Josh Berry made his second start as Chase Elliott’s injury replacement during the March 12 NASCAR Cup Series event at Phoenix Raceway. He used the opportunity to deliver a top-10 finish and impress Jeff Gordon.
“I’m really impressed with today’s effort,” the Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman told media members after the race. “I was on the [No. 9] box most of the race. It didn’t start off so great. To see them just continue to work through changes on the car, changes of the track conditions, just continue to push forward.
“Then he was mixing it up, man. On those restarts, he was right in the middle, three- and four-wide. I was a little bit nervous because they’re pretty deep in points and needed a solid finish. It was great to see Josh get that. That’s going to build his confidence.”
The race did not start well for Berry. Veteran drivers such as Joey Logano took advantage of his rookie status and pushed him around. He also finished the first two stages 18th and 15th, respectively, before falling back to 20th to start the final segment.
The situation changed as the laps whittled down. Berry was running 17th with 50 to go, but a caution with 10 laps remaining gave him an opportunity to get four fresh tires. He lined up 15th with three to go and then passed two other drivers before another caution sent the race to overtime.
Once the race went green for the final time, Berry went low and worked his way past Logano. He then went on to make other key passes before crossing the finish line 10th overall, just behind teammate Alex Bowman.
Berry Gained Crucial Experience at Phoenix Raceway
Berry’s first time in the Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro took place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He practiced less than 24 hours after learning that he would replace Elliott, and then he competed in the Cup Series race.
The learning curve was significant for Berry, someone who has become a championship contender in the Xfinity Series. He was buried multiple laps down before finishing 29th overall. He also dealt with a throttle issue.
Hendrick Motorsports made the choice to stick with Berry as Elliott’s replacement driver and put him back in the No. 9 at Phoenix. He responded by delivering a career-best Cup Series performance.
“I don’t think anybody can explain how difficult a situation this is,” Gordon continued. “I mean, an Xfinity car today could not be more opposite than what the Cup car is throughout the history that I can recall of those things being so different than they are today.
To get out of an Xfinity car and hop into a Cup car that’s so different I think is a big, tall task. We put him in a bad situation last week. This week I saw him putting in the effort and the time, the sim, getting fitted in the seat, doing his homework. It really showed up.”
Berry Has More Starts Ahead of Him
Berry finished 29th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after struggling with multiple factors. He then went out and captured a top-10 finish at Phoenix Raceway after gaining experience, keeping the car clean, and taking advantage of late restarts.
Berry has more opportunities ahead of him. He will continue to serve as Elliott’s main injury replacement while competing on the oval tracks. Road course ace Jordan Taylor will only take over the No. 9 at Circuit of the Americas.
Berry’s tentative schedule features Atlanta Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Bristol Dirt, and Martinsville Speedway. Though this number of races could change based on how quickly Elliott recovers.
Having an opportunity to compete at Martinsville Speedway could be significant for Berry. This is the track where he scored his first career Xfinity Series win. It is unlikely that he will contend for a win in the Cup Series race, but he will have confidence based on his history of competing on short tracks, his Xfinity Series win, and his added experience in the No. 9 Chevrolet.