If progress is a positive, "What could have been" for Jeb Burton in Fridaynight's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway becomes more bearable.
Burton, in only his fourth race in the No. 13 Carolina Nut Co. Toyota Tundra for ThorSport Racing, had a reasonable chance to contend for the win, only to have "racing circumstances" ruin his night.
Burton finished 15th at Charlotte. But that only tells a fraction of the story.
On the race's final restart, with 13 laps to go, ThorSport teammates Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and Burton were running second, third and fourth respectively behind dominant and eventual race winner Kyle Busch.
That was the high point in a rollercoaster day for Burton. After four hours of practice Thursday was wiped out by rain and replaced by a two-hour session Friday morning -- in conditions that had no resemblance to Friday night's race conditions -- Burton and his crew chief Jeriod Prince got after it.
The team battled a tight Tundra in practice, but its potential immediately became apparent in the first round of Keystone Light Pole Qualifying, as Burton posted the fastest time of the 33 trucks that attempted to qualify.
In the second round Burton posted a reasonable effort that was 10th-best. But then Prince and spotter Kevin Hamlin engineered the perfect strategy, positioning Burton at the pit road exit, prepared to make a final run if necessary -- and when several fast trucks moved to the racetrack, Burton went with them.
His best lap moved him to eighth and prevented him from getting eliminated from the final round that would establish the top-12 trucks' starting positions.
The third round of elimination-style qualifying resembled the Formula One madness that NASCAR's version was copied from. Virtually the entire last-round field of 12 trucks sat on pit road until the closing seconds of the five-minute session before going out en masse for a mad draft to the checkers.
From that, Burton took the eighth starting position, but a lot more in intangibles.
"What we did in qualifying was great for our driver's confidence -- both in what he can do as well as what this team is capable of," Prince said. "Jeb did a great job, all day and all night."
But as the team's strategy unfolded with several late cautions, the ThorSport trio cycled to the front of the field, in a line behind Busch. It showed Burton a lot.
"These guys don't quit and Jeriod and the team never stopped working on making our Carolina Nut Tundra better," Burton said. "For the second week in a row, at the end of the race we had a truck that could contend to win."
But as the final 12 laps unfolded, Busch pulled out a gap on Crafton, who finished second to Busch for the second consecutive week. Sauter had fallen back to seventh in the running order, leaving Burton to battle with German Quiroga for the final "podium position."
But right after Busch took the white flag Burton, coming off Turn 4 on the outside of Quiroga, was forced up into the laps-down truck of Norm Benning, who was running out against the wall.
The contact knocked Burton's smashed Carolina Nut Tundra into the infield grass and into 15th position. That result puts Burton in a tie for seventh in the standings, 35 points behind series-leader Crafton.
"I hate the finish of the race turned out that way -- I hate it for my guys and for Norm getting his truck torn up because it just didn't need to happen," Burton said. "This is something you can tuck away and learn from. We'll go to Dover and if we can keep making the progress we're making, I feel like we'll contend for another win, there."
The Truck Series' next race is May 30 at Dover International Speedway, part of a NASCAR tripleheader with the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series.