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Burton Is Showing Touch of Magic in Chase

Special to The Times

Still in command halfway through the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Jeff Burton insists that “we’re not going to take ourselves too seriously just yet.”

But everybody else is in NASCAR’s playoffs.

“You can’t break him,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the competing Chase drivers who made hard runs at Burton’s points lead Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 and made little or no headway.

Earnhardt led 37 laps and finished fourth. Yet he didn’t gain a point on Burton, who finished third after slugging his way back from a lap down and driving the late laps with a frightening vibration in his Chevrolet.

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Race winner Kasey Kahne and second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson gained 20 and 10 points, respectively, but remain 160 and 146 points behind. Earnhardt’s zero gain left him 106 back. Everybody else lost ground at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“If he keeps running great races, you’re not going to be able to catch him,” Kahne said of Burton.

Burton stalled his car on pit road and lost a lap. But he managed to race back around Kahne and get back on the lead lap.

Then on his final pit stop, Burton took on a set of tires that vibrated so badly he feared a wheel was loose and intuitively prepared to pit. But one little experience from practice earlier in the week saved him.

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Goodyear had brought an exceptionally hard tire compound because of the new pavement here, and “we put a set on Thursday that shook so bad, I told them something was going to fall off the car,” Burton said.

It was a tire that needed rebalancing.

Two competitors -- four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Burton’s old friend Mark Martin -- all but gave up on themselves, at least in moments of frustration Saturday night.

“That’s probably it for me this year,” Martin said after his strong run was snuffed in a wreck with rookie J.J. Yeley, who darted toward the pits when Martin wasn’t expecting it and was trying to pass.

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“It’s just not meant to be for us this year,” Gordon said after a blown engine with only 33 laps to go eliminated a car he’d felt was capable of winning.

Matt Kenseth remained second to Burton in the standings, but dropped from six to 45 points behind after he struggled with a fitful Ford and finished 14th.

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Ed Hinton covers auto racing for Tribune newspapers.

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