Recently, former NASCAR Cup driver and NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton helped his son Harrison Burton pick out a suit for an important meeting.
The younger Burton wasn’t even sure what the meeting was about.
As the world found out Thursday morning (July 15), the meeting led to Harrison Burton being named the driver of Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Ford for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Burton, 20, will become the latest familiar name to compete for NASCAR’s oldest team, joining names like Pearson, Petty, Rudd and Blaney in piloting the iconic car.
“My dad is kind of my acting general manager,” Burton said. “He’s got so many relationships with people in the sport and the introduction to the prospect was made to me by him. … For me, it was going up and meeting everybody and putting it together was a process and it took some time, but over the time that we went the more and more I thought about it the better the decision made sense, so I was really, really excited about that.”
For WBR, which is part of an in-house alliance with Team Penske, the Burton news represented a change of plans.
But those plans changed with the expected move by Brad Keselowski to Roush Fenway Racing as a driver/owner.
“So we all got together with Team Penske, Ford Performance, all our partners,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Keep in mind the Next Gen car is coming and that’s a white sheet of paper so far as drivers. It’s a white sheet of paper for everybody, but drivers in particular, so we felt that was a good time to bring in a young rookie, so we just made the decision to figure out what we wanted to do. We could bring a young rookie in to kind of team up with Austin, who is obviously now going into the [No. ] 2, and those two guys could work together and develop themselves into a great racecar drivers.
“Being rookies, they’re both on the same level and this new car is such a white sheet of paper that even if you’re a veteran, if you’re a 20-year veteran, you’re really not gonna have a lot on a rookie. Everybody is kind of starting in the same place.”
The Wood Brothers aren’t ready to say goodbye to their current driver, DiBenedetto. That’s why the 29-year-old driver wasn’t mentioned in the team’s initial announcement about Burton.
“In our eyes, we’re not done,” Wood said. “There are five races left before the playoffs. We’re gonna try to win a race and get in the playoffs. We obviously have to win a race, and then there are 10 races after that, so it just didn’t feel right. … Everybody who has ever driven our car becomes family and we view Matt as family. Everybody knows Matt. Everybody loves Matt. Matt’s a great driver. He’s a great person, got a great big heart — got big arms, too — but it’s just a thing that we viewed that as we get through the year. We give our best effort. He’s gonna give his best effort and that way when it comes time to say goodbye and thank you, that’ll happen, but Matt will always be a part of our family. I’m in the museum now. You can go look on our walls. Every driver who has ever driven for us is in here and, like I said, he’ll always be family.”
Wood had the opportunity to get to know Cindric over the last nine months under the assumption he would be driving the No. 21. From that experience he observes Cindric “just seems to fit Harrison.
“They’re both young and they’re both ready to go and both come from racing families, and it just feels like they would stick together,” Wood added. “Racecar drivers don’t have a particularly good habit of sticking together. They stick together until they don’t, and that’s OK.”
For Burton, he will make the full-time jump to Cup after making 38 career starts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and two full-time seasons in the Xfinity Series, in addition to his Cup debut earlier this year at Talladega with Gaunt Brothers Racing.
He currently competes full time for Joe Gibbs Racing driving the No. 20 in the Xfinity Series.
While he won four times in 2020, he’s winless so far through 19 races in 2021 and is fifth in the point standings.
“I don’t know if you’re ever ready for the Cup Series,” Burton said. “It’s a grueling season with amazing drivers and amazing race teams that you have to find a way to get an edge on and the edges that you find are tiny, so your margin for error is tiny. When you’re a young guy and the opportunity arises to align yourself with a group like these people and you have a chance to kind of get into this sport at a time when the sport is going through a lot of change, I think there’s an opportunity in that.
“You can look at it the other way and say there’s gonna be a lot of craziness, a lot of change, it’s gonna be tough, but it’s never not gonna be a challenge going from Xfinity to Cup. There’s always gonna be growing periods. There’s always gonna be a spot where you’re trying to learn against guys that are 20-year veterans.”
The move for Burton will mark the end of his relationship with Toyota. He has driven for manufacturer in NASCAR since 2015 in the ARCA Menards Series West, but been racing Toyotas since he was 13.
“Really, I think what it all comes down to … when these conversations first started, just the amount of support and the amount of stability that was in (Ford Performance and Wood Brothers Racing) and the belief in me as a driver is really hard to say no to,” he said. “I’ve got such a great opportunity now to learn in a really tough environment, but a great environment, and I don’t really think that anything Toyota did or didn’t do influenced my decision. I think that it’s just the decision that was best for me.”
This leaves 15 races for Burton and JGR to win a title together.
Burton said he doesn’t think his imminent departure will negatively impact that pursuit.
“You know you’re not gonna be there next year, so there’s that in the room, but the goal is still the same for me as it was before this happened — the goal is to win races in my Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 car,” Burton said. “So when I wake up every morning, that’s gonna be the first thing I think about is, ‘What do I have to do to be a better racecar driver to do that,’ and the same feeling is said on their side as well. When this whole announcement was going on I …. was working out in the gym and thinking about (New Hampshire).
“That was a good thing for me to do to just keep my head rolling in that direction because staying focused through times like this is obviously a challenge.”
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