It’s not for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship but Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are treating their epic K&N Pro Series East duel like they are fighting to get into Homestead-Miami in November.
In fact, it’s probably a preview of things to come for the highest level too.
With three races remaining, Burton leads Gilliland by just four points. Between them, they’ve won seven of the first 11 events. Burton has led the standings since the third race of the season but Gilliland has cut the deficit from 28 to four over his last five starts.
With finishes of first, second, first, first and second, Gilliland is suddenly right there.
“From the beginning, Harrison set a high bar with finishing fourth and getting some points at New Smyrna,” Gilliland said. “We knew he would be the toughest contender for the championship and we wanted to be too.”
But with finishes of ninth, third and eighth to open the season at New Smyrna, Greenville and Bristol, Gilliland dug himself an early hole, especially as Burton finished fourth, fourth and first. But that’s when Gilliland went streaking.
Since then, he’s only finished off the podium once.
Gilliland and Burton have been racing each other since they were children — first in quarter-midgets and in Super Late Models prior to their NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut. Burton has always respected his friend and rival, but believed Gilliland has used up one too many mulligans in the first half of the season.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Burton said. “But it’s also been tough because we thought we had them beat a couple of times and they keep coming back stronger than before.
“We’ve gone back and forth all year and I think that comes from our drive to beat each other. I’ve found myself viewing Todd as a rival — but in a good way. We’re still friends off the race track, and we won’t have bad blood, but there’s no one I want to beat more than him right now. I bet it’s the same for him too.”
“We’ve been racing each other since we’ve been in quarter midgets and we want to beat each other as bad as anyone else,” Gilliland said. “But out here, when we’re not racing, we’ll talk a lot and are friends.
“It’s become an interesting relationship with this championship battle getting closer. We both think we’re going to win it and both think we have the best teams. We just need to do our best to not get into each other while we chase it.”
Perhaps, the best example of this respectful rivalry occurred during the Busch North Throwback 100 on July 8 at Thompson Speedway when the two raced side-by-side for the final 15 laps without making contact once.
Burton took the checkered flag but cemented the respect Gilliland had for him that afternoon.
“That was big to me because he was on the inside and never touched me,” Gilliland said. “He went on to win, but I was satisfied finishing second more than any other race before because it dictated how we were going to race the rest of the season.”
The championship battle has an interesting dichotomy because Burton and Gilliland are Truck Series teammates at Kyle Busch Motorsports too. They want to beat each other on the track, but don’t want to tarnish their friendship in the process.
“It’s a lot of fun to race this way,” Burton said. “Look, you can have friendships in racing. I don’t agree with this mindset that you can’t have friends off the track. It’s plain wrong.
“But you have to make clear that the race track is the race track and off it is different. We do a good job of that and it’s fun going head to head with them. It’s weird going to try to beat them and then we turn around and we’re teammates in the Truck Series. But I think we can handle it.”