One of the most exciting aspects of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is the huge influx of new talent coming into the series.
Young drivers like Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson — all of whom are less than 25 years old — are filling the void created when established stars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and, soon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. step away from the cockpit.
But the young guns of the Cup series are hardly alone.
There is an entire new wave of even younger drivers coming up through the ranks and they are in a hurry to get there.
In exclusive interviews with PopularSpeed.com, drivers Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton talked about the challenges and opportunities ahead of them.
Gilliland, 17, and Burton, 16, are two of the nine drivers in the NASCAR Next program for upcoming racers, and despite their young ages, the two already have impressive records.
After nine races this season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Burton has four victories and leads the points in that division.
In the K&N Pro Series West, Gilliland is the defending champion and the current point leader with four victories in eight races. In his career dating back to 2015, Gilliland has 11 victories in just 23 West starts. And he’s also racing in the K&N Pro Series East, where he has a pair of victories and is second to Burton in points.
As if that wasn’t enough, both Burton and Gilliland are racing limited schedules in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Heady stuff, for a couple of guys who aren’t even old enough to vote yet.
Of course, it helps that the two grew up with fathers who were NASCAR racers, Harrison being the son of Jeff Burton and Todd the son of David Gilliland. Still, these two are getting it done in a big way at a young age.
For his part, Gilliland gives a lot of the credit for his success to the Bill McAnally Racing team that he drives for.
“No driver can do it without a great team and great equipment,” Gilliland told PopularSpeed.com. “They definitely give me the cars I need to be able to win. And from there, it’s just learning for myself. The races we finish second in or don’t win, it’s about learning how to get myself to the race-winning caliber that my cars are.”
As for the best advice Gilliland has gotten from his father, it’s this: “Just stay humble and patient.”
That’s a sound strategy. The opportunities certainly will be there for Gilliland in the future, although like Burton he’s still finalizing his 2018 plans.
“Being 17 years old, there’s really no rush,” said Gilliland. “It’s really about taking your time and making sure you’re 100 percent ready for every opportunity when it presents itself.”
Burton, on the other hand, sounds a little more impatient.
“It’s been a great advantage having my dad in the sport, but I’m ready to make my own name,” Burton said. “Everyone knows me as Jeff Burton’s son. If you Google my name, it comes up as ‘Jeff Burton’s son.’ I’m ready to make my own name and add to my stature.”
For both drivers, racing in the Truck Series this year has been a positive experience.
“It’s been huge,” says Burton, who has two more races in the trucks this year. “I’ve been able to learn from one of the best in the sport in Kyle Busch. And having the experience of racing with the truck guys is huge. It’s a big deal. I’ve been blessed to run with KBM and have some good finishes, but I’m looking for better ones. We haven’t really finished as good as we’ve run.”
Gilliland said he’s enjoyed racing with the Truck Series regulars.
“It’s really cool to be able to gain their respect,” said Gilliland, who has four more Truck Series starts scheduled in 2017.
For now, both Gilliland and Burton are concentrating on running for K&N Pro Series championships and learning what they can in the Truck Series. But it likely won’t be long before they both move up the NASCAR ladder. And they will be fun to watch along the way.