You often hear that running at the front of the NASCAR Cup Series field is no easy task. Harrison Burton, in his second season with Wood Brothers Racing, is figuring that out the hard way.
Burton made the jump to the Wood Bros. and Ford after spending his developmental years with Toyota. That was highlighted by a four-win rookie Xfinity Series season in 2020, including consecutive triumphs in the postseason.
And even though the No. 21 team has a deep technical alliance with Team Penske, the same team that won the first championship in the Next Gen era with Joey Logano, it‘s been a struggle for Burton to crack the top 20. Last year, he had an average finish of 22.8 for the duration of the schedule. Through the opening eight races of 2023, it dipped to 24.0.
However, Burton has seen improvement in recent weeks, including consecutive top 20s for the first time since the conclusion of 2022.
“We have to put complete weekends together where you show up in practice and run well so we can get a good read for the race,” Burton told Jayski.com earlier this week of his primary struggle. “Because our practices are [short] and then you go and qualify. We‘re getting on the other side of that, and as a team doing a good job of preparing the way we need to prepare, not the way others think we should prepare. Now, we‘re gelling well and things are going in a good direction.”
While the consistency has been sporadic, all three of Burton‘s top 20s in 2023 have come on a variety of different racetracks. The first came at Fontana, placing 15th, which ensued after the No. 21 car led the Daytona 500 late in the race. Burton believes his primary strengths are short tracks and low-grip asphalt. He finished 19th at Richmond, which is both a short and low-grip track, and last weekend tied his best result of the season on dirt at Bristol.
Admittedly, Burton feels the pressure to turn his season around. But he noted that pressure comes from within himself.
“Quite a bit,” he said of the amount of pressure he feels. “It‘s what I‘ve wanted to do my whole life. I wouldn‘t say that the pressure is coming from external sources; it‘s coming from me. I want to be successful, I want to do well and I want to win races. In the Cup Series, to do that, there‘s a bit of a mountain to climb with really good drivers, really good teams. It‘s hard to beat a lot of these guys.
“It‘s pressure on myself because I know I can do it. I know I can do it, it‘s just a matter of going out and doing it and putting it together with my race team. I feel that we can do it this year.”
Preparation has been a point of emphasis for the 22-year-old. Burton noted the No. 21 team prepares for each track the same way. However, when he first entered the Cup Series, he liked information overload. He wanted every email and engineering report possible, then figured out what data he would use. It got to be too much.
“That got me to where I was drowning in information for some races where I had too much in my head, and I was thinking about that instead of just thinking about racing,” Burton stated. “At the end of the day, it‘s what I‘ve done my whole life, I know what I‘m doing, I just have to focus on that.”
Burton has reverted back to the basics in his approach and made his life easier.
Now, he‘s focused on Martinsville, a track he‘s excelled at over the years. His fourth and final Xfinity win in 2020 came at the famed short track, a place that‘s synonymous with the Burton family legacy.
In the series‘ most recent visit to the paperclip, Burton finished 11th last fall.
“I feel good about it,” Burton said of returning to Martinsville. “We‘ve had a couple of base hits the last few weeks where we‘ve finished decently. We finished 19th and then 15th, so we‘re trying to get our average finish up and our average days to be better than they have been. We‘ve had just average days the last few weeks. We need to get some above average days.”
Even though Martinsville is a strong track for Burton, his past success doesn‘t allow him to rest on his laurels.
As he said, “The second I think, ‘Oh, Martinsville, I ran well there last year; we‘re going to run well here again‘ that‘s the second you take the intensity off the preparation and the intensity off the weekend that you need. It‘s right in line the second you feel comfortable.” And he needs to be comfortable being unforgettable at the Cup level.
Burton enters Martinsville 28th in points, sitting between a pair of Stewart-Haas Racing teammates in Ryan Preece and Aric Almirola.