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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.”

Brad Keselowski puts on driving clinic with convincing win at Martinsville

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Brad Keselowski put on a driving clinic Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, leading 446 of 500 laps to win the STP 500. It was Keselowski’s second win of the season (also won at Atlanta), and his fourth top-3 finish in the last five races.

It was also Keselowski’s 29th career Cup win and his second Cup Series triumph in 19 career starts at Martinsville. Starting with his first win there in April 2017 and including Sunday’s win, Keselowski has now led 712 total laps over the last five races at the southern Virginia short track. 

“The car was really good,” Keselowski told Fox Sports 1. “Just a great day for our team. Awesome execution on pit road. … Just one of those days you dream of as a race car driver, where you have a great car.

“(Runner-up) Chase Elliott was real strong. He passed me with about 200 laps to go. I watched him and studied and knew what I had to do to hold him off and really pulled it off.”

Elliott tried to mount a last lap surge — two of the previous three races at Martinsville have been won on last lap passes — but ran out of time and fell short.

“Our Camaro was good and felt we were about as even with him as we could be,” Elliott said. “I tried to move up there at the end, but I don’t know if I could have got to him, maybe if I had moved up a little sooner. Maybe next time.”

Kyle Busch, making the 1,000th overall start of his NASCAR career, finished third, snapping a two-race winning streak (Phoenix and Fontana). Busch and Keselowski are now the only two drivers to win more than one race thus far this season.

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin. Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez.

There were only three leaders in the race: Keselowski, Chase Elliott (49 laps) and Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate and pole sitter Joey Logano (6 laps).

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brad Keselowski (first stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 31 (Fox); green flag shortly after 3 p.m. ET.

We’ll be back with more information, including quotes, full results and updated standings. Please check back soon.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Kyle Busch has idea for NASCAR’s Xfinity, Truck limits

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch would entertain the opportunity to pursue the one NASCAR championship that has eluded him – in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series – when his Cup career is over.

But he’s got an idea that would allow him to run both series concurrently and address the limits on Cup drivers running in lower series.

“Why don’t you let us run as many races as we want to run and then once we miss one, we’re done?” Busch pondered after his victory Saturday in the TruNorth Global 250 truck race at Martinsville Speedway. “So if I go all the way to (the June 15 race at Iowa Speedway) in the trucks and run 10 races and can’t go to Iowa, I’m done.

“You can race for points or whatever and so if that ever came down to that, then maybe there’d be an opportunity years down the road that then you can run multiple series and try to go after a championship that way.”

What was NASCAR’s reaction to the plan?

“That’s probably the first time I’ve said that or thought about it,” Busch said with a laugh. “Now that it’s out there … there’s not a damn fan that’s ever going to let it happen.”

Indeed, Busch’s 201st career victory in a NASCAR national series drew the usual outrage on social media Saturday, both from his Rowdy Nation legion of fans and those who vehemently believe he should be limited beyond the NASCAR cap of five truck races and seven Xfinity races allowed for full-time Cup drivers.

Busch has won in seven of 11 starts in trucks, Xfinity and Cup this season.

“Could have been nine or 10 (victories) probably, that’s what the scary part is if it wasn’t for simple mistakes,” Busch said. “Overall, it’s been fun. It’s a damn shame I’m only allowed five and seven.”

Busch has two 2019 starts left in trucks: at Texas Motor Speedway next week and Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

He said the chances are solid for going 5 for 5.

“I’d like to think Texas is a good place,” he said. “I think our guys have a good baseline. Charlotte is always one of my best tracks, favorite tracks and enjoy running there with the trucks, especially. There’s a good opportunity.

“It’s kind of an expectation (to win every race). We just go out, work hard and smart, and today we let the race play itself out and come to us.”

Busch won the 2009 Xfinity championship in the last season in which he ran full time in NASCAR’s top two series. He has focused solely on Cup full time since then, and NASCAR has changed rules over the past eight years limiting the ability to run for more than one title.

Despite 148 starts (and 54 victories), he is yet to run a full truck season, but the 2015 Cup champion has said he’d like to become the first driver to win a championship in each of NASCAR’s top three series.

Three Cup cars fail prerace inspection at Martinsville Speedway

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The cars of William Byron, DJ Kennington and Jeb Burton failed inspection Sunday morning at Martinsville Speedway.

Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed mechanical measurements. His sixth-place qualifying time will be disallowed, and he will have to start from the rear.

Kennington failed the OSS. He qualified 34th.

Burton had qualified 33rd.

The three cars will officially start behind those that passed inspection. Cars that qualified behind them will move up one spot.

The No. 24 suffered a right-front tire problem in the opening minutes of first practice Saturday morning, and the team made repairs to put the car back on track.

Today’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway: Start time, lineup, more

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MARTINSVILLE — High downforce could bring hot tempers to Martinsville Speedway, where today’s STP 500 will mark the first short track of the 2019 Cup schedule.

In the last visit to the 0.526-mile oval, Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. aside entering the last two corners in one of the most thrilling finishes of the 2018 season.

Here’s the pertinent information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Robert DeRidder, the senior vice president and general manager of Energizer Holdings Inc. (owners of STP), will give the command to start engines at 2:01 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 2:07 p.m.

PRERACE: The crew chief and drivers meeting is at noon. Driver introductions will begin at 1:20 p.m. The invocation will be given by track chaplain Mike Hatfield at 1:54 p.m. The 380th Army Band will perform the national anthem at 1:55 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (263 miles) around the 0.526-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 130. Stage 2 ends on Lap 260.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. MRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast, which is also available at MRN.com.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 63 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: In a race delayed to Monday by a snowstorm, Clint Bowyer scored his first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing. Kyle Busch finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third. Joey Logano won at Martinsville last fall. Denny Hamlin placed second. Martin Truex Jr. was third. 

TO THE REAR: William Byron (mechanical measurements), DJ Kennington (OSS) and Jeb Burton will start from the rear after failing inspection Sunday morning.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.