Last October at Texas Motor Speedway, Noah Gragson looked set to turn the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs upside down.
Gragson, who entered the race last in the Round of 8, was on the verge of winning and moving on to the Championship 4.
But in the final laps, Harrison Burton hunted Gragson down. Then, off Turn 4 on the final lap, Burton passed Gragson and won the race.
“There were some playoff guys that gave me high fives after that … Because I won and Noah didn’t,” Burton recalled with a laugh Wednesday in a media teleconference.
Playing the spoiler was all Burton could do that day. He had been eliminated from the playoffs in the opening Round of 12.
But Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC), Burton returns to Texas in playoff contention. A 15th-place finish in last week’s elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was good enough to advance to the Round of 8.
Burton will start the round nine points below the cutline. His Round of 12 was not spectacular. He had the worst average finish (16.7) and the lowest point total (83) of the eight drivers who advanced.
But Burton is the only one of the group with wins at multiple Round of 8 tracks. One week after his win at Texas last October, he won again at Martinsville Speedway.
With AJ Allmendinger (+34 above the cutline) and Austin Cindric (+28) in decent shape atop the Round of 8 standings, Burton’s focus in on winning over the next three weeks to have a title shot in the Nov. 6 season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
“You can’t expect to point your way in from this round,” he said Wednesday. “If you do, I think you’ve gotten, maybe not lucky, but you’ve had a really good few days and didn’t end up winning. But if you do point your way in, you’re gonna have to execute perfectly.
“Having a win in this round is huge, and it really is gonna change if someone other than those top two guys wins a race early. It can really change the cutline and who’s on the bubble. .. It’s all up in the air. No one’s really safe in this round.”
Saturday’s race at Texas will have an interesting wrinkle. Resin will be placed on the 1.5-mile oval, which has been treated with traction compound in recent years.
Burton and the other Xfinity drivers competed with a resin/traction compound “mix” in August at Michigan International Speedway.
When asked about that race, Burton said once the resin heated up, drivers were able to make speed along the top of the track. He expects a similar situation at Texas.
“We saw in the (Michigan) Cup race where they were searching for grip up there and got it rolling really good, so I expect it to come into play pretty quick,” Burton said. “I’m not sure how quick. Hopefully, it’s ready on Lap 1 because I’m on the outside (starting eighth) and probably will be in it.
“… Obviously, we’ve done it, but it’s unpredictable to know exactly what mixture of it will be and how it will affect the race cars.”
Meanwhile, as Burton pursues a championship, he’s also been preparing for his move next season to the Cup Series. He will take over the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, replacing Matt DiBenedetto.
Burton has stuck around to observe some Cup races this season and has often listened to Kurt Busch‘s team radio while doing so. That’s because Burton’s spotter, Tyler Green, also serves the same role for Busch in the Cup Series. Next season, Green will again be Burton’s spotter in Cup.
“Listening to (Green) and how he operates in a Cup scenario is good and trying to build our relationship as much as a possible is really important,” Burton said. “As you know, with this new car coming, it’s gonna be a lot in the driver’s hands.
“Having every single resource that makes you go faster in tune with you is, obviously, really good.”