Ups and downs of a rookie Cup season a slow burn for Burton

Harrison Burton doesn’t leave the racetrack miserable. Burton isn’t one to wear his emotions on his sleeve or jump up and down to make sure others know how he feels. And he’s not going to be a driver seen throwing his helmet when someone does him wrong.

But that doesn’t mean Burton doesn’t care about his job. The 21-year-old NASCAR Cup Series rookie cares a lot about being the best driver he can be for the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, and that means being honest about a season that he admits has been a letdown for him.

With that, and as hard as it is, Burton has done a lot of looking in the mirror and being self-critical. Early in the year, Burton felt like he was making mistakes, and he’s still learning how to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

“I’ve done it all,” Burton said of his self-analysis. “I’ve sat in film meetings and said what I did in that scenario was dumb. I’ve thought about how I give feedback to my team — if I’m not aggressive enough or too aggressive with my comments and we end up over- or under-adjusting. I’ve thought about what does it take to be a great competitor and have that competitive spirit.

“I’ve talked to a lot of really interesting people about that. I’ve done almost every exercise in the book, for sure, and it’s a cool experience because you know a lot about yourself by the end of it.”

An interaction with Team Penske and Ford teammate Joey Logano was one experience Burton spoke highly of. Logano was sitting next to the young driver during a flight to an event and naturally, the conversation was about racing. The two opined how hard it can be, and Burton was struck by how Logano went from being a driver who struggled early in his career to a champion.

“He was talking to me about, ‘Hey, it’s pretty awesome when you think about what are other 21-year-olds doing and how tough are you going to be from this?’” said Burton. “It was pretty early in the year that we had that conversation and it’s definitely true. It’s a hard sport emotionally, physically and mentally. It takes everything you’ve got and that doesn’t guarantee success. I think in some other sports, you can shoot free throws all day, and you go to the game, and you’re probably going to be a better free throw shooter.

“A lot of the things you do in this sport don’t guarantee success, and you can be wiped out at any moment. You think about (Michigan) for us, we were in a crash early and don’t have a chance. It’s hard to say you could have done anything different other than be in front of it, so it’s a hard sport. I’ve thought a lot about what it takes to be a great competitor and trying to implement some things that I do in my day-to-day life, and I think it’s been working and showing signs of progress. It’s been cool.”

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Burton is 27th in the championship standings and second in the Rookie of the Year running. While he has an average finish of 22.7 and two top-10 finishes, Burton also has four DNFs. Two weeks ago, Burton put in his best season effort while surviving the Indianapolis road course for a third-place finish. Darlington (14th), Charlotte (11th), and Atlanta (10th) are a few other bright spots.

Hardships aside, the good news is that Burton feels he’s made progress as a driver since he went from leading laps in a Daytona to flipping on the backstretch. Burton admits he is much more confident these days and feels he understands how hard he can push, hopefully leading to less quiet introspection for Burton as time passes.

“There was a time when I first started this Next Gen car experience where I really didn’t feel that way,” Burton said of his confidence. “I got in the race car and was uncomfortable with a lot about it. I never really knew where the limit was and through experience, I’ve been able to find those limits — make mistakes but learn from them. Every time I get in the race car, I’m more and more confident, so, yeah, as a driver, I feel I’m a lot better in this car in particular. I feel like I’m a smarter driver now having raced against Cup competition for two-thirds of a year. That’s only going to bring the most out of you when you’re around people like this. You see guys like Ty Gibbs that are lighting up the Xfinity Series, and he just got a top 10, but it’s hard for everybody.

“You race these guys that are in the outside looking in maybe they don’t get the credit they deserve at how good everyone in this series is and how much they deserve respect. It’s a hard series, and that’s how it should be. That’s what makes it awesome. That’s what makes it fun to watch. That’s what makes it fun to do. I definitely feel like I’m a better driver from being around that and being around my alliance partners and talking to them about driving and racing. I feel like I’m a much better driver now than I was last year or the year before that. That’s just part of growing and learning every year.”