Race Weekend Central

Harrison Burton Brings Family Legacy, Hopes to Continue to Build With Wood Brothers

After spending most of his career at NASCAR’s lower levels with Toyota, including two years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing, Harrison Burton made the jump to Ford with Wood Brothers Racing for his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2022.

While the Wood Brothers continue to search for that elusive 100th team win, Burton spent this season learning the ropes of the Cup discipline, experiencing rookie blues early on. However, he put together a solid second half. He finished a career-high third at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, finished in the top 20 in the final three races and started inside the top 10 in three of the last four events. 

The 22-year-old caught up with Frontstretch to discuss the jump from Xfinity to Cup, the relationship he has with Team Penske drivers, his 2023 plans and linking the Burton and Wood Brothers’ legacies. 

Luken Glover, Frontstretch: By getting used to the Next Gen car, how has the Cup Series differed from the Xfinity Series?

Harrison Burton: I think one of the biggest differences is how good the entire field is. Obviously, the top guys in Xfinity are really, really good; the top teams in Xfinity are really, really good. But I think the biggest difference is the quality of team and driver, from top to bottom, is really high. You can be racing a Cup champion for 20th, and if a Cup champion gets in the Xfinity field, he probably won’t be running 20th.

It’s a big difference. Obviously, the equipment matters as well. I guess my point is if you give a Cup champion good equipment in the Xfinity Series, he will probably run well. I think it’s crazy to see these guys you look up to kind of struggle at times, and it shows just how hard it is. 

Glover: One of the biggest topics over the last couple of months has been the safety of the car. Personally, how have you felt about the safety of this car compared to others, and do you feel NASCAR is making the right improvements to make sure you are as safe as possible when you climb in?

Burton: It’s obviously a big story this year. Having drivers get hurt and sit out is never good, obviously. I will say that NASCAR has been, in my opinion, really transparent, especially recently with the drivers, and we’re working together with NASCAR.

I think that kind of relationship […] is kind of getting mended back some, which is really good. I think it’s been good to see them respond and work really hard. We get to know these people who are working on safety pretty well this year, and I feel good about the direction they’re going. I feel like they’ve always had our best interest at heart. It’s an inherently dangerous sport, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to make it better.

For a rookie, it’s a lot of meetings, and I sit and am quiet, which is fine. I feel like I’ve learned a lot that way.

Glover: You obviously have that access to Team Penske. Have you been able to have a lot of interaction with guys like Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney? And looking at your rookie class, how fun has it been to connect with them and learn from each other?

Burton: Yeah, Joey and Ryan have been really good to me. I can call them and ask them questions really at any time. We do meet together and talk about certain things, so at the end of the day, I feel really connected with those guys. If I ask them a question, they answer it truthfully.

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Or some guys will come and give advice without me asking, which is really rare for whatever reason within drivers. If I’m a driver and I’m offering advice to other drivers, normally that doesn’t get taken well or whatever it may be. Those guys have been really good about it. If they see something, they’ll come and say, “Hey man, why don’t you try this,” or “I see this while I’m racing you.” That’s been really helpful for me where I sometimes don’t have to go up and ask them questions and they’ll give me advice on it. 

Glover: It looks like in the second half of the season, you’ve found somewhat of a rhythm at many tracks. What improvements do you feel like you as a driver and as a team have made as the season has went on?

Burton: Really, the biggest thing is we’ve found a way to have speed. Whether that’s me changing a lot of things I did in the Xfinity car that just don’t work in this car or the team learning my feedback and learning what I need, it’s kind of been a combination of those things. But I think recently, just qualifying better and having speed during race runs is so important. I think it’s kind of put us in a spot where we’re able to work on the other small stuff now, where before it was “we need to get faster, we need to get faster,” and when you’re not fast, that’s the only thing you need to focus on. […]

I feel like we’re starting to get to where we’ve qualified in the top 10 two of the last three weekends, and we’re starting to get the speed. I’m pretty competitive, [so] now how do we build onto our relationship with strategy, with race-craft in this car in particular?

There’s so many differences in this car and how you race compared to what I just spent two years in the Xfinity Series [doing]. It’s taking me longer than maybe what I expected to learn. I felt like I was going to come in and, as a rookie, have an advantage because no one else had driven this car, but that’s really not been the case.

I feel like it’s been pretty challenging for me. But now, I feel like I finally have a grasp on the car and go to the racetrack with a lot of confidence, so it’s been a good change in that direction. 

Glover: With that speed you’ve found, do you feel like there is a particular racetrack that you’ll go back to next year and say, “oh, that’s where we can excel?”

Burton: I don’t know that there is. I probably would have told you that before the year started that when we go to short tracks, that meant I could go win at any short track. I ran decent at The Clash, ran horrible at Martinsville [Speedway] and horrible at Phoenix [Raceway], and all the sudden it’s, “well, maybe not.”

I would have never thought that the best finish all year would have been on the road course at Indy. I worked really hard on my road course racing, but those haven’t been my strengths in the past. In Xfinity, it was always [Austin] Cindric and Ty Gibbs, the two guys I would try and beat at road courses and I didn’t do that really often and now I can race with those guys.

I think I’ve been more well-rounded this year than I have in the past, and that’s been a good thing. I qualified well at [Las] Vegas [Motor Speedway], qualified well at Martinsville, so I don’t really know if there’s one I have circled other than my favorites. I like to go and race at Darlington [Raceway] or somewhere like that, but nowhere for performance do I feel like we don’t have a chance or we do more than another. 

Glover: Do you know what your situation will be in 2023? Are you going to be back with the Wood Brothers or are there other options?

Burton: The Wood Brothers have been really good with me and working for the future […] I am hoping that continues to be the plan and I expect that to be the plan, but we’ll see. It’s a very fluid business. […] When I signed with the Wood Brothers and we did our first meetings together, that was kind of the plan. It was, “Hey, we’re going to build this thing and we believe in you,” and I believe in them, so we’re just trying to build for the future.

I feel like that is what’s going on, and I feel like we’ve shown signs later this year that we can continue to do that. Has the performance been good enough, especially in the first half of the year? Absolutely not, to say I feel like it’s been a good year.

There’s been signs of growth and I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better recently. That’s what comes with being a rookie in the Cup Series. You look at guys like Chase Briscoe and guys like that who lit the world on fire in Xfinity and their first year in Cup is super tough. This year has been tough for me, but I feel now that I can compete and be ready to go to Phoenix and kind of reset this offseason, getting ready to go work for next year. 

Glover: What do you think the struggle from Xfinity to Cup is? Is it just the lack of experience in the Cup car, or are there different factors that play into how much of a jump it is?

Burton: I don’t really know. I’ll tell you what’s interesting, is I would run races and Kyle Busch would come to the Xfinity Series and there would be weekends where I would be able to compete with him. There would be weekends where I wouldn’t. I never felt like a fish completely out of water. I thought, “Man, when I go to the Cup Series, that’s one of the best guys. Maybe I’ll fire off pretty good here, we’ll see how it goes.” Then it’s just different when everyone in the field is good enough to take advantage of every mistake you make.

In almost any race, there’s times where most guys will have a run when they’re pretty fast, but the problem is you have a run before that where you’re not, and there’s 30 guys around you that are the best in the world. All of the sudden, you get behind really quick, and it’s hard to make up ground on these guys.

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To have a great weekend, you have to put together a complete weekend with practicing, qualifying and the race. Everything has to go well. In Xfinity, that wasn’t really the case. I felt like if I made a mistake, or say we couldn’t qualify for some reason, or whatever happened, I felt like I could get stage points by the end of the stage. […] In Cup, if you start last, you’re hoping not to get lapped in the first stage.

That’s kind of the goal — OK, stay on the lead lap because these cars are hard to pass, guys around me are fast. All of the sudden, when you start a half track behind the guys, they can catch you quick. Just that standard of the top guys being good all the way down to 25th, all the teams are really, really good. It’s a tough field to race against for sure without being able to put together complete weekends. 

Glover: I’m a Virginia native, and in Virginia, there are obviously a lot of Wood Brothers fans and a lot of Burton fans. Obviously, your family has deep ties to Virginia and the Wood Brothers do as well. How special has it been merging the Burton and Wood Brother’s legacy? 

Burton: It’s been really awesome. With the Wood Brothers and my family being from Virginia, that connects the tie that was there, and that was really cool. What I’ve been really excited about is all the stories I’ve gotten to hear from the Wood Brothers and just the history they have in this sport. It’s really cool to hear their stories and compare the ones that my dad [Jeff Burton] or uncle [Ward Burton] told me. Both of our families have been in the sport for a long time. Now, the Wood family has been in this sport longer [laughs].

It’s cool for me to add to that […] try to work really hard and try and honor that kind of old school mentality. It’s been really, really fun for us and our team. Recently, I feel like we’ve tried to encapture that and use that for fuel on our race weekends. It’s cool to try and merge those two stories and try to make it a positive one at the end of this deal. It is really important to me personally. 

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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Charlie

He is a waste of a good race car. Just like John Nemechek, another waste of a good race car. Legacies need to go on. Find some drivers to put in first-class equipment. Of course, Harrison’s father can shill for the sponsors in his non-stop yammering.
The Wood Brothers are a class organization and deserve much better.

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