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Gilliland, Burton stay on parallel paths in dazzling K&N East finish

RELATED: 2018 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule

NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. — Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton — a pair of 17-year-olds — put on a clash for the ages Sunday night at New Smyrna Speedway, lifting the lid on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season with flair.

Gilliland survived as the winner, emerging from a nails-tough battle of wills and fender strength over the last two laps. Burton took the hard-luck short end of their duel, allowing a lurking Cole Rouse to sneak past for second place at the finish of the New Smyrna 175.

As members of the NASCAR Next youth initiative, Gilliland and Burton have already been tapped as likely next-generation successes at stock-car racing’s national level. Sunday night’s showdown offered another preview, hinting at the tantalizing promise of aggressive head-to-head racing on their parallel paths up the NASCAR ladder.

But despite their relatively young age, Burton estimates they’ve been familiar foes for more than a decade now. Sunday night’s race was merely a continuation.

“I feel like we both, in our years, we’ve been racing each other since we were 5 and 6,” said Burton, who congratulated Gilliland in a gracious moment in Victory Lane. “In our years of racing together, we’ve gotten into it and had great races and had a lot of fun. Man, that’s what it’s about right there. Just love doing it.”

The two have been seemingly inseparable in their more recent racing history. Burton edged Gilliland by just eight points to claim last year’s K&N East championship. The two also made six starts each last season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports, which will field Toyotas for them in partial schedules this year — 19 truck races for Gilliland, nine for Burton.

RELATED: Thrilling title battle sign of what’s to come for Gilliland, Burton

So are they teammates, rivals, friends or all of the above? Their responses — possibly charged up by the heat of the post-race moment Sunday night — suggest the lines may be blurred.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Gilliland said. “We’re both in NASCAR Next, and also just being teenagers our age that love racing. We go out to GoPro Motorplex together, and just little things like that. I feel like we’re friends off the race track, but we want to beat each other as much as anyone else on the race track.”

Said Burton: “I don’t know. It’s kind of been weird between us forever, to be honest with you. We’ve been very good teammates and worked together at KBM, and then we come here and we’re rivals. It’s a strange balance to strike up, but we’ll see.”

Both drivers will turn 18 this year — Gilliland in May, Burton in October — clearing them both for full-fledged participation on national series tracks of all sizes. And both have made their intentions clear on social media that while 2017 represented a successful campaign, both have higher hopes for more this season.

With Sunday night’s event as a possible indicator, the road to those goals for Burton and Gilliland may write another chapter in their thriving history of competition.

“I definitely know it’s him, but I’d race anyone for the win as hard as I could,” Gilliland said. “That’s what this business is about is winning races and putting your sponsors in Victory Lane and representing your team well. I think this was a great learning experience. … Hopefully, we’ll carry some momentum into this year.”