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Every NASCAR Cup Series rookie endures some growing pains. For 2022 newcomer Harrison Burton, those growing pains have just been a lot more prominent than he’d prefer.

In what could truly be described as a rollercoaster ride of a rookie year in NASCAR’s premier series, Burton has faced more than his share of setbacks while failing to produce the kind of results he hoped to enjoy in Year One of driving the fabled Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 car.

While many drivers of Burton’s youth – he won’t turn 22 until October – might be tempted to blame their struggles on factors beyond their or their team’s control, Burton is doing just the opposite: He’s looking in a mirror. 

Harrison Burton’s season started upside down, both literally and figuratively

Through 24 races this season, Harrison Burton has just two top-10 finishes – a 10th-place display at Atlanta Motor Speedway in early July, and a third-place showing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course three weeks later.

Buried 28th in the standings and without a win to his credit, the son of 21-time Cup winner turned NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Jeff Burton will miss the playoffs unless he pulls off an upset victory this weekend on the road course at Watkins Glen or next weekend on the superspeedway at Daytona.

“The year hasn’t gone how we wanted it to,” Burton said candidly during a recent Ford Racing teleconference. “There’s no denying that. There’s no rose-tinted glasses for that. There have been a lot of missed opportunities on our end. I think with the cars we’ve had that were fast, I made mistakes or we just missed opportunities throughout the weekend to get decent finishes. For us, the biggest goal is just to maximize our weekends and show up to the race track and unload with a lot of speed.”

Burton did have a lot of speed in February’s Daytona 500, his first start for the Wood Brothers and the second start of his Cup Series career. He had led three laps and was running in the lead pack near the end of the first stage when a bump-draft from fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski sent the No. 21 car sliding out of control and across the track into oncoming traffic. Burton ultimately went airborne before landing with all four wheels on the ground.

“Obviously, when you flip or anything like that, it looks really dramatic and scary,” he said. “I think the people outside of the race car were more worried than I was. I’ve got this video that NASCAR sends us where we can look at our safety equipment and see what we could have done better to be safer inside these race cars, and you watch that, and we learned some things.  

“The coolest part was I felt like I was upside down still trying to drive. And then, once I landed, the first thing I did was trying to start it up and drive off again. I didn’t really have any fear in that moment.”

The young driver is now looking forward to going back to Daytona in a couple of weeks and attempting to get the finish he had the potential to earn in February.

“I think Daytona is a good opportunity for almost everybody in the field to try and bust off a win there,” Burton said. “We led laps there earlier in the year at the Daytona 500, so there are some things I can see, ‘Hey, that could be a track for us.’ 

“My expectation is that my team shows up with the same level of aggression as we did in the 500, and that we try and go and lead laps in that thing and be aggressive and try to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Harrison Burton and the No. 21 team are showing signs of life

It’s worth pointing out that while Harrison Burton owns only a pair of top-10 finishes in his rookie season, both have come in the past six weeks. 

The third-place finish at Watkins Glen, in particular, was a boost not just for Burton but for the entire No. 21 team.

“I’m a believer in momentum and confidence,” crew chief Brian Wilson said in a recent team release. “Overall, I think the results at Indy and Atlanta show that our process is working, and we’re making gains as a team. Everyone can have confidence that we’re doing the right things to improve.”

Burton is also somewhat optimistic that things are finally trending in the right direction. Perhaps it won’t be long before he’ll regain the mojo he had when he won four NASCAR Xfinity Series races in 2020 for Joe Gibbs Racing. That season, along with another solid, albeit winless, Xfinity Series season for JGR in 2021, propelled Burton to a full-time Cup Series ride for 2022 when a seat opened up with the Wood Brothers.

“I wanted to come out and do a really good job, and I feel like I made a lot of mistakes early,” said Burton, who didn’t record a top-15 finish until his 12th start. “Some things I feel like I did well early, but I don’t know. I don’t know what the grade would be. I haven’t really thought a lot about that. I think the biggest thing is just trying to build off of every weekend. If I could give it a grade, I wouldn’t give it a good one. 

“I think we’ve got to run better. There’s no secret about that, and there’s no one on our team that believes what we’re doing is enough. We’ll get it done. It’s just a matter of how, and I know we’re working hard enough to do it. That’s for sure.”

Uncertain of 2023 plans, Harrison Burton is more focused on Watkins Glen

Harrison Burton walks the garage ahead of the Daytona 500.
Harrison Burton during practice ahead of the Daytona 500. | Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Speaking on the same Ford Racing teleconference, Harrison Burton revealed that his plans for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season are uncertain.

“I think it’s all up in the air at the moment,” he said. “I feel like we’re at a good point right now, and there’s a lot of faith in me within the group and in the Wood family. I’ve felt nothing but support from them. I get a lot of really cool texts from those guys, and they seem to believe in me quite a bit, so I’m excited about that, and hopefully something comes together where I can announce it soon.

“I don’t have anything to announce yet, but if I could run the rest of my career in the Wood Brothers 21 car, I would be pretty happy. It’s an amazing team to drive for, and I hope we can continue for sure.”

In the meantime, Burton remains focused on getting better – and that continues this weekend on the road course at Watkins Glen, where he has a chance to build off of his impressive finish on the road course at Indianapolis. 


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“I really worked hard in the offseason to be a better road racer,” Burton said. “I feel like that’s something I struggled with in Xfinity, trying to run with guys like Austin Cindric. That guy is quick on a road course, so learning from him I feel like has been good. 

“My confidence on road courses is higher on those than it has been in the past, but I still know there’s work to be done there, and I think that’s what is good. You know where and how, and it’s just about doing it. So, there’s no stone unturned.”

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