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.”