Last season, with the official on-track debut of NASCAR’s Next-Gen car, every driver in the NASCAR Cup Series faced an immense learning curve, with a vehicle radically different than anything the series had ever seen before.
However, for the three drivers contesting their first full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series, the difficulty was turned up another notch, with the additional requirement of adapting to longer races, and increased competition.
Harrison Burton was one of those three drivers, moving into the NASCAR Cup Series behind the wheel of the iconic No. 21 Ford Mustang for Wood Brothers Racing. As expected, things weren’t all rainbows and unicorns for the Toyota Driver Development alumni.
As the season rolled on, the Huntersville, North Carolina-native started to make more consistent appearances inside the top-10, but those mid-race bursts of speed would only translate to five finishes of 15th or better.
In July, Burton scored his first top-10 result at Atlanta Motor Speedway, making him the first driver born on or after 01/01/2000 to score a finish inside the top-10 at NASCAR’s top level. A month or so later, Burton would score his first top-five with a third-place result in a wacky event at Indy’s Road Course.
When the dust settled on the year, Burton would be credited with a 27th-place finish in NASCAR Cup Series point standings – nine and 14 spots lower than the team’s previous driver Matt DiBenedetto in 2020 and 2021.
Jumping ahead to February, Burton is staring his second full-time season as a NASCAR Cup Series driver right in the face, as he looks to produce a season that puts him and Wood Brothers Racing further into contention.
Despite all of the potential sources of pressure for Burton, like driving for The Wood Brothers – in a continued search for the team’s 100th victory – during NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season, the 22-year-old is still feeling comfortable heading into the new season… but knows, something likely has to change.
“I feel comfortable with where I am at. I guess I accept where I am at. I am at a point where I need to run better than I did last year, no doubt about that, not only for my race team but for myself,” Burton said Wednesday. “The beginning of last year was not good. Not good enough by any means. I think there is not a single person in the room that would say it was and I am part of that group. So how do we improve and make that better?”
“I feel like this year, there isn’t pressure because of that, it’s almost less pressure because I understand the scenario, and what I have to do,” Burton continued. “I know the series now, and I know the cars now, and I can just go to work. I can, understanding that I have notes to go rely on instead of just showing up to the track and just guessing.”
“To me, it is honestly that I feel less pressure right now. I don’t know if that mathematically makes sense, but it’s just how it is. I feel more confident that I can go out and make things happen and understand the right things to do.”
As far as setting goals for the season ahead, Burton says that he and the team have an individual goal system for different segments of the organization, ones that focus more on the qualitative benchmarks – “like how we approach a race weekend” – rather than the quantitative benchmarks – “like wanting to have 20 top-10s by the end of the year”.
“Obviously, there are some broader goals, like making the Playoffs, things like that, that we want to do,” Burton said. “We like to have bets in our team. I remember Bristol, my crew chief and I had a bet about if the front had more damage he had to buy dinner, and if the rear bumper had more damage, I had to buy dinner. I won the bet.”
“Things like that keep it fun. We kind of do a little bit of both. Serious goals and then other goals, like one this year is to not flip in the Daytona 500. We are going to try and keep all four on the ground.”
For a driver like Burton, who remains one of the youngest and most inexperienced drivers on the circuit, year-over-year improvement is critical for evaluating a driver’s abilities and longevity, when it comes to staying in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“We want to continue to improve off of last year and you want to set goals that are steps along the way,” Burton said about setting goals for this season. “The goals at the end of the year might be different than the goals at the beginning of the year, but the overarching goal is that I want to win a race and make the Playoffs. I think those are two attainable goals for our race team. We have great guys and I believe in myself as a driver. The pieces are in front of us, we just have to go do it.”
Looking ahead at the complete 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Burton says that he’s hesitant to circle any races that he thinks he’ll have the best chances in this season, simply based off of the series’ unpredictability in previous seasons, especially last year.
“I have gotten in trouble in my past circling these races. Maybe I won there previously or whatever it may be. Then you put all your eggs in one basket and you prepare for those maybe a little different than the ones that you don’t have circled, and all of a sudden it stacks up on you when you don’t win that race.”
“You can’t just pick when you are going to win. At this level of the sport, it is a pretty big feat to win one of these Cup races. For me, I think the best thing I can do is take it week by week and give myself a fair shot at every racetrack. Last year, I would not have expected a road course to be my best finish, but it was. Trying to just maintain that next week is the most important week mentality is really big. Especially in a season this long. You never know what can happen with this many races.”
Should Burton be successful in collecting a victory this season in the NASCAR Cup Series, the 22-year-old driver would forever be enshrined in the legacy of Wood Brothers Racing, one of NASCAR’s most historic teams, as the driver that delivered the team’s 100th victory.
Sure, the stakes are high for Burton, who has been regarded as one of NASCAR’s most talented up-and-coming drivers for several years, but the stress and/or pressure isn’t getting to the 22-year-old, leaving the young driver hungry for the season ahead.