Harrison Burton heard the same warning every time he moved up the racing ladder into a new series.
“I’ve heard it in every series I’ve been in – you’re a rookie, and the veterans are going to pick on you – and it never happened until I got the Cup Series,” Burton said. “I was like, ‘Aw that won’t happen.’ Well, sure enough, it did.”
Fortunately for Burton, he’s not a rookie anymore. As such, the bright yellow decals on the rear bumper of his Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang are no longer there. Those rookie stripes – something every driver wants because it means they’ve arrived, but something they also can’t wait to get rid of.
“It’s supposed to be a ‘Hey, this guy is new kind of thing,’” Burton said with a sense of humor. “But it’s more like a target; aim for the yellow stripes. It’s awesome.
“[Austin] Cindric and I were both pumped to rip those things off the back bumper and get rolling into this year.”
Burton, unfortunately, didn’t get to physically rip his rookie stripes off—something he gladly would have done but missed the chance.
“So, after the offseason started, all of our cars went back to the shop, and we had our meetings and whatnot, and then I sat on my couch for about a solid week,” Burton said. “By the time I went back to the shop, they were all gone. So, I didn’t get to do it.
“I was a little upset because I did want to get those things off there. But my first little offseason break didn’t line up with the removal of the yellow stripes.”
A second-generation driver, Burton, 22, is the son of former driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton. It’s been a quick trip to NASCAR’s top level for Harrison. A year in the Craftsman Truck series (2019) gave way to two years in the Xfinity series (’20 and ’21) before being tabbed to drive the famed Wood Brothers No. 21.
It was, as expected, an up-and-down rookie season. Quite literally in Burton’s first Daytona 500 as he went from leading the field to flipping on the backstretch. He also crashed at the second race in Fontana, and went on to finish 27th in the standings with an average finish of 22.8.
He had 14 finishes inside the top 20, including two top-10 finishes. An impressive third-place run on the Indianapolis road course, a race highlighted by carnage, was the highlight of Burton’s season.
“They just race you hard,” said Burton of what it means to be picked on as a rookie. “[Michael] McDowell was one that came up to me at the Clash last year and was like, ‘Hey man, I’m going to race you really hard this year because you’re a rookie, and I got raced really hard when I was a rookie.’ I said, ‘OK, sounds good.’
“He was super up-front about it and made me laugh pretty hard. But things like that that no one has ever said to me before I got to Cup. I was like, all right, sounds good. It’s a funny thing.
“Everyone has had that experience and now, when they aren’t the rookies, it’s, ‘Yeah, it’s not me, so I’m going to pick on that guy now.’”
Time will tell if Burton begins returning the favor. But he’s looking forward to not being the guy whom the veterans view as expendable at certain racetracks.
“Everyone gets moved at (places like) Martinsville, but honestly, the mile-and-a-half’s last year were the hardest racing I’ve done in my whole life,” Burton said. “The amount of intensity that this series has from first all the way back to, say, 20th and the level of aggression.
“In the old car, if you got close to someone and you were on the inside, you’d get really loose. Well, now the outside car gets really tight. So, I’d have Ross Chastain dooring me in the middle of a corner at a mile-and-a-half and I’m like, holy cow, this is crazy. You’d never have that before.
“At Texas, I think I was entering Turn 1, which is sketchy enough, and me and Ross are banging doors on entry. Like, holy cow. I feel like the mile-and-a-halfs are more aggressive than I’d ever imagined last year.”
If the first few races of Burton’s sophomore season are any indication, the aggression is still there. But those rookie stripes on his bumper aren’t, and that means a lot to Burton for several reasons.
“Oh yeah, it was awesome to not see them,” Burton said. “It is cool to be in a second year of racing in the Cup Series. It’s funny to talk about getting rid of the yellow stripes so I don’t get moved out of the way at Martinsville and whatnot, but it is cool to take them off because it means you’re still here racing in Cup and doing what you love to do for another year.
“It’s a good deal.”