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In the Hot Seat: Harrison Burton (Pt. I)

Harrison Burton has kept his head up as he returned recently to “In the Hot Seat” here on The Podium Finish. (Photo: Cornnell Chu | The Podium Finish)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. —  No matter how things may be for Harrison Burton, he has kept his head up with determination and optimism.

Although this season has been trying for the 23-year-old racer, he has carried himself with dignity, grace and poise. He wants to turn things around for his No. 21 DEX Imaging Ford Mustang team just as much as anybody with the Wood Brothers Racing organization.

Starting with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington in September, Burton has worked with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Bullins and select personnel with Austin Cindric’s No. 2 team essentially traded places with Burton’s original crew chief Brian Wilson and select members of the No. 21 team.

As with any new combination, it takes time to see the genuine results on the box score. However, Burton is seeing glimpses of hope with Bullins atop the pit box, particularly with more competitive runs at the challenging NASCAR Cup Series tracks in the late summer and early autumn.

Burton is the first to point out how he will hold himself accountable while wanting to be a catalyst for his team. By all means, he knows it is not an easy process but he is approaching things head first, ready to do what it takes to build momentum to close out this year.

At the same time, as much as good results on the track matter, so does building good driver and crew chief rapport. In this case, Burton and Bullins are building that chemistry and learning what works and how to approach different scenarios to bring the No. 21 car toward the front half of the field.

Recently, Burton stopped by for his latest “In the Hot Seat” interview since the offseason. In the first of a two-part interview, Burton shares his thoughts on how he has navigated his recent crew chief and personnel changes and how he has approached each challenge with an upbeat attitude.

Rob Tiongson: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to another edition of “In the Hot Seat.” I’m Rob Tiongson, Editor-in-Chief of The Podium Finish.

We have a returning guest who hasn’t been around since basically January. Harrison Burton is back better than ever, and I’m so happy to have the driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft/DEX Imaging Ford Mustang fielded by the Wood Brothers.

Harrison, how are you doing today, my friend?

Harrison Burton: I’m doing well, man. How are you?

Tiongson: I’m doing really well. You have a better diecast collection, to say the least, in mine right now.

Burton: Yeah, you’ve got a good background though. But I’ve got a few behind me, for sure. I’ve got some of my dad’s, some of mine, some of just some Wood Brothers cars. So yeah, I’ve got a good little collection going behind me for sure.

Tiongson: I love it. Always good to see a driver who loves their everyday work in their house, so I should probably do the same with my job. But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Of course, you’re the reason why we have you “In the Hot Seat.” We haven’t had you on since the beginning of the season. I know it’s kind of been a challenging one, but you’ve been pushing through and lots of things have changed.

Let’s actually talk about the fact that since we last talked, you’ve been working with a familiar face, but a different crew chief in Jeremy Bullins. How have things been going for you with gelling with him?

By all means, Harrison Burton has been open minded about his team’s recent crew chief and personnel changes. (Photo: Christopher Vargas | The Podium Finish)

Burton: Yeah, it’s been going good. I really liked working with Brian Wilson, who’s now on the No. 2 car. But both of our groups kind of just needed a reset, right? I think both of our groups are able to perform well at times, but we haven’t really had the consistency between me or Austin that we needed. At the end of the day, I think we as a group kind of came together and felt like a change was the kind of the best thing we believe and the people we have.

But we just needed to flip the matchups around and get different personalities with different people and understand that it’s a good opportunity to audit everything you do as a driver. All your preparation can change, everything can kind of reset and we can go at it again. And it’s been pretty good. I think the first few weeks of doing that is has been pretty fun.

It’s been different. I’ve enjoyed trying to get to know Jeremy. I knew him in the shop and saw him around, but I didn’t really know him as well as I do now. It’s important to learn those relationships as fast as you can. On top of that, we have a lot of new team members as well. The engineer, the car chief mechanics are different.

So, we’ve got kind of a half of a team swap between me and the No. 2. And I feel like it’s been working for both of us. We just have to execute. But we’ve had some good speed these first few weeks working together. And that’s been definitely encouraging, for sure.

Tiongson: That’s a dynamic that I don’t think a lot of people understand when they read about the crew chief change is that there’s also been personnel changes. So, in a way, it’s almost like you’re in 2024 mode four or five months ahead of time.

Let’s talk about the most important aspect, which is the driver and crew chief relationship you mentioned a little bit there. But to your point, Harrison, how has the dynamics been with Jeremy in terms of his personality versus what you knew with Brian these last the last year and a half?

Burton: Yeah, I think they’ve come up from different trees if you will. The NFL has coaching trees (and) I guess NASCAR kind of has crew chief trees where people are taught by other people. And you can kind of see that influence where Jeremy spent a lot of time with RCR. He spent time with the Wood Brothers beforehand. And so, he’s got some different backgrounds to Brian.

Brian has been at Team Penske most of his career and so has Jeremy. But it’s kind of been like an interesting dynamic to get to know different perspectives on things, different ways of looking at things, how each crew chief prioritizes what. I’d say Jeremy’s a bit more of an aggressive type of leader. Not necessarily that Brian wasn’t, but Jeremy is an intense guy and is a demanding guy.

And I think that’s been a good energy for our team to kind of get that kind of leadership and get a guy that’s going to demand a lot out of us because we have a great opportunity, and we need to make the most of it. So, it’s been fun with Jeremy. I think he’s not afraid to tell the truth about racing to anybody. And I’ve made a mistake or two here and there when we were getting started. And he’ll kind of let me know. And then afterwards, he’ll come back and be like, ‘Hey, man, I didn’t mean to make you mad or whatever.” I’m like, “No, you’re fine. Let’s just go to work, man.”

So, it’s been good to learn those boundaries. I tell him all the time, ‘Man, you can’t make me mad. You just got to tell me the truth.’ And so, he’s been enjoying, I think, our relationship. And I’ve been enjoying it. And it’s good to have somebody you can trust to let you know what you need to do better, and you can do the same to that person.

And then all of a sudden, you start focusing on the right things. And like I said, not that that wasn’t happening before, but it’s just a good opportunity to audit everything and start over and relearn those rules.

Tiongson: Exactly. And I think that’s great that you’re so open with… not self-criticisms but getting good feedback because there’s times in our fields we don’t want to be told, ‘Hey, you need to do this better. Why did you do it that way?’ But it seems like you’re like, ‘Harrison, I just got to be open minded. I can’t be too sensitive.’ But are there times that it can be difficult?

Through it all, Harrison Burton has remained determined while still being a man of the people at the track. (Photo: Christopher Vargas | The Podium Finish)

Burton: Yeah, it is difficult. And yeah, you’re right. Like, you know, you need to be open minded. And we feel like as a group that we’ve not lived up to our potential. And so why is that, right? It’s not for a lack of effort in anyone’s department. It wasn’t a lack of effort on Brian’s apartment or anything like that, or he wouldn’t be on the No. 2 car. I think it’s just a big opportunity for us to self-audit.

And if you’re not honest with yourself and you can’t look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I need to be better at this,’ then you’re in the wrong field because the best drivers in the world don’t win most of the time. So, what do you have to do to win the little things and win that every day something? And that’s what we’re working on right now.

Tiongson: That’s a great mentality to be able to say, ‘I have a reason to get up from bed. And I also have to celebrate those small successes. Even if everybody focuses on the box score, it’s about, OK, if we do this better? Great. Did we do this one? Even better.’

So, it sounds like you guys are on the right path. And how much of this is… kind of a not a relief, but more of a well, ‘Thank goodness we actually get some real, relevant track time together before we start to really gear up for next season?

Burton: Yeah, for sure, the next season… right now, we’re in the feeling out process and we’re learning things. And we’ll go to racetracks and not necessarily say we’re going to punt on the weekend, but you show up and you’re more willing to try things because we didn’t make the playoffs. We’re not in any really significant points race right now. So, it’s really a good opportunity for us to go try things and learn things and what works, what doesn’t.

I told Jeremy this and I’ll never be mad if we try something thinking it’s going to be better. And it’s not. I get it. We got to try things. We’ve got to be better. And so, that’s a great opportunity that we’ve kind of been given. OK, you have six weeks or so to figure this out between you two and be ready to go for next year. And the expectation changes next year.

So, we’ve had a good few weeks of learning and I feel like this weekend, we’re going to be able to kind of put some of the learning behind us and go kind of more conventional and go try and just run well and build some confidence. And I’m excited about that for sure.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Harrison Burton for taking time for the first of his two part “In the Hot Seat” interview! Also, special thanks to Taylor Smith for his assistance and kindness for making this interview possible.

In addition to The Podium Finish, keep updated on Harrison’s latest happenings via his social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and X! Stay tuned for Pt. II of his “In the Hot Seat” interview in the coming days and check out his interview on my official YouTube channel and The Podium Finish Live! podcast.

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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