Breaking into the NASCAR Cup Series, no matter how much experience and success a driver has had at other levels of motorsports, is never easy and Harrison Burton is finding that out during the first third of the 2022 campaign. The 21-year-old driver from Huntersville, North Carolina has seen his share of success by achieving four wins in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and and eleven more in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series but he now finds himself searching for the formula that will help those earlier triumphs translate to the top division of the sport.
So far, that has not happened for the son of former NASCAR star and current NBC commentator Jeff Burton. Instead, the second generation driver began his season by getting caught up in a mishap that resulted in his Ford landing on its roof in the Daytona 500 and there have been few other moments worthy of mention to date.
Burton has finished outside the top-20 in seven of the twelve races contested so far with ‘crash’ being listed as the reason for not finishing in three of those events.
It was announced near the end of the 2021 season that Burton would make a bid for Rookie of the Year honors in the Cup Series by driving the famed No. 21 car for Wood Brothers Racing. That organization receives technical support from and serves as a quasi team car to powerful Team Penske. But even with that, the new pairing has not managed a single top-ten finish in the season first 13 races of the season with a 14th at Darlington being their high water mark.
During a recent NASCAR Media availability, Burton commented on the struggles he has faced so far but pointed to a moment that he hopes will serve as a turning point.
“Absolutely,” he replied when asked if the Darlington finish felt like a victory of sorts. “And more than the finish, the speed we had in that race. There was a part of the race when we came out, had a pit stop, and had not been very good at the start of that race, and the car woke up, we made the right changes on pit road. Joey(Logano) and Denny(Hamlin) were, I think second and third, and I ran them down and caught them and I think Joey had one lap older tires so I was pretty even to him and I caught them.”
Burton was encouraged in that moment. Still, he knows there is much more to be done.
“I was like, ‘Okay, now we’re rolling’,” he went on. “Looking at our lap time data, that was our strongest race for sure looking at the leaders. In that particular segment, we matched the leaders lap times. We’re going in the right direction and have the speed at times to be a top-five car. We just have to go and execute a whole race now.”
Following through on that particular run is now the goal.
“We had one segment where we were really good and then tuned ourselves out of it some,” he described. “That was a big victory, I think, to run with those guys, catch Denny and catch Joey. Obviously, I was in a different track position scenario where I was racing with Brad(Keselowski) for the lucky dog but to be able to catch them and show that we had that speed was the biggest victory of that day. The finish was probably worse than what we had lap time wise was not representative of our best run. We had flat spotted tires after the big crash and had to pit and lose some track position there. The finish number was not that exciting but the speed we had was more exciting.”
The gains have come slowly during his endeavor into the Cup Series. Small improvements must be built upon to reach the ultimate goal of being competitive on a weekly basis. And that goal is made a bit more complicated because everyone, including his crew, are having to learn what works and what doesn’t with the Next Gen car.
“I told my crew chief, Brian(Wilson), when we ran that run I was talking about earlier, that was the first time I wasn’t uncomfortable in this race car, which is pretty wild when you think about it,” Burton explained. “I mean this is a hard race car to drive, which is great for our sport. But when you hit it right, it drives really well. We have some notes to build off of now based off of that run, some changes that I like, and hopefully that can carry over. For me, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can finally go be aggressive in this car’ and I hadn’t felt that yet. Now I feel like we’ll be able to replicate that and go get after it more.”
Burton believes he has learned a lot about himself during these difficult times.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I won’t quit,” he stated. “I think some of the good things about this start is you build confidence in your work ethic, you build confidence in your desire. When things are bad that’s when you go back to who you are, right?”
This 2022 season has been a struggle so far but Burton hopes to find a light at the end of the tunnel soon.
“You go through adversity in life, everyone has it and I fell like it makes you better,” he said. “It’s exciting that I’ve gone through this rough spot and some really hard moments and things that were really disappointing and you leave the race track with your head hanging low then Monday comes and I’m as excited as ever to go to work and work as hard as I ever have. This is as hard as it’s ever been for me personally, the Cup schedule is pretty grueling.”
The determination that got him to this point is still there.
“My love for the sport is higher than I think it’s ever been and how much I appreciate what Cup is all about. I can never guarantee results but I can guarantee what I will do before the race to be ready. This whole team is dedicated more than ever to being good and we know that means work. We can’t do what we’ve been doing and expect to pop off a win and that’s what we’ve been doing and I’m really proud of that.”