Cole's Corner

Beyond The Car: NASCAR’s next gen amplified with familial presence

By Cole Cusumano

Blaney. Burton. Elliott. Gilliland: All four names have played a prominent role throughout NASCAR’s history. As the sanctioning body prepares to usher in a new era with the Next Gen car, it seems only fitting these familial namesakes will simultaneously be reunited at the top-level once again. 

For the first time since July 7, 2012, all four families will be competing together in the NASCAR Cup Series. While a pair of the generation drivers have already begun writing their own history, another two will join them with ambitions of doing the same nearly a decade after their fathers.

The 2022 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class features Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton

Gilliland is a third-generation driver making the jump to Cup at just 21 years old and piloting the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports. His father, David, began grinding through NASCAR’s ranks in 1997 and his presence is still felt today.

With only one win on his resume across all three national series, Gilliland’s father integrated himself into sport by creating lasting relationships with many people throughout the industry. His personable reputation earned him the respect from his peers and ensured a career of longevity within NASCAR that’s still going strong today.

“I think that’s a really hard thing to balance: being a Gilliland in racing,” Gilliland told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Since the [Next Gen] Cup car announcement, it’s been so focused on the heritage-side, but at the same time I’m here to hopefully add my own chapter. There’s a lot that I can go out and do for myself. I’m just really excited to learn.”

Tradition is the foundation in which NASCAR feeds off of and Front Row Motorsports is the epitome of this definition. David Gilliland drove the No. 38 for a bulk of his career and raced for FRM in the waning stages of his Cup tenure. He’s also a team owner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (David Gilliland Racing), which has a technical alliance with the Ford stable owned by Bob Jenkins.

“It’s just really cool to see everyone’s excitement to have a Gilliland back,” the 21-year-old said. “The tradition definitely adds a little bit of the reality of it, but also makes everyone think it’s a little bit cooler. It’s kind of funny, there’s probably five-to-10 of the same people that I recognize from back in the day.” 

Growing up at the racetrack essentially his entire life, Gilliland quickly learned the value of maintaining a professional relationship. Of all the lessons learned from his father, this is the one he’s put an emphasis on executing and believes it’s the reason he’s where he is today – the Cup Series.

Gilliland is coming off a career-best season, headlined with a win at Circuit of the Americas in addition to 16 top-10s, 359 laps led, a 9.5 average finish and seventh-rank in the standings. The Ford Performance driver hopes to add to the respected reputation his father amassed by virtue of his innate ability to establish lasting relationships within the industry.

Going head-to-head with Gilliland for Rookie of the Year honors is former teammate and NASCAR K&N Pro Series East rival, Harrison Burton.

Between Ward, Jeff, Jeb and Harrison, the Burtons are responsible for keeping tradition alive in NASCAR. With this in mind, it’s somewhat poetic the 21-year-old will get to carry on his family’s legacy in the infamous Wood Brother’s No. 21.

“With the Wood brothers being as family-oriented as they are, it makes you look at your own story and family history,” Burton told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I’ve always been really proud of who my dad is and what he stood for – my uncle, my cousin –  and our family business is racing. I’ve always been proud to carry that on and to do it at the Cup level is definitely really cool.”

Burton’s father, Jeff, had a Cup career that spanned over 22 years, where he earned 21 wins along the way. He experienced the highs of finding victory lane six times in one season and the lows of going winless for six years, but his work ethic never wavered.

“When I think about the Burton family it’s just about working hard and doing it the right way,” Burton said. “I always looked up to my dad because of how hard he worked, the effort he put in and the way he did things. I hope to carry that on and one day have that same reputation.”

Nicknamed “The Mayor” due to his insightful analysis and eloquent use of words, Burton’s father was someone held in high regard during his racing career. For this reason, the driver of the No. 21 believes it’s going to be advantageous to have his dad by his side to help him see the bigger picture during his transitional growing pains in Cup.

Although winless in his 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series campaign, he has four national series victories under his belt and matched his career-best 22 top-10 finishes from the year prior.  

These young guns will look to add to their family legacies, but have been a pair of generation drivers already blazing their own trail.

Chase Elliott, son of Bill Elliott, has seen the most success of his fellow generation drivers. At just 24 years old, he matched his father’s crowning achievement of a Cup title in his fifth full-time season.

The 2020 Cup Series Champion is well on his way to blazing his own historic trail. Through 221 starts, he already has 13 wins, contrasted to his father’s 44 in 828 attempts. Elliott may have a long way to go in matching his dad’s two Daytona 500 victories, three Southern 500s and 16 Most Popular Driver awards, but he’s fine with that. 

“I’m obviously a different individual than my dad and my uncles,” Elliott told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I want to carry that [legacy] forward and make my family proud. I also want to do my job for my team and just make sure I’m doing my part here for the folk who’ve helped me get to this point.”

Elliott grew up alongside the Gillilands and Burtons, and is eager to compete at the top-level with friends. 

“I think probably for all of us we have grown up around [racing] and have wanted to do it much like a lot of people do who haven’t had family ties,” Elliott said. “We’re all very fortunate and grateful for the opportunity and we just want to go do our jobs – that’s certainly the case for me.”

Finally, there’s Ryan Blaney. While the 28-year-old made his Cup debut one year earlier than Elliott, he hasn’t seen the success his best friend has – relatively.

Blaney began racing for Wood Brother Racing, while Elliott has driven for Hendrick Motorsport his entire Cup career. Even driving in less elite equipment, he handed the Ford team their 99th victory in 2017.

After that he put up three consecutive one-win seasons, remaining competitive, but stagnant. In 2021, he took a massive leap forward and had a career-best season composed of three wins and 20 top-10s. To put in perspective how well Blaney has done in his short Cup career, his father, Dave, only amassed 28 top-10s and went winless during his 17-year career at NASCAR’s top-level.

Coming off the best season of his career, Blaney will look to add his own legacy by stepping into more of a leadership role at Team Penske following the departure of Brad Keselowski and addition of rookie Austin Cindric.

As a sport reliant on tradition, it’s an exciting time for NASCAR. Between the Next Gen car and the addition of more familiar names to the Cup Series, there’s no telling what positive implications will follow.

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