MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) – With his brother leading the Nextel Cup standings, Ward Burton is a more intent observer of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.

But at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, Ward’s vantage point will be from inside a race car for the first time in almost two years.

The 44-year-old Burton hasn’t raced in stock car’s premier series since November 2004. He initially walked away from Haas-CNC Racing determined to land a more competitive ride, but his second year away made him eager to get back in a car.

He’ll start 35th in the Subway 500 for Morgan-McClure Racing, and he’s hopeful it will be a long relationship with team owner Larry McClure and crew chief Chris Carrier. The team fired driver Scott Wimmer after 29 races.

“I was really excited to get the call from Larry,” Burton said before qualifying. “I’ve been itching to get back into the sport the last couple of months, well, actually, since January when testing at Daytona started. It’s a great opportunity.”

When Wimmer was cut loose, McClure said the team wanted to have veteran drivers assess the potential of its Chevrolets and to audition for the seat in 2007.

Burton, an outdoorsman, spent much of his time away working with his wildlife foundation.

“I feel like I’m a wasted talent on Sundays and sometimes it really bothers me,” he said.

Burton has won five races in 365 starts in the Nextel Cup Series, including the Daytona 500 in 2002. He twice finished the season in the top 10 in points.

“Driving a race car is as easy to me as (skeet) shooting,” he said. “It’s something that came real natural. … We all get passion and do things that come easy to us.”

His team’s introduction to Burton’s popularity came quickly, especially in Virginia. They scheduled a test on Wednesday at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, and while they were there, some fans arrived and sat and watched from the grandstands.

“Those people had signs made up – ‘Ward Burton fan club’ – and all this,” Carrier said. “They had driven 61/2 hours just to come watch us test at a short track. I think that speaks for itself.”

On the track, Burton looked like he’d never been away, Carrier said.

“He was smooth as silk,” he said.

Burton has already given the team a boost.

“This guy has had success in everything he’s done as far as motorsports goes and probably everything else,” Carrier said. “We’re tremendously excited about this. When you’re around people everyday in a working environment, you can recognize energy and excitement. There’s a lot of energy and excitement in our race team.”

McClure, whose team has won three Daytona 500s and has 14 race victories in 25 seasons, first talked to Burton about driving for him last season.

“This team has been down but we think we’re taking the right steps to get our team back up to where it needs to be,” he said. “Certainly if we have success, Ward is going to have success.”

No announcement beyond Martinsville has been made by the team, but Burton said it’s a “good possibility” he’ll race for the team again this season.

On Sunday, besides getting a good result for Morgan-McClure, Burton said he’ll keep an eye out for his brother, who leads the points race by 45 over Matt Kenseth.

“The last thing I need to do this weekend is rub some paint on him and spin him around, even though I might probably owe him somewhere down the road,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think we’ll do that this weekend. We’re here for ourselves and to try to build something for the future and try to have a good time this week.”

Jeff Burton laughed at the notion his brother owes him something on the track.

“I probably owe him a few also,” he said.

AP-ES-10-21-06 1515EDT

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