It took 12 races, but Harrison Burton can finally say he’s finished in the top 15 of a NASCAR Cup Series race this season.
Burton, the rookie driver for Wood Brothers Racing, placed 14th in Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
The track “Too Tough To Tame” might not seem a likely place to get your best career finish. But the 21-year-old driver said the 400-mile race was the first time he felt “comfortable” and could be “aggressive” in the Next Gen car amid a season of “growing pains.”
“Looking at the lap-time data, that was our strongest race, for sure, compared to the leaders,” Burton told reporters Wednesday. “So it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going in the right direction there.’ We had the speed at times to be a top-five car. We just have to go and execute a whole race now. We had one segment where we were kind of really good, and then tuned ourselves out of it some. … We had the flat spotted tires after the big crash and had to pit and lost some track position there. The finish number is not that exciting, but I think the speed we had was more exciting.”
Before Sunday, Burton’s best finish in the No. 21 Ford was 16th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But his most notable moment so far came in the Daytona 500, when Burton flipped in a crash while running up front.
Burton said “there’s no hiding” that his team is off to a “rough start.”
“I think there’s been some growing pains there and I feel like now we’re getting rolling in the right direction,” Burton said. “So I’m excited to get back to the race track and, hopefully, be in that spot to try and contend for wins and just take it one step at a time and get some top 10s, get some top fives and build there.”
Burton isn’t the only rookie on the team.
His crew chief, Brian Wilson, is a full-time Cup Series crew chief for the first time after accumulating 163 starts and 23 wins in the Xfinity Series with Team Penske.
Even Burton’s car chief is new to the Cup Series after previously working on Austin Cindric’s Xfinity car.
“I think the first few weeks were pretty eye-opening for us about what was so different about Cup from Xfinity,” Burton said. “Then you look at us now and we feel like we’re in a rhythm of we know our jobs, we know what we’re responsible for, we know what the other person is kind of thinking before they say it now, and so that’s really good. As a team, I think we’ve really grown.”
Burton added that the “Cup schedule is pretty grueling, so I’m learning a lot about myself in a work ethic capacity.”
After a string of challenging race tracks, the No. 21 team and the rest of the Cup Series now head to three consecutive 1.5-mile tracks: Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway (All-Star Race) and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Now we’re going to places that you can relate to other places,” Burton said. “Every time we went (to a new track) it was kind of a guess, and now we’ve hit a lot of tracks that, quite frankly, I think race teams were worried about. … So the diversity of the schedule early has been, I think, good for the fans because they get to see a lot of different things and see how the Next Gen car performs, and it’s been really good for the teams because now we have a notebook of kind of every kind of race track that you could think of and we can go try to build off of that.”