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.”

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.