CHRIS WILBERS Richmond Times-Dispatch
RICHMOND, Va. — Speaking with Harrison Burton, it doesn’t take long to realize the 21-year-old NASCAR Cup Series rookie is the son of Jeff Burton.
Long before Harrison’s dad was an insightful and well-respected NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports, Jeff was an insightful and well-respected driver, competing in the sport’s top series from 1993 to 2014.
When “The Mayor” spoke, NASCAR officials and his fellow drivers listened.
During those 22 years in the Cup Series, the South Boston native won 21 races with 254 top-10 finishes in 695 career starts, and he finished in the top 10 in the points standings eight years.
Following all of that success, Jeff was named a finalist for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2020.
It’s likely a matter of when — not if — he will be selected to join the sport’s other elite contributors.
But for all of Jeff’s success on the track, his lasting legacy is providing candid and yet thoughtful answers to tough questions.
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Those are traits Harrison shares as he makes the eighth Cup start of his career Sunday in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.
His thoughts about a rough start to 2022, which began with crashes at Daytona and Fontana?
“Yeah, it’s certainly been a challenge, and there’s no secret in that,” Harrison replied. “It should be a challenge. It’s the hardest racing series in the world.”
So, the racing gods aren’t out to get him? Hmmm.
How about his mind-set when Austin Cindric, a fellow Cup rookie of the year contender, shocked everyone by winning the Daytona 500? Did that provide motivation Harrison could also win this year, or add more pressure to have success almost instantly?
“I think you could get caught up in all that pretty easily,” Harrison reflected. “And I think someone else’s successes or failures don’t dictate whether or not you will have success or failure, right?”
Another level-headed, thoughtful response. Sound familiar?
Harrison said that’s no coincidence, because he doesn’t look at his father’s career as a benchmark.
The term he prefers? “A great resource.”
“It’s not any more pressure,” Harrison said of being a second-generation Cup competitor. “… It’s an advantage that I’ve got a dad that’s been through all the stuff that I’m going through. He’s had years where he hasn’t won, and he’s had years where he won six times in one year (in 1999). I’ve had similar successes and similar failures. It’s all the ups and downs of racing, and that’s what makes it cool when it does go well.
“So, having him understand all the things I’m going through is good for me, and that I can learn from him is an awesome thing.”
For all the wisdom Jeff has shared, Harrison says it’s the example his dad set — and not any particular advice — that has provided the most help.
“It’s just stuff that he’s shown me over the years is hey, when the chips are down, he found a way to work hard, and I watched that as a little kid,” Harrison recalled. “I watched my dad go through those tough times and great times or whatever it might be.
“Seeing that and then seeing him go to work the same way every day was exciting and inspiring for me as a young kid, and I’m proud to try and carry on that legacy.”
That brings us to this weekend at Richmond Raceway, where Harrison had three top-10 finishes in four starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series. Though Harrison was born in Huntersville., trips to Virginia still motivate him.
“I get to see a lot of family whenever I come to Virginia. That’s always exciting. And then the racetracks in Virginia are two of my favorites with Richmond and Martinsville. I love short tracks, so it’s pretty much all positives when I get to go race in Virginia,” shared Harrison, who’s piloting the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford in his rookie season. Based in Stuart for 53 years, the Wood Brothers are one win from the century mark in Cup competition.
“My overall emotion going to Richmond is always higher or going to Martinsville is always higher, because I know I’m kind of in home territory and I can go try and get after it and try and win a race at one of my favorite racetracks , so it’s really cool.”
However, Harrison knows winning won’t be easy, and he relishes the challenge of joining his father as a winner in NASCAR’s premier series.
“You always want to go into the weekend, ‘OK, I want to win.’ Right? OK, well, how are you going to win?” Harrison explained. “I think for me, figuring out those hows — I want to do this better; I want to do that better. I think that’s the biggest goal for me. It is not necessarily the position (on the leaderboard) but showing the speed to run well and showing the (skills) that you need to run well.
“So, for me, that’s the most exciting stuff. Hey, I can do this and I can do that better. And now that’s going to get me in a better spot to go try and run well and win this race. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, I want to win. And I want to do this and I’ll do that.’ Well, you have to figure out how, and I think that’s the step that I’ve got to take now. And that’s the most fun part, too.”
Sounds as though he’s making his father proud.