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September 29, 2017

Thrilling K&N Pro Series East battle a sign of things to come

DOVER, Del. — A stroke of misfortune for Todd Gilliland opened the door for Harrison Burton to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship at Dover International Speedway, and Burton left no doubt by claiming the race win in a NASCAR Overtime finish Friday night.

Burton surged late for the race win to become the youngest NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion at 16 years old; he turns 17 on Oct. 9.

The points leader entering the race, Gilliland hit the wall on Lap 56 when a tire went down. That brought the 17-year-old’s day to an early end and set the stage for Burton to lay claim to the title.

“It’s pretty surreal,” Burton said. “I’m pretty pumped up about it. It’s kind of one of those moments where, last year I remember looking at my teammate Justin Haley who won the championship and I wanted to be on that podium making a speech at the ceremony. Now I get to be that guy.”

RELATED: Detailed 2017 K&N Pro Series East results

Coming from behind was an unfamiliar feeling for Burton, as his strong start to the 2017 season had him atop the standings after 11 of 14 races this season. Gilliland held an eight-point edge entering Dover on the strength of eight top-two finishes in the series (four wins, four runner-up finishes).

Burton won the title by eight points.

The two rising talents battled for the championship all season. In their 28 combined starts in 14 total races, they combined for nine wins and just six finishes outside the top five. In fact, Gilliland’s 13th-place finish at Dover was the worst for either of them this season.

There’s quite a bit in common for both Burton and Gilliland. Both are members of the 2017-18 NASCAR Next class. Both have competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports as part of several drivers to run the No. 51 truck for the organization.

MORE: Meet the NASCAR Next Class of 2017-18

Both also have racing in their veins. Gilliland is the son of NASCAR veteran David Gilliland and Burton is the son of Jeff Burton, 21-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner and a NASCAR analyst on NBC. Among those to congratulate Jeff Burton as he made his way to Victory Lane were Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick (Harvick’s management company, KHI, represents Harrison Burton).

“My mom (Kimberle) and dad are my biggest fans by far,” Harrison Burton said. “My mom is probably the most emotional person I’ve ever met. … We have our pit box that travels with us every week and you can always tell where my mom sits because there’s actual dents. Some have said it looks like hail damage where she has been stomping the top of the tool box during my races. That kind of sums it up pretty well.

“We’re a racing family and to share a championship with the people that love you the most is pretty cool.”

A downed tire ruined Todd Gilliland’s day and championship hopes. (Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images)

Gilliland was looking to make NASCAR touring series history as the first driver to capture both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West titles in the same season. The defending NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champ currently is atop the standings in that series, as well, with three races to go. In fact, the 17-year-old planned to fly west to Meridian Speedway for a race on Saturday in the K&N Pro Series West following Friday’s race at Dover.

Gilliland, who holds a five-point lead in the West championship battle over Chris Eggleston, was dejected after the accident at Dover, but took a long-range view of what this season meant.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Gilliland told “We had a fast enough car out here to win the championship. We have all year. I hate that we didn’t have a bigger points lead than this coming in here. … It’s about learning. It’s what we are here to do. We are just going to get better for my future.”

The Burton-Gilliland year-long battle atop the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standings is just the latest chapter is the rising youth contingent in NASCAR. That is seen in the rise of Kyle Larson, the 2012 K&N Pro Series East champion, to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title favorite, in a Monster Energy Series win by Ryan Blaney, playoff appearances for Chase Elliott, the strength of the current rookie crop of Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez and the ascension of William Byron to the sport’s top series in 2018.

Previous drivers to win a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title include Joey Logano, Larson and Byron.

“Now that I am able to be a NASCAR champion officially, hopefully that helps me in my career,” Burton said. “It’s really a huge honor for me to get that done.”