Harrison Burton learning plenty in challenging rookie Cup season

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The first third of Harrison Burton‘s rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series is complete.

His opening 12 races in the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing were not stellar. The 21-year-old son of former driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton knows that, even if he is coming off a career-best 14th-place finish Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

“It’s been a rough start to say the least,” Burton said in a Wednesday teleconference. “Fourteenth place is our best finish, so that’s not good. There’s no hiding it. I think there’s been some growing pains there, and I feel like now we’re getting rolling in the right direction.”

The numbers don’t lie. Burton ranks 30th in average running position at 24.647, ahead of only Corey LaJoie and Cody Ware of the 32 drivers who have run all 12 races.

That’s in far contrast from his experience in the Xfinity Series, where he ranked sixth in average running position by the end of 2021 after collecting four wins for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020.

His mental strength has been challenged, but Burton feels those tests have bettered him as a driver.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I won’t quit. I will never quit,” Burton said. “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 find out who you are, right? You go through adversity in life, and everyone has it, and I feel like it makes you better.

“It’s just something that, for me, is exciting that I’ve gone through this rough spot, been in some really hard moments, been in things that were really disappointing. Leave the racetrack with your head hanging low. And then Monday morning rolls around, and I’m as excited and motivated as ever to go to work and work harder than I ever have.

“The schedule is as hard as it’s ever been for me personally. The Cup schedule is pretty grueling. So I’m learning a lot about myself in a work ethic capacity. My love for the sport is higher than I think it’s ever been because I appreciate what Cup is all about and I’m getting ready to try and hopefully start succeeding in that. And that’s exciting.”

In 12 races, Burton has visited every major track type on the circuit. Each of the next three races, including the exhibition NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, will be run on a 1.5-mile oval.

“I think it’s really beneficial to get all these different track types, not out of the way, but you get a notebook on every single type of racetrack, right?” Burton said. “And now we’re going to places that you can relate to other places.”

Burton highlighted that teams were largely guessing with setups as they approached tracks for the first time with the Next Gen car. Driving for the Wood Brothers, whose team is a Team Penske affiliate, some of Burton’s setups have been experiments for what the three-car powerhouse of Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and fellow rookie Austin Cindric can run in their cars.

“We’ve done some of that and our group is learning what I like,” Burton said. “And we’re still trying to build as a group. So a lot of times, every weekend is kind of an experiment, but we’ve differed on some things that worked and didn’t work. I wouldn’t say we’re full experimental mode, just swinging for the fences. I still think that we are trying to build off our notes that we’re learning and trying to just learn about the car and learn about what I like.

“The whole throwing caution to the wind thing is probably not our position quite yet. Still a lot of season left and we feel like we can get things rolling in the right direction.”

Burton has a wealth of people around him to help, not the least of which is his father, who was among the nominees for this year’s Hall of Fame class.

“He’s an experienced guy, been through it all as well,” Burton said. “And obviously I have a great relationship with him, so it’s good to learn from him for sure.”

Also at his disposal is Logano, last week’s winner and the 2018 Cup champion, as a quasi-teammate through Penske. Logano’s rookie year with JGR in 2009 was decent and highlighted by a win in a rain-shortened race at New Hampshire. But touted as a high-caliber prospect, Logano’s performance seemed constantly criticized with results that didn’t always meet the public’s expectations.

“I think back to when Joey started in Cup, I think his experience is being of one where he struggled out of the gate and then turned into, one of the best to do it, right?” Burton said. “So that’s, I think, motivating for me to have a guy that hey, let’s be honest, I struggled out of the gate. And Joey, I think he would say that he did too. And then now he’s a champion and a guy that when you think of the most talented drivers. He’s pretty high up on that list.

“That’s pretty awesome to see that and learn from his experiences, and try and understand that, you know, it’s possible to turn this thing around. It’s not inevitable that it’ll turn around. You have to earn it turning around. And I think that’s been something I’ve learned and something that’s cool for me.”

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.