.
"This was a good way to start the season, I feel like," Burton said. "I've just got to thank all my guys, and Mr. and Mrs. (Duke and Rhonda) Thorson (team owners) for putting me in this Tundra. We'll take this top-seven and go to Martinsville."
The Truck Series' second round, in five weeks at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway is Burton's home race. But just three weeks ago even starting this season was in question after his team's sponsor at Turner Scott Motorsports abandoned the team, forcing the owners to shut it down.
But ThorSport put together a deal to sign Burton for the 2014 season and mere days before the trucks were scheduled to leave the team's shop in Sandusky, Ohio, signed a sponsorship with the VAMP e-cigarette brand of VaporBrands International, Inc.
It put Burton in the position of having virtually a daily watch to look out for his new driving gear's delivery, but his No. 13 Tundra's competitiveness was never in question.
Throughout most of the 100-lap race passing was difficult. Burton started 11th after the Truck Series' inaugural elimination-style group qualifying was cancelled by rain. But when the final green flag flew for an 11-lap run to the finish with Burton in 15th, he was able to make things happen to get to seventh at the checkers.
"At the end I got a pretty big push and got some side draft and we were coming," said Burton, who with just three laps to go was running 12th, one spot behind teammate Matt Crafton, the 2013 series champion. "I wish we would've been at Talladega where the finish line would've been a little farther down the track, but I don't know if we would've made it or not...
"But I'm happy to get out of here with a top-seven (Friday) night, that's for sure."
Burton was working with three-time Truck Series champion crew chief Dennis Connor for the first time and Connor, who won those championships at Hendrick Motorsports with Jack Sprague, was well-pleased with Burton's initial run out of the gate.
"For the first time out of the box we had a hot and cold night, but at the same time it was an acceptable job considering it was our first time out as a team," Connor said of the deal that was signed on Feb. 6. "With the package NASCAR has got right here, nobody can pass anybody and we kind of had a lucky break getting through the big wreck -- but really that was an amazing job by the driver and spotter."
That 16-truck wreck occurred three-quarters of the way through the night, after the race was delayed more than an hour by intermittent rain. Burton was running in the middle of the field when two trucks just inside the top 10 tangled on lap 75, creating a swirling, smoky jam-up of vehicles that Burton did a veteran's job of avoiding in just his 28th career Truck Series start.
But after using cautions to get back into the top 15, his adventure wasn't over.
"We had trouble with a gas can hanging-up on the last (pit) stop and if it hadn't been for that I think we could've finished right up front,' Connor said. "But considering this deal didn't exist three weeks ago, it was pretty amazing, really, to wind up seventh."
On his final pit stop, Burton's exit was delayed when the gas can hung up in the filler neck, costing him time in the service alley.. Burton's charge forward in the last few laps left him wondering "what if..."
"I wish the thing with the gas can hadn't happened, but that sometimes happens in racing," said Burton, who with 40 laps to go had fallen back to 26th. "We'll go on to Martinsville and get back after it, there."
The run to the finish did have Burton shaking his head when asked to describe what the externally wooly scene looked like from his seat.
"I really didn't think that last run would've been green until the finish -- that's why I didn't go to the high side sooner," Burton said of his cautious, but dogged move toward the front. "I was thinking they were gonna wreck because it sure looked like it.
"If I had it to do over again I might have gone a little sooner, but we still got out of here in one piece with some good momentum."
Because race winner Kyle Busch and fourth place Ryan Truex aren't registered to earn Truck Series points, Burton will go to Martinsville in five weeks fifth in the championship, six points behind race runner-up Timothy Peters.