CONCORD, N.C. — Rarely do so many dynamic factors figure into a 15th-place finish. That’s where Harrison Burton wound up on the scoring pylon after Saturday’s Drive for the Cure 250 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the first elimination point in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs.
But Burton’s just-above-midpack result included playoff pressure, a closely contested battle with family and a conservative approach that went against his racing instincts. In the end, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver celebrated his 21st birthday by advancing to the Round of 8, maintaining the necessary cushion by just eight points and staving off the playoff ouster that claimed his cousin, Jeb, and three others — Myatt Snider, Jeremy Clements and Riley Herbst.
“I know it’s boring, but just got to make it home,” Harrison Burton radioed his No. 20 JGR team as he tried to tiptoe through and avoid trouble with 10 laps left on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s tricky road course layout. Even after a late caution period forced a chaotic two-lap dash to the end, Burton stayed steady and kept his older cousin’s No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevy at least within sight as he finished two spots ahead.
“It’s family, and he wants it as much as I do,” Harrison Burton said. “You just have to take what you feel is yours. We were around each other all day, that was kind of by design on my part — just stay around Jeb and it worked out.”
The two cousins were in close proximity for much of the 68-lap showdown. Just Burton entered the day with the same nine-point gap that he finished with, his playoff chances hurt by a crash-related 36th place in the postseason opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks ago.
A seventh-place finish last weekend at Talladega helped his recovery, but the deficit was too much to surmount — and an over-aggressive counter-move was out of the question.
“I needed to outrun him all day by a couple spots, and we were right beside each other all day. The only way it was going to happen was if I just wrecked him. I got a little bit more respect for him than that,” Jeb Burton said. “He races me clean, and I race him clean. If it had been some other guys, maybe I woulda just dumped ’em, but I wasn’t going to do that to him. It is what it is, and he was the better car today and he outran us all day and I just beat him at the end by a couple spots. It just wasn’t enough.”
Jason Ratcliff, Harrison Burton’s crew chief, had a front seat for the friendly family face-off atop the No. 20 pit box, enjoying a bit of a laugh when asked to wrap his head around the cousin vs. cousin component of Saturday’s race.
“I haven’t heard much, but I’m sure those two were probably back and forth this week, having a little fun with it,” Ratcliff said. “It seems like all day, we were right beside each other, within one or two spots. So it was a little nerve-wracking at times, but both of them raced each other with a lot of respect and they pushed on each other a little bit but not to the point where it got ugly. Both teams and both drivers did a good job today. It was close.”
The crews for both Burtons preached patience at different intervals — Jeb Burton got that message early, with a Stage 2 scrape of the Turn 2 wall prompting some reassuring messages from his No. 10 team. Harrison Burton’s coaching came later as he tried to preserve his points margin, cognizant of the stakes.
Taking it easy at the Roval, it turns out, was less than easy.
“It is tough. As a driver, it’s so tough to be in a rhythm when you’re not full aggression, right? When you’re riding around trying to not crash or not make a mistake to get into the next round, it’s challenging to get in a rhythm. I wish we were just able to race, but we were in the situation we’re in, and that’s racing,” Jeb Burton said.
For the others eliminated, a mixed bag of results kept them from making the first cut. Snider was the top finisher among them, coming home eighth at the Roval, but not providing enough pop to offset a 31st-place wreck-out at Talladega. He wound up 16 points below the elimination line after the Round of 12.
Riley Herbst’s long-shot chance to advance ended with his No. 98 Ford heading behind the wall with rear-gearing trouble in the closing laps. Jeremy Clements actually leapfrogged Herbst in the points with a 12th-place finish — his best of the playoffs — but earlier setbacks at Vegas and Talladega left him too far back.
“We got in a big wreck at Vegas, broke a rocker arm at Talladega, and I mean, after that you’re just in a huge hole,” Clements said. “We knew we needed to come here to win, and that’s a tall feat for a small team, but proud of our effort today. We ran hard and raced hard.”