When Josh Berry stepped in as Chase Elliott's replacement after the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion's snowboarding injury back in early March, no one really had any high expectations for the 32-year-old Hendersonville, Tennessee native. After all, Berry had only run in two Cup races prior to stepping behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. But, Berry, in his sixth career Cup start, certainly proved his worth at the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway when he placed second behind his teammate Kyle Larson.
Berry was understandably emotional after his runner-up finish at Richmond, and what made his big moment all the more special is when Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and the current Vice Chairman of HMS, came up to personally congratulate Berry during a post-race interview. You love to see it!
Gordon said Berry ?has a future in the Cup Series.? pic.twitter.com/rMUC7IfZz8
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) April 3, 2023
Berry's career-best Cup finish was the result of a slow-and-steady effort. Despite starting 30th in the 37-car field, Berry was able to make consistent gains throughout the race. His biggest break came during a caution with 30 laps remaining, as he was able to stay in the front row during the last two restarts. A bold pit stop strategy — interim crew chief Tom Gray opted to keep Berry on the track longer before his final pit stop — is what allowed Berry to maintain crucial positioning down the stretch and ultimately have his banner day at Richmond.
"Man, this is really cool," Berry said during his post-race interview. "I gotta give all the credit to this NAPA team. Tom, Alan (Gustafson, full-time crew chief) remotely, of course, and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. They made some great calls. When we got some clean track, we weren't running bad lap times. I'm so glad they tried something different at the end to get us up front. I felt like we were decent the whole time. Just getting in cleaner air (was key). We were free to race with Kyle. Man, what a huge day. You know, to come here and start in the back, no practice, qualifying, get spun out, work through the field like that, just second place, it's pretty cool."
After Gordon's post-race interaction with Berry, the HMS executive made it clear in his subsequent media appearances that he couldn't be happier with Berry's improved performances over the last few races.
"I feel like he has done a great job every time he has been in the car," Gordon said. "You start to see a bit of a trend with him. Of course, we didn't do him any favors by him starting 30th today. We made one adjustment there early that didn't seem to go the right direction. They got him further behind. So to see them climb up through there and the car come to life, and staying out there paid off and caught the caution."
"But Josh, when you look at his lap times, he is a guy that he gets in there, he feels the car out, he doesn't take too many risks or chances until he knows what he has. Then you just start to see the lap times come and build and the run start to come together. And every time I'm scanning, I kept hearing by the end of the run, Hey, those lap times are really good. Hey, those lap times are similar to the leaders'. So he clearly knows how to manage tires and manage a race well. It seems like the longer the race, the better he does. We're really happy with the job that he has done."
If Berry continues to ride his positive momentum in the right direction, Gordon thinks that he could make serious waves in NASCAR's highest level, even after Chase Elliott returns.
"Certainly everybody has known his talent watching him in other forms of racing, late models, and the Xfinity Series," Gordon continued. "You have to put him in other cars with other teams and other people to really see how far he could take it. I think he's got a future in the Cup Series."
To have a guy like Jeff Gordon in your corner is no small accomplishment, and considering that the NASCAR Hall of Famer was one of Berry's biggest heroes as a kid, that has to make the Rainbow Warrior's seal of approval all the more sweet.
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