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Harrison Burton’s drive to racing stardom happening sooner, faster than his father’s

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Being a teenager in the Burton family is not what it once was.

For Jeff Burton, the age of 16 included the end of his go-kart career. Still in school, he played soccer and basketball and went to parties on the weekends in his hometown of South Boston, Virginia.

He also dated his future wife, Kim, a junior varsity cheerleader who spent time in gymnastics and performing in dance recitals.

“We were allowed to just be regular kids,” she says.

For Harrison Burton, the highlight of his mid-teens was becoming the youngest NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion, less than two weeks before his 17th birthday on Oct. 9.

He earned the title Sept. 29 when he won the season finale at Dover International Speedway and exited the race with an eight-point advantage over season-long rival Todd Gilliland.

It capped a year where the MDM Motorsports driver scored five wins, including four in the first eight races. He also made six starts in the Camping World Truck Series with a best finish of fourth at Martinsville Speedway a month after he clinched the K&N title.

Not bad for someone who committed to the family business at the age of 9 after four years of racing quarter midgets.

“I think I was pretty old, like relatively,” Harrison Burton says.

Going National

“Quarter midget racing, it was fun,” Harrison says in his father’s shop in Huntersville, North Carolina, which houses one of his late-model cars and the red 1957 Chevrolet his parents drove in their youth.

“You would race and then go play football afterward … tackle a guy so hard that he would wreck you. That was kind of the extent of that. It was a bunch of friends and we’d travel around and race.”

Then USAC established a national quarter midget series, one that would send 10-year-olds and their parents as far west as Phoenix.

Harrison wanted in.

At the time his father’s Cup career was winding down, but it still kept Jeff Burton from attending most of his son’s races. Sundays after races and Tuesdays were dedicated to working on Harrison’s cars.

“He came to us and he had a proposal,” says Jeff Burton, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “We both immediately said, ‘No, there’s just no way that we can do it.’ We were explaining to him, I’m racing. This means we’re going to be separated as a family.

“So his reply to that was, ‘I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt our family. So we just won’t do it.’

“I don’t know if he’s a good salesman or what he is. But now how do you say no to a kid that has that perspective? Essentially (Kim) had to make the decision because I couldn’t do it.

“Can she do it? Can she manage it? Plus a daughter. Can she manage this?”

She did.

For two years, Kim Burton shepherded her son’s young racing career and her daughter’s horse riding career while also attending her husband’s Cup races, typically all in a three-day span.

It was this period, in which he competed in roughly 300 races (including heat races), that Harrison thought back to when he arrived in Dover’s Victory Lane.

Harrison and Kim Burton embrace in Victory Lane after his win at Dover International Speedway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I just thought about all the races, all the weird areas I’ve been around the country,” he says. “My mom in a motor home.”

“Not so great hotels,” Kim quickly adds.

It was much like those days in the early 90s, when she and Jeff went from track to track as he worked to establish his name in the Xfinity Series at the same time she worked as a teacher.

“It was just, ‘Are we going to race each year?’” Kim recalls. “That first year, it was us in a van, basically. We drove around the country all night long, trying to eke out, figuring out how to make everything work. He had a crew of a few guys that were his late model guys. It was hard. It wasn’t glamorous. Riding in a van with five stinkin’ men, all night long. It was like, ‘What am I doing?’

She was unknowingly preparing herself for her son’s own journey into NASCAR history.

‘This feels really slow’

It was in Harrison’s second year in the national quarter midget series that his dad saw “it.”

That’s when “the magic happened,” Jeff said.

Jeff saw the drive and driver intuition that would serve his son well as he tried to move up the driving ranks.

“It got to the point where we could show up and he could look at the race track at 10 years old and understood what he needed to do and where he needed to run,” Jeff says.

A race day would see Harrison at the track until 10 p.m. A test day would have him sitting in the car non-stop for four to five hours.

“Part of that is because I’m insane,” Jeff says. “But the other part of it is because he needed to … If you’re going to do this, what are you willing to give up? … He has our support as long as he has the willingness and desire to put the effort, time and energy into it. If someone’s going to outwork him, he doesn’t deserve it.

“Children don’t do this. Men do this. Grown men, women. When you get in that car you can’t be a child. When you get out of it, you can be, but when you get in it, you can’t be.

“He never balked at it. He never complained about it.”

Harrison also didn’t balk when, at the age of 11, he took part in his first Limited Late Model test at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina.

Harrison Burton leads Christopher Bell during the Oct. 28 Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With crew members from their quarter midget team helping and then-Richard Childress Racing engineer Matt McCall (now Jamie McMurray’s crew chief) supervising, Harrison used a step stool to climb into the vehicle and took to the track.

Upon returning to the pits Harrison told his father, “this feels really slow.”

This from a kid whose only racing experience was on tracks small enough to complete a lap in under five seconds.

“Driving a world formula quarter midget is out of control,” Jeff says. “It’s a grossly overpowered, under-gripped race car on a tiny track with 11 cars.”

Within four years, Harrison was racing at Dover, Bristol and other short tracks his father didn’t set foot on until his early 20s.

“Part of me says that’s awesome,” Jeff says. “The other part of me says, ‘Damn, that’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody.’”

The pressure didn’t slow his son down. In April, 16-year-old Harrison started from the pole in the K&N East race at Bristol, led 68 of 70 laps and won his first NASCAR race.

More Schooling

Harrison Burton had to make sacrifices to become a NASCAR champion. That included giving up playing lacrosse at school.

“When it was winding down and I had to cut lacrosse, (his father) was like, ‘You know, you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to do this because it’s what I did,” Harrison said. “Every time it’s been hands down, I want to race, I want to race, I want to race, I want to race. He’s asked me that more than you would think.”

But Harrison adds there’s “nothing I regret giving up because I knew it was for racing.”

This season coincided with the younger Burton’s junior year, which took a hit as his focus narrowed on battling Gilliland for the K&N East title. He missed an entire week of school at one point.

The biggest casualty was biology.

“It’s been harder than normal,” he says. “That led to results like you’d about imagine in school. I’m kind of making up for that now, and I feel like I’m getting my grades back up. It’s a hard balance for sure. It’s something you feel so focused on racing and you spend a lot of time preparing for races and then you go and you feel like there’s hardly enough time for school, and it’s hard to focus on school when all you want to do is race.”

Despite the split attention, the Burton household is now home to its first NASCAR champion.

Being 17 and with NASCAR’s age limits on competing on large tracks, going full-time in Trucks isn’t a possibility yet. He’ll have at least one more year of dividing his time between school and racing.

“My wish list is to run as many races as possible and learn as much as I can,” Harrison said after his fourth-place finish at Martinsville in the Truck Series. “I think I have a long way to go if I want to race every Sunday, so I’ve got to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can ‘cause I used to be a 14-year-old kid with a long, a long time to go before I even had to think about that stuff and had a long time to learn, but now the time’s coming.”

For now he’s still a teenager, for better or worse.

Before he left Dover for the trip back to North Carolina, he made a parting remark to his dad that reminds you some things about being a teenager don’t change.

“I am so far behind on homework.”

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

JGR teammates prank Kyle Busch with 30,000 pennies

Photo: Denny Hamlin
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. pranked Cup champion Kyle Busch by dumping 30,000 pennies on his bed as part of Truex’s payoff for losing a bet to Busch last month in New York City.

Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kevin Harvick were all together in New York City promoting their appearance in the championship race in Miami. They were riding in traffic when Busch bet he could get to the hotel quicker by jogging. The other three took him up on it.

Busch arrived ahead of them and won.

Truex owed Busch $300 for losing the bet. Hamlin helped him come up with a creative way to pay it back.

Truex said on an Hamlin’s Instagram story: “It’s going to be fun to see his reaction. He’s going to be happy that he’s getting his money, I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to carry it home with him. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Busch didn’t know about the prank until Hamlin asked if he had seen Hamlin’s Instagram story.

“Took a look … and damn it,” Busch said after the banquet.

“I guess it’s in the pillow cases and everywhere. We’ll have to figure that out (how to remove them).

Asked if Truex was still good for paying off the bet that way, Busch joked: “He might get wrecked.”

 

 

What they wore on the red carpet …

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before the show, drivers and their significant others walked the red carpet. Here’s a look at their outfits for the evening.

Kyle Busch, wife Samantha and son Brexton. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Kyle and Katelyn Larson. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Kevin and DeLana Harvick (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Clint and Lorra Bowyer. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Joey and Brittany Logano.(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Kurt and Ashley Busch. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott and Kaylie Green. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

 

Aric and Janice Almirola. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

Daniel and Kenzie Hemric. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott wins Cup Most Popular Driver award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott was selected as the NMPA Most Popular Driver in a fan vote announced during Thursday’s NASCAR Awards show.

It is the second consecutive victory for Elliott in the category.

“Honored to have two,” Elliott said on stage. “It’s really more than a trophy or award. It is about the people you see at the race track.”

Completing the top five in balloting: Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.

It is the 29th consecutive year that either an Elliott or Earnhardt has won the award. Bill Elliott won the award 16 times.

“To have 18 awards going back to Dawsonville is, I think, pretty cool,” Elliott said of the Most Popular Driver awards he and his father have won. “Obviously, I think a lot of that is due to him and his career and what he and his family built. It’s certainly isn’t all me and what I’ve done. I haven’t done anything … compared to what they did.”

The last driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt to win this award was Darrell Waltrip in 1990.

Other award winners included:

The Bill France Award of Excellence, an award that is not given every year, was presented to car owner Joe Gibbs for his signifiant contribution to the sport.

The NMPA Myers Brothers Award for outstanding contribution to the sport was presented to Darrell Waltrip.

The Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award is Joe Vaughn, who has volunteered for nearly two decades, raising both awareness and funds on behalf of the Project HOPE Foundation, based in Greenville, South Carolina. The foundation’s mission is to provide a lifespan of services to the autism community to help families, open minds, promote inclusion and expand potential.