October 30, 2021:  at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia. (HHP/Chris Owens)
Harrison Burton (HHP/Chris Owens photo)

The Next Gen Burton

NASCAR’s oldest team dipped into the fountain of youth when it hired a driver whose age matches his car number.

Wood Brothers Racing has competed in the NASCAR Cup Series since 1950 and won 99 races at the sport’s highest level. The revered outfit, which epitomizes experience and success, tabbed 21-year-old Harrison Burton to pilot its No. 21 Motorcraft Ford beginning this season.

Burton, the Cup Series’ first full-time driver born in the 2000s, represents endless potential and a fresh start for an organization on the upswing. With Burton, the son of longtime NASCAR Cup Series competitor and 21-time race winner Jeff Burton, in the fold,Wood Brothers Racing hopes to realize a young driver’s dream of Cup Series success — and its own aspirations of a 100th victory.

#20: Harrison Burton, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Supra DEX Imaging during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., May 29, 2021.  (HHP/Jim Fluharty)
Harrison Burton (HHP/Jim Fluharty photo)

He’s the age of most juniors in college, but Harrison Burton maintains the same pursuit of education as his peers — only in his case, the classroom is a race track. Burton has to study for 36 exams he’ll face as his rookie season unfolds.

It didn’t have to be this way, though.

When he wasn’t spending his weekends as a driver for Richard Childress Racing in the late 2000s, Jeff Burton and his wife, Kim, gave Harrison every option to engage in activities other than those of the four-wheeled variety.

Whether it was “Let’s get a boat and go out on the lake this weekend,” or encouragement to play stick-and-ball sports, there was always something on offer.

It didn’t matter. Harrison Burton’s answer was always the same: “That’s OK. I’d rather go racing.”

Steered one way or the other, the apple was never destined to fall far from the tree.

“We didn’t want Harrison to do something just because I did it,” Jeff Burton told SPEED SPORT. “Mine and Kim’s pathway to success for our children wasn’t for them to do what we did. It was supporting whatever they wanted to do.”

Not surprisingly, Harrison Burton’s sole interest when growing up was to reach the pinnacle of NASCAR competition. Through tireless dedication and consistent success in everything from quarter midgets to NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series, the Huntersville, N.C., native has made it to the big time in the early stages of his career.

Now, the fun starts.

“Going to the Cup Series, that’s a big jump, no matter how you run (in the Xfinity Series),” the younger Burton said. “At the end of the day, I know that the Wood Brothers and the Penske organization believe in me as a driver. They feel that I have the skills they can build on, to where they can make me a better driver and I can help them win some Cup races. That belief is really all you can ask for.”

It’s a belief built on being, in some ways, the second coming of Jeff Burton — who built his reputation on being a consistent performer in the car, a vocal proponent of growing the sport and, above all, a respected member of the NASCAR community deserving of his nickname, “The Mayor.”

While Harrison Burton is well-spoken like his father — who spends his Sundays as a color commentator for the NASCAR on NBC broadcasts — there are differences in the two generations of the Burton family..

Don’t call Harrison “Mayor Pro-Tem” just yet.

“We’re very calculative and we both view racing as, maybe not so much a science, but we both believe that every single thing you do (in a race car) matters,” Jeff Burton said. “Others have had success by not worrying about so many things. They just make stuff happen. I was never the type who would just pile into a corner three-wide and take what may or may not have been there. In that way, Harrison and I are very much alike. His approach is similar to mine, but we’re different in our preparation. I was always a car guy. I was even car-driven early in my career, before the sport became so driven by engineering.

“He does not pretend to be a car guy. He focuses on being the best driver he can be, so he spends way more time studying tape, doing all kinds of things that remind me of how a professional quarterback prepares for a football game,” Jeff Burton continued. “His conditioning is so much better than mine was and, emotionally, at 21, he’s lightyears ahead of where I was at that age. Even with the experience I had, Harrison’s far more prepared (for the Cup Series) than I was at any point in my career. He just wants to focus on his racing and I’m glad for that.”

Joining his father, uncle Ward and cousin Jeb, Harrison became the fourth member of the Burton clan to compete in a Cup Series event last May at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Aboard the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Toyota — with his DEX Imaging sponsorship carried over from his Xfinity Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing — Burton stayed out of trouble and finished on the lead lap in 20th position.

With Cup Series start No. 2 and beyond on the horizon, it’s worth noting Harrison Burton’s Wood Brothers Racing debut will also mark his first national-series race in a Ford-powered car.

He’s not driven a Ford lately.

Jeff Burton, however, won two Coca-Cola 600s and a Southern 500 for the Ford team now known as Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, so there’s some history on which to draw when considering the pairing of venerable manufacturer with abecedarian driver.

“I had the biggest part of my success in the sport driving for the Ford Motor Co. and it’s cool seeing Harrison have that opportunity with Ford,” Jeff Burton said. “They’ve been committed to the sport for a long time. In fairness, Toyota, TRD and Joe Gibbs Racing treated Harrison like family. I couldn’t imagine him in a better situation to have had that with Toyota and now with Ford, they’ve done a great job of welcoming him and he’s excited about the engineering opportunities and support they can provide him to make him a better driver.

“When Harrison got the call (from Wood Brothers Racing), it was pretty amazing. We’re not the type of parents who seek validation,” Jeff Burton continued. “At the same time, to have a major car owner tell us, ‘Hey, we like Harrison, we’ve been watching him for a long time and we think he’d be a great driver for us,’ that’s a hell of a thing to hear. People assume that because we’ve been in the sport for a long time, that we take the special opportunities for granted. It’s completely the opposite. The longer we’ve been in racing, the more special those opportunities become.”

For his part, the younger Burton looks back fondly on his time at JGR — which included four wins and back-to-back playoff appearances in 2020 and ’21.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better workplace environment than what I had at Gibbs and with Toyota,” Harrison Burton said. “For me, I want to carry along the things they’ve taught me and try to do them proud. They taught me a lot about how to handle myself. I learned a lot about that over the last two years in Xfinity.”

Burton’s final full-time season in NASCAR’s version of Triple-A baseball could be summed up thusly: Close, but not close enough. He finished eighth in points on the strength of 10 top-five results and 22 top-10 finishes, but a return to the winner’s circle eluded Burton.

While six finishes of second or third further proved his propensity for being in contention, the near-misses — like a runner-up result at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in September — stuck in his craw.

Last year was, in some respects, similar to Burton’s 38-race tenure in the Camping World Truck Series. He finished 10th or better in 47 percent of his starts, but a winner’s trophy remained out of reach.

“There’s one regret I’ve got in my whole racing career, and it’s not winning in the Truck Series,” Burton said. “Two years later, that still bothers me.”

He’s largely unfazed by his lack lack of seat time in a Cup Series car, however. What’s normally a major competitive disadvantage has been muted by the series’ move to the Next Gen chassis this year — which, many believe, could level the playing field some for the incoming rookie class.

Burton began testing with the Wood Brothers Racing before last season ended, getting valuable on-track time during multi-day tests at Charlotte Motor Speedway as NASCAR tested multiple aerodynamic packages for 2022.

Eventually, the sanctioning body decided on a 670-horsepower car and a four-inch spoiler, which Burton tried at Charlotte in December.

Every lap gives Burton more confidence and when Burton’s confidence and experience match up, look out. The next checkered flag could come at any time.

“I feel like I’ve been with teams that were capable of winning races and a championship, and I believe I’m a championship-capable driver,” he said. “It’s just about doing something about it and making it happen. Hopefully, we’ll make it happen.”