DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For a lot of last week, NASCAR drivers Harrison Burton and Zane Smith were simultaneously taking in the scene and providing the scene at Daytona International Speedway.
Burton, Smith and fellow Ford drivers Ben Rhodes and Hailie Deegan were part of a strong continent of NASCAR regulars taking part in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Series during the Rolex 24 at Daytona’s week of sports car competition on the iconic track’s famed 3.56-mile road course.
Burton, who drives the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford in the NASCAR Cup Series and Smith, who just won the 2022 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series title in the No. 38 Ford F150 for Front Row Motorsports, started off the new year in the best form possible. Winners.
Having to hold off savvy IMSA regulars for the trophy, their work en route to the Michelin Pilot Challenge GS (Grand Sport) title was absolutely impressive. The young NASCAR regulars beat road racing stars – veterans and highly-touted newcomers – to stand high atop the podium. And their Ford teammates, Rhodes and Deegan, finished third, also turning in a notable drive amongst a 46-car field of road course specialists.
It was exactly the kind of effort - and result - to send them into their NASCAR seasons with the kind of mental edge that can make a difference competitively. That’s certainly what they’re hoping.
“Absolutely,” the 23-year old Californian Smith said of the benefit of getting some racing laps ahead of the season.
“And winning is just as contagious as losing is. I think in today’s world if you could race as many different things as you can, you’ll be better off. I was all over the opportunity and if it’s anything road course racing, I’m all about it.”
Not only was tackling a new venture important, but getting that win racing against fulltime road course racers will be something both say will benefit them mentally heading into 2023.
“I was joking with Zane, it’s been a while for me [since I won],” Burton said grinning. “It’s been since my last Xfinity win (at Martinsville, Va. in 2020). Haven’t won anything since. So it’s always good to get back on the good side of that. This is something different than what we normally do and obviously, the Cup Series to me, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done so that’s another level.
“Any confidence boost like this is huge and just experience like this, late racing when you have to find a way to win, I think you can’t really train for that. It’s just a moment you have to be ready for and it’s good to get more of those in my repetition.”
The chance to hoist a trophy was something the talented 22-year old Burton has not taken for granted and the Daytona success, he says, was a well-timed boost as he prepares for his second full-time NASCAR Cup Series season.
“It bothered me for a long time,” Burton said of not winning immediately in NASCAR’s premier series. “I pride myself in being the best that I can be and feel like the last two years have been tough for sure, so any win is a good win. And this is a group of no slouches either. These are a lot of really really fast sportscar drivers.
“Me and Zane were kind of joking in Victory Lane, ‘I can’t believe we won this thing.’ We were just geared for an opportunity, thought it would be fun and it ended up we won. It was really cool.”
Burton, who earned four wins, 26 Top-5 and 49 Top-10 finishes in 76 starts over two and a half seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (2019-2021), found the NASCAR Cup Series ranks last year as difficult as billed. He earned a pair of Top-10 finishes including a career high of third place in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race last summer.
“It’s huge, it’s contagious,” Burton said of what the victory last weekend can do to start a season. “Even from different series, different levels, the guys that get on a roll and are confident, I feel like that mental side of this sport is more important than anything else. If you’re confident in your abilities, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if can I do this?’
“You’re taking away your brain power when you’re thinking of stuff like that. You need to focus on the task at hand and can’t be having any doubts. And so anytime you have these opportunities to win and you go and win it kind of gets rid of some of those doubts and you’re able to drive to your ability.
“It’s what makes being a rookie in somewhere like the Cup Series so hard, because you’re wondering , ‘Holy crap, these guys are so good. Can I do this? Can I win?’ Burton continued. “And there’s only one way to find out and that’s to go and do it. It’s just contagious [to win], it’s good, it’s fun and it’s what we love.
“There’s no better feeling than crossing the line and winning a race. There’s nothing in the world that can top it no matter what level, no matter what you’re in, it’s always been that way.”
Smith is hoping to join Burton in the Daytona 500 in two weeks, trying to earn his first start in NASCAR’s biggest race driving a third car for Front Row Motorsports. His primary focus for 2023 is defending his truck series title to become only the second driver in series history to win back-to-back championships - joining veteran Matt Crafton, who hoisted trophies in 2013-14. But there’s definitely some excitement about the 500 possibilities.
“I was pretty excited in victory lane there today,” Smith said. “If I get in victory lane with a Cup Series logo on my suit I’ll be pretty stoked. It’s going to be tough no doubt but obviously anything can happen here.
“I ended my year last year with being as good as possible so you kind of go into the following year like man, ‘we really gotta have everything be right to try to top this,’ “Smith said of winning four races and hoisting his first major NASCAR series championship trophy in November.
“In this sport, people forget about you very quickly. So it’s not anything we do differently. Just the fact of how races play out. And this today is a really good start.”