Harrison Burton described the crew chief swap between his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team and the No. 2 Team Penske team as a kick in the tail to get both parties going. The swap was made in September, making it an early start on preparing for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Burton now works with Jeremy Bullins, an established and winning crew chief in the Cup Series. It didn’t take long for Burton to see what kind of leader Bullins was going to be, saying Bullins is “super competitive” and that he brought intensity to the team as the perfect counter to a mellow driver.
It’s also led to a personality change for the team.
“We’ve got to have people that are (expletive) off, and we have to have some attitude within our group, some swagger when we roll into the racetrack that we know we can do this,” Burton tells RACER. “I think we’re starting to have that. It’s a great feeling.”
Burton likens it to when he was a late model driver pulling into the racetrack with the attitude of being the one to beat. To his mind, there is no better feeling. But it can’t be faked at the NASCAR level. It has to be earned.
“We’re starting to slowly, slowly earn that and show that to ourselves,” Burton says.
There is no sugarcoating how rough the first two years of Burton’s Cup Series career have been, and how hard it is to be a top contender when moving up. Burton has four top-10 finishes in 73 starts and he’s finished 27th (2022) and 31st (2023) in the championship standings.
Having the right mental game is a part of any sport. Burton will embrace any change in attitude he can to help his cause.
“You see the Deion Sanders coaching deal, right?” Burton says. “That team went through a lot of transfers and everything, but they believe in themselves. It’s attitude, and high-level athletes have that.”
Assessing his season, Burton saw signs of being capable of running well, but it wasn’t easily repeatable. It’s the cause of most of his frustration, especially on the decent days that weren’t weren’t converted into a good outcome. That goes for any Cup driver.
Burton, however, did feel progress was made in his sophomore year. Although it was a tough season for the Ford camp, Burton felt there were more races where he was fast. He had 12 top-20 finishes and two top-10 finishes.
“Honest evaluation, (we’ve) not been good enough, obviously,” Burton says. “The goal is to make the playoffs. The goal is to run well consistently enough to do that. We haven’t done that. But I think relative to the surroundings, our group has elevated ourselves and we just need to take these few steps to run with the [Ryan] Blaneys, the [Joey] Loganos. Those guys. But I think everyone knows that and why the crew chief swap happened. Me and Austin [Cindric] both needed something different.
“I like Brian [Wilson], I worked really well with Brian, but sometimes a different perspective is good. I think it was a good move for both parties, and we’re trying to build from there.”
The little victories change week to week for Burton because there are so many variables during a race. The depth of competition is also so much deeper than where Burton came from, when he was one of a limited number of top flight drivers in the Xfinity Series. Now there are 20-plus drivers with fast race cars who can also maximize pit road and get the most out of their equipment.
It’s hard, Burton feels, to differentiate yourself in the Cup Series. But it’s special when a driver can. On the other hand, what’s easy is to run 24th all day and feel stuck, but given some late restarts, the result can quickly change. Taking advantage of those moments is important, and Burton has noticed some of the best in the business do that.
Burton knows that he’s carrying the expectations of Wood Brothers fans looking for the team’s 10th win, but believes that success is going to come in incremental steps. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images
“Because I spend a lot of time racing Cup champions,” Burton says. “I’ll be racing Logano or [Kevin] Harvick and I’ll look up at the end of the race, and those guys finish fifth, and I finish where we were racing earlier.”
Burton hasn’t received much leeway from loyal Wood Brothers Racing followers. He’s driving an iconic and beloved car and there is a longing to see it succeed. The next victory for the Wood Brothers would be the team’s 100th in the series.
Given how prevalent social media is today, Burton is well aware of the critics. The 23-year-old doesn’t hide how tough it is to continue maturing while under a microscope and sees how many drivers do it differently. Someone like Denny Hamlin embraces the haters and eggs on the boos. Burton is still trying to figure out who he is, but there is a fight between the side of him wanting to fire back and the other that’s more patient.
“It’ll show eventually,” Burton says. “The work you put in behind the scenes, the small things, will show. Just having faith in that and doing the right things will eventually trickle down and then, who cares? And the end of the day, who cares what someone who’s never driven a race car at this level against this competition doesn’t know? You have people who say things that are wrong, not that they should know better, but they don’t know the whole story, and it still makes you mad.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at that.”
Nothing will toughen a driver up quite like the Cup Series.
“And it should; that’s what makes it special,” Burton says. “At the end of the day, when I wake up in the morning, I know I have a hell of a mountain to climb. That’s cool. That’s exciting. When you wake up, and you know you have hard stuff to do, you have to go compete at a high level against the best in the world, what’s more exciting than that?”
It might be easy to get the wrong idea about Burton, though. While he comes off as calm, reserved and easygoing, patience doesn’t come easy when the goal is to run 15th. Having to adjust goals and expectations as a young Cup Series driver hasn’t come easy after being successful and a winner while climbing the racing ladder.
“Not that I’m accepting 15th as the goal,” he says. “I don’t think our team is about that, but understanding that’s a base hit and a decent day is becoming more natural.”
Understanding is not the same as accepting. It is Burton’s belief that “you become what you accept,” and he and his team are not doing that going forward.
“The thing with our group is we’re not accepting the results,” Burton says. “I think it can be an easy thing for people to think when they meet me and my demeanor is relaxed. I get on the airplane after a good or bad race and kind of act the same. That’s not necessarily indicative of (being happy to be here). It eats me and the race team alive when we don’t have a good weekend.
“I’m an easygoing guy, so I think it’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t give a (expletive).’ I don’t think I need to say that (is not true) or that it matters. Our group is not accepting the bad days, and we’re trying to build on the good days.”