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‘I’m here:’ Harrison Burton excited for first Cup opportunity at Talladega

At just 5 years old, Harrison Burton decided his career goal was to be a NASCAR Cup Series driver.

A decade later, he made his first start in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He ran three part-time seasons before his full run in 2019. That same year, at age 18, Burton made his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut. He turned full time there in 2020 and carried that job into this season.

On Sunday, Burton will accomplish his goal and race in Cup’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM). He’s 20 years old.

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“I’m here,” Burton said Wednesday on Zoom. “Obviously it’s awesome to be in this situation and awesome to have this opportunity. But, you know, that’s not what I’m necessarily satisfied with, if that makes sense. I want to make the most of it. For me, riding around for most of the race, I feel like if I get to the end of the race doing that, I’m not going to have the experience I need to make the moves I need to win the race.”

Odds are this is just the beginning of Burton’s Cup journey. His ride this weekend is a one-off gig with Gaunt Brothers Racing in its No. 96 Toyota. He’ll continue in the Xfinity ranks otherwise, driving his normal No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Burton didn’t specifically ask for Talladega as his first Cup attempt, but he welcomed it.

“I don’t know if this is right or not, but I think Jon Gruden always says in football, ‘The best ability is availability,’ ” Burton said. “In racing, I guess it’s the same, right? When the opportunity comes, no matter what track whether it’s a road course, dirt track, oval or whatever, you have to be ready for it.”

And Burton is ready. Even if his opportunity happens to be coming at the 2.66-mile Alabama track known for its high banks and high speed — which inevitably lead to wrecks.

That’s a theme Burton’s father, Jeff Burton, remembers all too well from his Cup days.

“Listen, as mom and dad, it’s going to be a little nerve wracking,” Jeff said. “Obviously Talladega is a nerve-wracking place. Harrison was working with some of his guys a little while ago, watching footage of some old races. I walked in, and hell, I got nervous watching replays and I knew what was going to happen. It’s just a crazy race track. It always has been.”

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Harrison has ran it in Xfinity and Trucks. In his two Xfinity starts, he placed 23rd and 32nd (crashed out); he’ll race in Saturday’s event, too. He finished 11th in his sole Truck race.

Since there will be no practice or qualifying due to COVID-19 protocols, the fact Talladega is NASCAR’s longest oval actually could be beneficial for Harrison.

“It creates opportunity to gradually get to know your car and get to know your competition,” Jeff said. “So, just like everything in life, it has pluses and minuses. When I looked at the whole thing, I thought wow, this is actually a good opportunity for him to get some experience in the race without all the pressure.”

Through 40 Cup starts from 1994-2013, Jeff pulled out five top-five and 16 top-10 finishes at Talladega. His average start was 24.1, which turned into a 18.4 average finish.

Harrison is set to fire off 39th in Sunday’s 40-car field.

“It’s exciting for me to be here,” Harrison said. “But my goal since I was 5 years old wasn’t just to be here, right? So, finding a way to make the most of it, get after it and learn as fast as I can is important.”