Harrison Burton knows that a 14th-place finish at Darlington Raceway being the season-high for Wood Brothers Racing can’t really be described as a good thing, but he’s seeing it as a small victory.
“And more than finish, I think the speed we had in that race,” Burton said. “There was a part of that race where we came out after a pit stop and hadn’t been really good to start the race, and then the car woke up. We made the right changes on pit road. Joey [Logano] and Denny [Hamlin] were second and third, and I ran them down and caught them. I think Joey had one-lap older tires, so we were pretty even to them. I caught them and was like, ‘OK, now we’re rolling.’
“Looking at the lap time data, that was our strongest race for sure compared to the leaders and that particular segment, we matched the leader’s lap time. So, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going in the right direction there.’ We have the speed at times to be a top-five car, we just have to go and execute a whole race now. We had one segment where we were really good, and then we tuned ourselves out of it some. I think that was a big victory to run with those guys — catch Denny, catch Joey.”
Burton wasn’t on the same lap as Logano or Hamlin when he caught them because he was racing Brad Keselowski for the free pass. But the rookie still felt it was still the biggest victory of the day to show the No. 21 Ford had speed.
“Then the finish was actually probably worse than what we had lap time wise,” said Burton. “It was not representative of our best runs. We had flat-spotted tires after the big crash, had to pit and lost some track position there. So the finish number was not that exciting, but I think the speed we had was more exciting.”
Saying it’s been a rough start to the year for Burton’s team might be an understatement. In a matter of moments, he went from leading the Daytona 500 to flipping on the backstretch. There have been mistakes from the team and the driver and the misfortune of being caught up in someone else’s incidents.
Darlington was Burton’s first top-15 finish and just his fifth top-20 finish in 12 races. He has three DNFs.
Every week is a new chance to learn, and Burton has kept his head high while committing himself to getting better. Crew chief Brian Wilson, new to the Cup Series himself in this position, has preached the importance of scoring points and giving Burton a car he can be confident with in the pack.
“I told Brian, when we had that run at Darlington I mentioned earlier, that I felt comfortable,” Burton said. “That was the first time where I wasn’t uncomfortable in this race car, which is pretty wild when you think about it. This is a hard race car to drive, which is great for our sport, I think. But when you hit it right, it drives really well.
“We have some notes to build off of now of things that I like, especially based off that run. Some changes I like. Hopefully that can carry over. For me, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can finally go be aggressive with this car.’ I hadn’t felt that, and now I feel like we’ll be able to replicate that and go get after it more.”
Burton has also learned something about himself through the growing pains and appreciating the small victories.
“I won’t quit,” Burton said. “I will never quit. I think some of the good things about this start is you build confidence in your work ethic and desire. When things are bad, that’s when you find out who you are. You go through adversity in life — everyone has it — and I feel like it makes you better.
“The schedule is as hard as it’s ever been for me personally. The Cup schedule is pretty grueling. So, I’m learning about myself in a work ethic capacity. My love for the sport is as high as it’s ever been because I appreciate what Cup is all about, and I’m getting ready to hopefully start succeeding in that. That’s exciting.”