His opening 12 races in the #21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing weren’t great. The 21-year-old son of former driver and current NBC Sports pundit Jeff Burton knows it, even if he finished 14th on Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
“It was a tough start to say the least,” Burton said on a conference call on Wednesday. “Fourteenth place is our best result, so it’s not good. There is nothing to hide. I think there have been some growing pains, and I feel we are now heading in the right direction.”
The numbers don’t lie. Burton ranked 30th in an average running position at 24,647, just ahead of Cory Lagoe and Cody Weir among the 32 drivers who took part in all 12 races.
This is in stark contrast to his experience in the Xfinity Series, where he was ranked sixth in average running position by the end of 2021 after picking up four wins for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020.
His mental strength has been challenged, but Burton feels these tests have improved him as a driver.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I’m not going to give up,” Burton said. “I think some of the good things about this start is that 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 ordeals in life, everyone experiences them, and I feel they make you better.
“It’s exciting to me, that I’ve been through this tough spot, I’ve been through some really tough moments, I’ve been into things that have been really disappointing. Leave the racetrack with your head hanging low. Then Monday morning comes, and I’m more excited and motivated than ever to go To work and work harder than ever.
“The schedule is as tough as it has always been for me personally. The trophy schedule is very stressful. So I am learning a lot about myself in the area of work ethic. My love for the sport is higher than I ever thought because I appreciate what the trophy is all about as I prepare to try and hope to start succeeding at it. That’s exciting.”
In 12 races, Burton has visited every major track type on the track. Each of the next three races, including the NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, will run on the 1.5-mile oval.
“I think it’s really helpful to get all these different kinds of tracks out, not too far from the road, but you get a notebook on every kind of track, right?” Burton said. “And now we’re going to places you can relate to other places.”
Burton highlighted that the teams were largely guessing the settings when they first approached the tracks with the next-generation car. Driving for the Wood Brothers, whose team belongs to Team Penske, some of Burton’s setups were trials of what three-powered cars Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and fellow rookie Austin Cindric could run in their cars.
“We did some of that and our group is learning what I love,” Burton said. “And we’re still trying to build as a group. So a lot of the time, every weekend is kind of an experiment, but we disagreed on some things that worked and didn’t work. I wouldn’t say we put in the full demo, just swing the fences. I still think we try to build our observations Which we learn and just try to get to know the car and get to know what I like.
“Maybe our position so far has not been to throw the warning to the wind. There is still a lot of season left and we feel we can make things go in the right direction.”
Burton has a wealth of people around him to help, not least his father, who was among this year’s Hall of Fame nominee.
He’s an experienced guy, and he’s been through all of that, too,” Burton said. “And obviously I have a great relationship with him, so it’s definitely nice to learn from him.”
Also at his disposal is Lugano, last week’s winner and 2018 Cup champion, as a semi-teammate via Penske. Logano’s rookie year with JGR in 2009 was decent and marked him with a win in a rain shorter race in New Hampshire. But Lugano’s performance was described as a high-level prospect, and Lugano’s performance appeared to be constantly criticized with results that did not always meet audience expectations.
“I think when Joey started in the cup, I think his experience was one where he struggled out of the gate and then turned into one of the better players, right?” Burton said. “That, I think, motivates me to get a guy. Hey, let’s be honest, I struggled out of the gate. And Joey, I think he’d say he did too. Then now he’s a champ and a guy when you think about the most talented drivers. He ranks very high.” in that list.
“It’s great to see that and learn from his experiences, and try to understand that, you know, it’s possible to change this thing. It doesn’t have to turn around. You have to earn it from spinning. And I think that’s something I learned and it’s great for me.”
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Harrison Burton appeared learning a lot in the Rookie Cup challenge originally on NBCSports.com