Author: John Russo

Date: Sept. 9, 2017

Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland have a lot in common.

The North Carolina natives grew up around racing with fathers and other family members in the sport. Both have competed with each other since they were about 10 years old.

Now Burton and Gilliland, with aspirations of following in their fathers’ footsteps to NASCAR’s highest level, are in a tight points race in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standings with just two races left.

For a second straight year, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East returns to New Jersey Motorsport Park in Millville this Saturday with the JustDrive.com125. Gilliland holds a six-point lead on Burton with 511 points in 12 starts.

Burton ran in the 2.25-mile road course last year, coming in 15th after his car’s suspension gave out. This will be Gilliland’s first trip to Millville.

“I think we can compete for the win,” said Gilliland, 17, by phone Monday. “You have to be smart and try to finish every race. It’s the only way you can win (the series championship).”

Gilliland, 16, the son of former driver David Gilliland, has won four of the past six races, including a first-place finish Sept. 2 at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia, to take the lead in the standings from Burton.

With Gilliland on a roll right now, there’s no room for error for either driver.

“I think we’ve both been incredibly consistent. I don’t expect that to change,” said Burton, 16, by phone Monday.

Burton is the son of former driver and current NBC Sports television analyst Jeff Burton, who had 21 victories at NASCAR’s highest level.

Saturday’s race begins at 4:45 p.m., capping off a day of festivities for fans at NJMP.

The day starts at noon with a Tailgate Party at the NJMP Fan Zone, which includes monster truck rides, a Hell on Wheels BMX Stunt Show at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and an autograph sessions from 2 to 2:30 p.m. Fans may also walk the track, enjoy another autograph signing and watch the opening ceremonies from 3:20 to 4:45 p.m.

“Something that K&N and NASCAR, in general, wants to be sure of is we take care of the fans,” Burton said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to race and do what we do.”

The numbers have been impressive for both Burton and Gilliland.

Each driver has won four races this year. Gilliland has nine top-10 finishes, all in the top three, while Burton has 10.

“It’s why we’re in the championship battle,” Gilliland said. “We’ve been running up front and really just trying to get the wins each week in and week out.”

NJMP will provide a nice challenge for all the drivers Saturday. It’s one of two road courses in the series, mixing sharp technical corners with good areas for speed.

“In my mind, it’s a mix of Watkins Glenn (New York) and Senoia (Georgia),” Burton said. “There’s a lot of technical passing points. That’s a really fun dynamic going in. We’re trying to prepare for both and excited to get to it.”

Burton and Gilliland may be on opposite sides during the K&N Series, but both are on the same team in the Camping World Truck Series, racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports. They are also a part of the NASCAR Next program that develops young drivers.

Having similar goals in mind along with the points chase has brought Burton and Gilliland closer. They’re also racing harder than ever during this stretch.

“We definitely respect each other,” Gilliland said. “It has pushed both of us to be better drivers. I think that’s the biggest thing — respect and pushing each other. I know it hurts him if I win, and it hurts me if he wins. We always want to be better like any young athlete or sports guy trying to move up. I think it’s cool to have our competition against each other.”

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