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Tanner Berryhill ready for Cup debut in last elimination race

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You’re forgiven if you don’t know Tanner Berryhill’s name.

It’s been four years since the last of his 40 Xfinity starts and three years after his one-off start in the Monster Energy Open.

Now the 24-year-old is set to make his Cup debut in Sunday’s playoff elimination race at ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC), which will set the championship four in Miami.

Berryhill grew up in Bixby, Oklahoma, racing Bandoleros, sprint cars and midgets thinking he “would be Jeff Gordon.”

Like Gordon in the 1992 Cup finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Berryhill’s debut will be in one of the most important races of the year.

In the summer of 2017 Berryhill was contemplating making a “clean break” from NASCAR.

While he loves racing, being a “salesman” had come to dominate his time in the sport.

“That’s kind of what it takes to be a driver in NASCAR these days is to find sponsors all the time and beat the streets for that,” Berryhill told NBC Sports. “I tried that with my own team and I was carrying so many hats, it just didn’t work out and I got told ‘no’ too many times, it got me a little discouraged.”

Studying finance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte – where he’ll graduate in December – Berryhill was about ready to embrace working for his family’s construction business in Oklahoma.

The years since 2015 hadn’t seen him completely on the racing sidelines. Berryhill competed in the Chili Bowl Nationals, late models and other midget races.

“I’ve been ready to go this whole time, just been waiting for somebody to call me to put me in (a ride),” Berryhill said.

The first call from Victor Obaika, owner of Obaika Racing, came in May.

Berryhill had worked on the team’s Xfinity operation last year helping put cars together and he and Obaika had talks in late 2016 about a racing opportunity.

Dan Stillman, who had been the crew chief of Berryhill’s family Xfinity team in 2014, was now with Obaika. Stillman suggested Berryhill be given a chance earlier this year.

Berryhill’s first shot at NASCAR in three years came in September in the inaugural Xfinity race on the Charlotte Roval.

“I was a little nervous to be honest to be going in driving it, but as soon as I got on the track I was like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I remember,'” Berryhill said. “I didn’t have any issues getting up to speed. I feel like Lap 2 on track I was maximizing the car.”

But problems with the brakes on the No. 97 Chevrolet prevented him from making the field.

“I think (Obaika) was happy with what I did in practice, the way I held myself and whatnot,” Berryhill said. “Gave me another chance to come (to Phoenix) and do it.”

Unlike his first attempt to qualify for a Cup race – also at Phoenix in 2015 – only 40 cars are entered and Berryhill is guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup of Sunday’s race.

That race just happens to be the final elimination race of the playoffs as seven drivers will compete for the last three spot in the championship four.

“I understand the implications I could cause by messing somebody’s race up, and I’m going to do everything I can to not do that,” Berryhill said. “That’s not how I want to be remembered in this sport.”

Berryhill cites his career so far as evidence to those competing up front shouldn’t have to worry about him.

“I’ve raced 40 Xfinity races,” Berryhill said. “I’ve never been in a car capable of not going a lap down, to be honest. That said, I’ve dealt with leaders lapping me for 40 races. I have plenty experience of staying out-of-the-way, not causing trouble.”

Though Berryhill concedes he had a late-race encounter with Kyle Larson in the 2014 Xfinity race at Darlington, “which is in my opinion still ridiculous.”

Berryhill has consulted with drivers he’s close to on how he should navigate Phoenix should a tense situation arise, asking, “Where should I go to get out-of-the-way? Where is the best way?”

But Berryhill is “just focused on having a good race. Keeping a car clean and taking what I can get. If I’m faster than someone, I’ll go past them. It’s as simple as that. We’re racing.

“I’m not going to be dumb or foolish. We’re building this program from the ground up.

“You got to start somewhere.”

NASCAR America: Assessing Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus’ historic tenure

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After 17 years, seven Cup championships and 81 wins, the checkered flag will wave on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus this weekend.

Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway will mark the final time Johnson and Knaus will work together as driver and crew chief.

In 2019, Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering while Knaus will work with William Byron on the No. 24 team.

On NASCAR America, three-time Cup champion and Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham and Kyle Petty discussed the legacy of the Johnson-Knaus pairing and how it compares to what was accomplished by Richard Petty and crew chief Dale Inman and Jeff Gordon and Evernham.

“The most underrated record in this sport is five (championships) in a row,” Petty said, referring to the No. 48 team’s title run from 2006-10. “Nobody gives them enough credit, I just don’t think so. … The crew chief job that Ray did is a completely different job than what Chad does. The crew chief job that Chad does, Dale Inman wouldn’t even recognize it in 1967, ’68.”

Said Evernham: “Jimmie and Chad are right there with those guys. Without a doubt it’s Petty-Inman, Johnson-Knaus. What Jeff I did together was great, but we weren’t together that long. … To me it’s incredible to win that many championships, not just mechanically, but what it takes emotionally to do that. To hold those teams together and be that good for that many years is to me incredible. That’s longer than most marriages.”

Watch the above video for more.

 

NASCAR penalty report from Phoenix

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NASCAR has fined two crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts last weekend at ISM Raceway.

In the Cup Series, Luke Lambert was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut on Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet.

In the Xfinity Series, David Elenz was fined $5,000 for one unsecured lug nut on Tyler Reddick‘s No. 9 Chevrolet.

There were no other penalties announced.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Miami preview, Richard Petty and Dale Inman

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to set up the final race weekend of the year in Miami.

Marty Snider hosts with Kyle Petty and Ray Evernham from Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • We’ll discuss the final race together for Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, and their lasting impact on NASCAR. Another legendary driver/crew chief combo, Richard Petty and Dale Inman, give their take on the success of their fellow seven-time champions.

  • It’s the final NASCAR race for Elliott Sadler. The panel, including Sadler’s former boss Ray Evernham, share their fondest memories of the 24-year NASCAR veteran.

  • Plus, we’ll reveal the final three members of this season’s Pit Crew All-Stars.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

‘A lot of tears shed’ as Furniture Row Racing departs for last Cup race

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The final chapter in Furniture Row Racing’s history began overnight as the team’s hauler embarked on its journey from Denver, Colorado, to Miami for Sunday’s Cup season finale (3 p.m ET on NBC).

The race, where Martin Truex Jr. will compete in the Championship 4, will mark the 451st and final Cup race for the team that owner Barney Visser started in 2005. The team announced Sept. 4 that it would cease operations at the end of the year due to a lack of sponsorship.

Truex will try to deliver the team’s second consecutive Cup title.

The team’s farewell at the Denver shop was marked by a large gathering of team members.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was (Tuesday) night when we loaded up,” crew chief Cole Pearn said Wednesday in a teleconference. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend, and once it was in the truck and saw the lift gate up, there was a lot of tears shed and a lot of sad faces, and I think all of us really realized that that was the last time we were going to do it together as a group.  … A lot of relationships have been built from that shop, and it’s a weird feeling for sure.”

Pearn said the occasion was marked with team members sharing “a few beverages” while they “told old stories and kind of reminisced.”

Visser said Furniture Row Racing “remained a team” in the months since the announcement of its impending closure.

“I am proud of the way they handled this difficult and emotional situation,” Visser said in a media release. “I think everybody who has had an opportunity to work in our shop is probably better for it. I believe they’re better craftsmen and have known or have learned what it takes to be a winner. On the flip side, I do feel a responsibility for moving the guys out here and want to see them get placed. That is very important to me.”

Visser said it will be “hard to give up” a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.

“It’s so rare to get a group of people you like being with, and who accomplish things that other people can’t seem to do,” Visser said. “Pretty special to find that chemistry and the success that comes with it. It’s hard to give it up, but sometimes it’s taken away from you without having any recourse. I just couldn’t keep borrowing money over here to feed it over there. Just had to give it up.”

When it comes to how involved Visser will be in NASCAR going forward, the 69-year-old Vietnam veteran said he hopes to attend some races next season.

“I am a huge racing fan,” Visser said. “I love the cars, love the smell, love the sound and love the people. I will be coming as a guest and fan next year and hope to sit in the stands for a few races. Never did that. My wife and I are looking forward to taking weekend trips to races next year.”