Becomes Youngest K&N Pro East Champ With 2017 Title
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In just his second season of NASCAR touring series competition, Harrison Burton is already celebrating a championship.
The Huntersville, North Carolina, driver won his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title in 2017. He won his first race in April at Bristol Motor Speedway in just his 17th career start, then the 17-year-old rolled off four more victories before the season ended — including a win to seal the championship in the finale at Dover International Speedway in October.
“I always had faith in myself and the team, and I knew that we had the oportunity. I knew we would be in the position to go and get it, but I never thought there was a guarantee that we were actually going to get it,” Burton said when reflecting on the title. “That’s what’s cool about it, you can have a chance and everything can go right and it sometimes still won’t work out. Our goal was to win the championship, as soon as the season started we wanted to do that. We knew we could go out and do it.”
The NASCAR Next driver eclipsed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Joey Logano as the youngest champion in K&N Pro Series East history. At 16 years, 11 months, 20 days when he won the title, Burton was four months younger than Logano was when he took home the championship in 2007.
Given his family name — his father Jeff and uncle Ward were both race winners in the Cup Series — and his success in the Super Late Model ranks, much was expected of Burton when he debuted in the K&N Pro East in 2016. But things didn’t go as planned, and the younger Burton scored just one top five.
A year later, he improved his statistics immensely.
He rolled up a dozen top fives and added victories at Virginia’s South Boston Boston Speedway, Memphis International Raceway and Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park to go with his wins at Bristol and Dover. The victory on the .533-mile Bristol high-banks was the first of his career, but it may even go down as one of the best he will ever get. The Thompson Busch North Throwback and the South Boston victories stand out for him as well.
“It was really cool to get the wins, our wins came at really good times in those key moments. Thompson especially, because Todd had won a few — we went out there and got it done. That was the most satisfying win because we raced side-by-side for many laps and we were really clean,” Burton said. “That was probably the hardest race I have had with Todd. Thompson was a lot of fun, but Bristol was a place we thought we could win at last year. We had it circled on the calendar and to win there was awesome. South Boston was really cool for me because I got to win the race then go to my grandma’s house five minutes down the road and have dinner. It was a really cool moment for me to share with my friends and family.”
Although Burton won at multiple different tracks, the entire schedule was a grind for him and the rest of the series competitors. The 2017 season included races at 13 different tracks across 11 different states and really tested the competitors.
“It’s really hard (to have this success), especially in this series, because there are so many different kinds of race tracks. I think we had our worst run and our worst car at Langley, but we really still were top five. The hardest thing about the K&N Series is that you go to some places that have so much grip and you can really be hammer down, then you go to a tiny race track with no grip and you slide around,” Burton said. “It’s tough to stay consistent because one thing doesn’t work throughout the entire year. You have to keep evolving and getting better. I thought we could have been a little bit faster in the middle of the season because we got to where we were a little bit behind on the No. 16, but by the end of the year, we were right there, ready to go and racing for the win.”
Dover didn’t come easy for the top championship contenders. Although Burton entered the race trailing Todd Gilliland in the championship fight, Gilliland was sidelined when he blew a tire on lap 56. For the final 72 laps, Burton had the tire situation in his mind and he knew if he just finished, he would likely win the title.
“It was definitely in the back of my mind, and there is a way to be both aggressive and conservative at the same time, but I race to win because I love to win. Whenever I have an opportunity, I’m going for the win,” Burton said. “It was definitely in the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn’t be racing this hard. The whole season really came down to the last restart and I could have had a situation there and not finished the race. There are some situations there that I probably shouldn’t have got myself into, but it all worked out in the end. You want to go out of the season with a big emphasis on it. I wouldn’t change anything — it really just worked out well.”
That battle with Gilliland at Dover for the title was just a cumulation of a season of success and hard-fought races for both drivers. The two of them combined to win nine of the 14 series events.
“Todd has been fast in the K&N cars since he first got in them and he’s hard to beat. When you can go head-to-head with him, you know you have the program in the right place. Every practice session I was trying so hard to beat him on the leaderboard,” Burton said of the battle with Gilliland. “It was fun and I matured a lot through it. I learned so much from racing someone like that, there’s so much pressure to beat that car. You grow, learn and get better and succeed the next time. That’s something that’s really cool about our sport, it’s just not easy. If you expect to win every race, it’s just not going to happen. That ability to learn and grow is really important.”
The 17-year-old is following in the footsteps of his father Jeff, a former winner in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series. Jeff won 21 races across 22 seasons on the top level of the sport. Harrison is now starting to build his own impressive resume.
“It’s awesome that my family and I share a passion for what I think is the best sport in the world, we can talk about it and get better, but I never thought about it like I was doing it because it’s a tradition,” Burton said. “It’s important for me to keep racing because it really is important to me. My dad told me from day one that if I wanted to sing in a choir or play chess it didn’t matter. But it just worked out that we both share a passion for this great sport.”
His championship season included 12 top fives, 14 top 10s and one pole across the 14 events. Burton led 142 laps and had an average finish of 3.2, the best of his career.
“Being a NASCAR champion is something a lot of people can’t say they are. It’s something I don’t take lightly because so much work and sacricfice was made for it to happen,” Burton said. “There are a lot of things that go into a championship, more than just on the race track. There is so much behind the scenes that many people don’t know about. I’m motivated by myself and my own drive to win, but it’s really cool to have people that support that drive and have the same drive. It was really cool for me to win, but even better for me to share it with them.”
The support from his family has been crucial over his racing career.
“My mom and dad gave up so much for me ever since I wanted to race, my dad was always gone racing but my mom and I would go to the track,” Burton said. “My dad was doing his own things, my mom was doing her own things and so was my sister. There were times we were in different states in the same day.”
Looking ahead, Burton isn’t exactly sure what he will be doing for the 2018 season — but his success in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East will certainly help him find a ride in the top levels of the sport.
“I know that I’m looking to be in the (NASCAR Camping World) Trucks, I’m really looking forward to the opportunities there. I’m too young to be full-time, but I’ll be on a part-time schedule,” Burton said. “I do want to bounce back into the K&N, I don’t think I’ll be full-time — but you never know what can happen. Our schedule isn’t even completely nailed down yet. Everything happens last minute in racing, and it’s kinda crazy.”
Burton was honored, along with the rest of the 2017 champions, at the NASCAR Home Tracks Awards ceremony on December 9 at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.