Harrison Burton aims to strike back in Rookie of the Year race, awaits new-look Atlanta

Logan Riely | Getty Images
Logan Riely
Getty Images

Austin Cindric has made a tradition out of planting the checkered flag into whatever piece of infield grass he can grab after a victory. This year, he took that habit straight from the NASCAR Xfinity Series to Cup in the season-opening Daytona 500.

It may as well have been a stake driven right into his claim of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award. For fellow first-year driver Harrison Burton, it took an otherwise friendly competition within the competition and set the bar for what will be required to wear those laurels at season’s end.

RELATED: List of national-series rookie candidates | Cup Series standings

“We’ve had a lot of fun with it,” said Burton, in his first year with the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 team. He’s vying for top rookie honors with Team Penske’s Cindric and Front Row Motorsports’ Todd Gilliland. “It’s been fun to kind of go back and forth and joke around with each other about it and use it as some competitive edge. And then Austin goes off and wins the first race of the year, and that kind of made it harder for us because then we had to go match that.

“So, which is cool, it’s exciting. I mean, there’s been a lot of new winners this year. Every race has had a different winner, and there’s been some first-time winners with Austin and Chase (Briscoe), and (Daniel) Suarez was close. So I think there’s room there to do it. You’re just going to have to have a spectacular day.”

For Burton, those days have been admittedly tough to come by just four races into the 2022 campaign. Crash-related exits in the first two races – including a roof ride in the Daytona opener – created an early deficit for the 21-year-old driver in the Cup Series standings. A 16th-place run at Las Vegas helped stem the slide, but Burton scrapped for just 29th in the final order last weekend at Phoenix.

A Stage 2 wall scrape didn’t help Burton’s cause, but the No. 21 bunch fought handling adjustments over the course of the 312-lapper. The result prompted team president Eddie Wood to say post-race, “we’re a lot better race team than what folks saw today.”

RELATED: Harrison Burton’s 2022 stats

Meg Oliphant | Getty Images
Meg Oliphant | Getty Images

Some degree of learning curve was to be expected this year with a new driver, a new car and the first race of the season on that track type – the 1-mile Phoenix oval. Burton says the underlying confidence from the organization remains, and it’s helped to buoy spirits amidst the difficult early going.

“Let’s be honest, it’s not been a good start. We’ve had a lot of crashes, things that were out of our control, and there were some weekends that were in our control,” Burton says. “And Phoenix was one that, that’s kind of on us, and that’s one of the harder ones to swallow, I think, is when you just run really poorly. But I feel like that it wasn’t something that is not fixable.

“It’s just sometimes you have those days in racing, and I’ve had nothing but great support from the Wood Brothers so far, and that hasn’t changed at all. If they still believe in me, then I still believe in myself. Those are some of the legends in our sport, and they know what they’re talking about. So I think internally, there’s still a great belief in our team, and one bad race isn’t going to change that.”

The challenges promise to continue this weekend at new-look Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The intermediate-sized track has undergone a full repave and a significant reconfiguration, with steeper banking and a narrower racing surface.

MORE: Weekend schedule | Atlanta 101

Teams will use the superspeedway rules package typically reserved for the larger layouts of Daytona and Talladega, leading to wide-ranging conjecture about how the track will race. “It’s like a super-intermediate,” Burton said with a laugh. “That’s what I’m going with.”

Whatever the terminology for the newfangled Atlanta, Burton says he expects a tall test for rookies and veterans alike.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of unknown, that’s for sure,” Burton says. “It’s more unknown than known, and especially for us not having gone to the (previous tire) test, it’s pretty hard to really know what to prepare. It’s kind of its own animal now, so what race do you watch to prepare? What do you do to study? What can you do? There’s been some theories that we’ve had, and we’re certainly trying to prepare just as hard as we normally would, but it’s hard without a lot of material.

“So there’s a lot of unknown, and I’m expecting it to be a really challenging race because of that. A lot of learning on the fly, but you know, fortunately, we’re kind of in the habit of doing that this year. It’s been what this year is all about.”