Harrison Burton rights the ship, captures K&N Pro Series East title with Dover win

By Kyle McFadden
September 30, 2017

DOVER, Del.—Flashback to October 2016, and a 15-year-old Harrison Burton sat through the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East banquet with lingering bitterness after a lackluster season, thinking he squandered the first monumental opportunity of his fledgling racing career.

“Just an abysmal season,” Burton reflected on Friday afternoon, hours before the series finale at Dover International Speedway. “Mechanical failure after mechanical failure. My mistake after mistake. It was just not good. … I told myself [at the banquet], I want to come back and win this championship.”

Burton finished seventh in the standings last year, mustering one top-five finish in 14 races while his teammate Justin Haley hoisted the large, chrome championship cup.

One lap around the sun later, and Burton, the son of former Cup Series driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton, bridged aspirations with reality when he captured the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation 125 presented by Carl Deputy & Son Builders in thrilling fashion to claim the 2017 K&N Pro Series East title.

“What an honor, to win at Dover and win a championship at Dover. It’s pretty fricking cool,” said Burton, who finishes the season with five wins, 12 top-fives and 14 top-10’s in 14 races. “It’s what I dreamed to do, win at tracks like this and win NASCAR championships. And to come out and do that, it’s pretty surreal.”

“I remember sitting there [at the banquet]. … I wanted to be at that podium and making the speech at the ceremony. Now I get to be that guy.”

Burton started the race fourth, eight points behind standings leader Todd Gilliland, needing a win and some luck if he wanted to have a shot at the title. On Lap 56 of the 128-lap event, the tides turned when Gilliland blew a right front tire and shot into the Turn 2 wall.

The 17-year-old son of former Cup driver David Gilliland finished 13th and suffered his only DNF of the season.

At the time, Gilliland maintained third and Burton bounced around between fourth and fifth.  

“It was an up and down race,” Burton said. “I was just watching [Gilliand] in front of me, thinking I need to get around this guy and the two guys in front of him to win.”

Burton chipped away at the lead as the laps dwindled and, with 17 laps to go, maneuvered around Ruben Garcia Jr. after a spirited side-by-side battle for two laps. He then stretched the lead to two seconds, but a red flag with two laps to go sent the race to overtime.

One final jolt on the ensuing restart put Burton out in front for good as he crossed the finish line to officially become the youngest champion in the series’ history at 16 years, 11 months and 20 days. Joey Logano, who won the title in 2007 and currently drives the Cup series, was the youngest at 17 years old.

Burton cements himself into good company, joining Logano, Ricky Craven (1987), Kyle Larson (2012) and William Byron (2015) as K&N Pro Series East champions.

“It’s a good list to be on,” Burton said. “You see guys all the way up to the top three levels, [guys] who haven’t won the championship, and they’ve had success in this sport.”

After a decorated stint racing super late models at short tracks around the country, Burton admitted he entered the NASCAR scene “kind of cocky.”

“Last year, it woke me up,” Burton said. “When you get here, it’s another step up. … It’s not easy.”

“This is the hardest sport in the world to make it,” Burton said before the race on Friday. “There’s only 40 people in the world that get to do what I do. At the end of the day, it’s been hard, it’s been challenging. … I feel like I have the foundation to build off.”

That foundation Burton mentions is hoisted by his well-mannered parents, where he embraced them in victory lane on Friday. He lifted his mother, Kim, off the ground, and shared a touching moment with his father minutes later.

Cup drivers and like Kevin Harvick, who owns Burton’s No. 12 K&N Pro Series East ride, and Kyle Busch, who lets the 16-year-old race limitedly in the truck series for his race unit, are there for guidance as well.

“They’re a huge influence on my life,” Burton said. “Obviously my dad being the most influential. He’s been around since I was born, obviously. … Kevin and Kyle, they’re both a text away, which a great resource to have. When you have to great minds like that at your disposal, you might as well use them.”

Harvick joined the post-race festivities and congratulated Burton, giving the kid a firm handshake and words of praise. When the time is appropriate, Burton naturally wants to compete at the same level of his team-owner. He also knows letting his mind drift away from the now can become a distraction.

“I’d lie to you if I said I wasn’t thinking about it,” Burton said. “That’s my goal. I want to be a Cup driver. I want to be the best I can be where I can do that. I’m working towards it. I’m trying to stay focused where I’m at now, though. That’s the biggest thing.

“It’s really important people don’t get really big, starry eyes when looking at the Cup Series. It takes time. You gotta pay your dues. And if you get your shot.”

At this juncture, Burton is paying his dues on and off the track. On top of a crammed racing schedule, Burton is a full-time student at Cannon School in Concord, N.C., an independent, nonsectarian, college preparatory institution with high academic standards.

“It’s hard. It’s a hard balance,” Burton said. “My passion is racing, right? I live it, breath it. When I go to school, it’s not about racing. ... That’s where I struggle the most: Trying to stay motivated through that stuff when I want to be here.

“I have to have a backup plan. [Racing is] not a guarantee. It’s a privilege to come out and race every weekend. … Now, being a NASCAR champion, hopefully that helps me.”

NASCAR’s newest champion entered the day with improbable odds to come out on top. Burton would probably say, if he was in this position last year, he’d succumb. But those valleys led to this glorious peak in what could be the first of many NASCAR titles.

“At the end of the day, it’s pretty awesome to relish. From being down here to now being up here, and being in that moment where it comes around full circle, it’s pretty awesome.”

Austin McFadden/The Racing Experts