COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
Last June may have been the first time the NASCAR Cup Series had been to World Wide Technology Raceway, but it certainly wasn't Randall Burnett's first time.
The crew chief of the No. 8 team for Richard Childress Racing was born and raised in Fenton, Missouri, less than 30 miles from the track. Growing up he watched some Indy Car races from the grandstands and even got to race at the facility.
"I got to race go-karts at the old Gateway International Speedway when it was the drag strip with the road course that the SCCA guys used to race at a lot," Burnett told ABC 17 News. "We actually had some go-kart events over there that we raced at, and then they tore it down and built the oval track there. I was fortunate enough to race some go-karts there too."
When NASCAR's highest level came to the St Louis area for the first Enjoy Illinois 300, it served as a homecoming for the Fenton native. World Wide Technology Raceway is located across the Missouri border in Madison, Illinois. The Gateway Arch overlooks the front stretch, with the rest of the St. Louis skyline serving as the track's backdrop.
St Louis proved it had an appetite for racing. The track sold more than 57,000 tickets for Sunday's Cup race. The sold-out crowd included Burnett's mom, stepdad, high school classmates, and friends he grew up with in Fenton.
"A bunch of them came to support us, so that was really cool to be able to race in front of my hometown crowd and have people that have been important to me my whole life there, " Burnett said."
He even got to enjoy the concerts at the track the night before the race.
"We had Nelly playing on the infield, which was awesome. Very St. Louis."
Learning the Racing Business
Burnett spent his days in Fenton building late models, Racing, and rooting for the Cardinals and Blues until he moved south to attend the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
Missouri has produced its share of big names in NASCAR, such as Carl Edwards and the Wallaces. Like most of NASCAR drivers, Burnett got into racing at a young age.
"I was about 7 years old," Burnett said. "My dad got me into racing go-karts in the St. Louis area and places around there, Springfield, Illinois a little bit.
"My dad used to race dirt late models before I was even born, and so he was always under racing and kind of got me involved at a really young age, and I've been involved ever since."
Burnett had some success racing late models, but becoming a full-time race car driver takes financial backing and a little luck. Fortunately for Burnett, he also enjoyed working on cars and learning about them.
He went to school to get a degree in mechanical engineering and took every opportunity he could get to learn about the racing business. He sandblasted cars for Fast Track High-Performance Driving School in Harrisburg, North Carolina, and continued to build and drive late models on the side.
"It certainly helped accelerate me to get where I'm at. I came out of college and went to work for Chip Ganassi Racing for 10 years and started as a low-end engineer over there and kind of worked my way up through the ranks to be a race engineer, a full-time traveling engineer over there.
"Just a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights, a lot of travel, a lot of being gone from home, and a lot of effort to get there."
His hard work paid off in 2016 when he was hired by JTG Daugherty Racing to be the crew chief for AJ Allmendinger. One year later, he joined Richard Childress Racing to be a crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In 2019 he paired with driver Tyler Reddick and the two caught lightning in a bottle. In their first season together they won six races and the championship. That was enough for Childress to promote Reddick and Burnett to the Cup series.
Overcoming the adversity of the 2022 season
The promotion back to the Cup Series came with adversity. NASCAR switched cars to the all-new Next Gen car in 2022 to increase parity throughout the sport.
Each team is given the same parts and pieces, something Burnett said made his life as a crew chief more difficult.
"I think it's harder when you're regulated by so many different things, right?" he said. "We're in a really small box of what we can do to the cars where, you know, over the years, if you watch the progression of NASCAR, it used to be a lot.
"The rulebook has gotten thicker and thicker over time, right? So when they started, there weren't really many rules at all. Kind of run what you've brung to the race track and hope you brought enough, but now, as we've learned so much and the engineering has gotten so involved and it's so data-driven that NASCAR really tightened up all the rules.
"You can see that with the Next Gen cars, everybody is racing the same car than somebody you're racing against, so you're stacking a lot of pennies to try to get a little bit better performing car, so everything's got to be very detail-oriented."
On top of adjusting to the new car, Burnett also learned that his driver Tyler Reddick would be switching teams to drive for Michael Jordan and Denny Hamiln at 23XI Racing. The move caught the No. 8 team off guard.
"I think that was our fourth year together, me and him personally, and a lot of guys on the team had been with him for his whole tenure at RCR. We were certainly sad to see him go. He was one of the guys that was part of the team, "Burnett said. "We've been great friends and so that was kind of difficult for everybody to kind of understand. But at the end of the day, it is a business deal."
Despite the setback, Burnett helped guide Reddick to three victories, including his first Cup Series victory at Road America and a spot in the playoffs.
"It was a little difficult to get past that for a little bit. Everybody kind of all put their hands in and said, 'Man, we're in this together till the end. We're gonna fight for you as hard as we can and we know you're gonna fight for us as hard as you can and try to get as many race wins as we can."
Not only did Reddick win two races after announcing his departure, but one of those wins came after he had been eliminated from the playoffs.
After losing a good driver in Reddick, the team brought in Kyle Busch, a two-time champion who owns the most all-time NASCAR national series wins at 224. Busch joined the No. 8 team after spending the last 15 years with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Working with Kyle Busch
Busch is known for his outspoken personality, but Burnett said the transition to working with him was easy.
"One thing about Kyle is he's been around a long time, he likes things a certain way. He likes to give certain information and how we relay things to him and how we do things with the car. We had to adjust a little bit of some processes but all for the good," Burnett explained.
Burnett said he learned a lot from Busch after spending time together throughout the offseason. The two met to discuss how they each did things and what Busch was looking for out of the car.
It became clear early what made Busch so successful behind the wheel, which Burnett called an "eye-opening experience."
"What we noticed really quick was he's so detail oriented, I mean, every detail counts, and that's great. That's where we're at in the Cup Series right now. Every detail counts and so to have him come in with that mindset and really set that bar for the team has been great."
The team has already won two races this season and will look to build on that success when they come to World Wide Technology Raceway. Last year Busch finished second in the Enjoy Illinois 300 after coming up short in an overtime restart against Joey Logano. Burnett's team finished 16th.
Navigating Ross Chastain's aggressive driving
One of the major headlines from the race was the antics of Ross Chastain, who wrecked Denny Hamlin and ran into Chase Elliot's back, causing both drivers to retaliate on the track. Chastain has remained in the spotlight for his aggressive driving style. Recently he was involved in a fight on pit road where he punched Noah Gragson after the race in Kansas.
While Chastain has been known to take opponents out of the race, Burnett says his strategy remains the same when racing around him. He leaves dealing with Chastain to Busch.
"Pretty much leave that in Kyle's hands. You know he's raced around most of these guys a lot. He knows what he's dealing with from every different driver he's out there racing."
Later adding "he really doesn't need me to tell him how to drive much, so I'll let him handle that. I worry about making the car go fast for him."
While Burnett's return to his home state may be a business trip, that’s not going to stop him from enjoying some Italian food in St. Louis.
“We're gonna make it down to the hill while we are there. We’ll take a bunch of the guys down, probably go to Zita’s. That's always been one of my favorites,” an excited Burnett exclaimed.
“Anywhere on The Hill, really. It's hard to find great Italian, you know, homecooked Italian meals, here in the Charlotte area. So I really look forward to getting there. We stay not far from The Hill when we come there. So definitely going to take my guys out. Treat them to some nice dinner there.”