Josh Berry felt he had a good Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Sunday at Richmond Raceway but needed the track position to show it and pull off a respectable finish.
In his fourth NASCAR Cup Series start, Berry finished second after lining up against teammate Kyle Larson on the race’s final two restarts. Berry, substituting for the injured Chase Elliott, was given the much-needed track position when the team called for him to stay out longer on the final green flag pit cycle, which started with just under 55 laps to go.
He led 10 laps and was inside the top 10 when the team caught the caution they needed. The No. 9 pit crew got Berry off pit road second to Larson, keeping him in contention.
“I loved it. I absolutely loved it,” Berry said of the strategy call. “I thought we had some good pace at times, but we needed some clean air, and these guys thought outside the box, and that’s what it takes in these races. You never know what could happen.
“If you do the same as everybody around you then you’re going to finish with them. They made a couple of bold calls. One that kept us on the lead lap early in the race and that one at the end to get us some track position. The pit crew was amazing all day.”
Tom Gray, the team’s interim crew chief as Alan Gustafson serves a four-race suspension for the modified hood louvers found at Phoenix Raceway, had faith in his driver getting the job done. Not only was the team confident in Berry’s ability on a short track, but in keeping him out on older tires and managing his pace while they waited out the strategy.
“They called him ‘Mr. Short Track’ on the broadcast, so I was laughing,” Gray said. “And I said, let’s show them what Mr. Short Track is all about.”
The decision to flip the strategy was made by committee.
“Without showing our hand too much, we are a tight-knit group and a lot of credit to Alan Gustafson on this one because we really put our heads together, and he’s definitely fostered an environment where more heads are better than one. We were looking at a lot of things, and to be honest, we balanced risk versus reward and made the right call.”
Sunday was Berry’s second top 10 with the team. Afterward, he received praise from Hendrick Motorsports president and general manager Jeff Andrews, a fist bump from a grinning vice president of competition Chad Knaus and a handshake, hug, and pats on the back from vice chairman Jeff Gordon.
“Good job, man. That was awesome,” Gordon told Berry as he fulfilled his media obligations. “That must have felt good, huh? You fought hard for that one.”
Berry’s day also included a spin. On lap 95, he was tagged by Ryan Blaney and spun off Turn 4 but did not hit anything.
“We had been in the pack and got tight, I think, and Blaney was coming through the field and just got into me,” Berry said. “It was really light (contact). I don’t think he meant to do it or nothing, but he did.”
Berry said he was too loose to run with Larson at the end of the race. Off the restart, Larson quickly cleared his teammate and drove away.
“I just have a lot of people to thank to get to this point,” said Berry of his day. “Obviously, (Rick Hendrick) and Chase (Elliott) and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for giving me this opportunity in the Cup Series. But also Dale (Earnhardt Jr.), Kelley (Earnhardt Miller), L.W. Miller, and everybody at JRM who believed in me and got me to this point to be considered for opportunities like this.
“All the credit today goes to Tom and this whole NAPA team. They made some amazing strategy calls. We weren’t bad, we weren’t cutting bad lap times in the pack, we were just in the midst of the pack, and it’s so hard with no practice or qualifying to just drive through the field like that with the amount of experience I have. But they thought outside the box, made some good calls, and it worked in our favor.”
A full-time Xfinity Series driver for Earnhardt’s team, Berry was unexpected call into Cup Series action last month. He is running the oval races in Elliott’s absence and continues to see the difference from one series to another.
“This stuff’s hard,” Berry said of Cup Series racing. “These guys are so good. This is the best of the best, and I don’t think a lot of them have made it very easy for me coming in here filling in for the No. 9.
“I’ve been learning a lot. I think there’s so much more to learn, but days like today really do a lot for confidence.”