Martinsville takeaways: ‘Berry’ sweet win was a long time coming

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When JR Motorsports late model driver Josh Berry was signed to a part-time Xfinity program for the organization this season, he knew he was ready for the opportunity.

But even after coming off a 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series championship – the culmination of over a decade driving for JRM – Berry was worried.

During that decade, Berry had tried to establish himself in the Xfinity Series but only had a handful of starts from 2014-17 to show for it.

This new chance could end up being his last.

“To be honest, I was scared I wouldn’t win,” he said Sunday. “I was. We won almost 30 races (last season), winning anywhere and everywhere in a late model. And then you come into this.

“I’m 30 years old. I should be ready to win. The only chance I’ve got is if I win. I was worried about that and wanted to win bad and prove myself.”

On Sunday, that’s what he did. Berry led a race-high 95 laps, including the final 29, in claiming his first career Xfinity win in his 13th series start.

“This is a big day for a lot of people,” he said. “There’s been a lot of good people that have helped me along the way, too many to name, so I know that they’re all really excited about this.”

One of those people was JRM co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who watched the race from home. Unable to bear the tension in the closing laps, he walked outside with his wife, Amy.

“My heart was beating so fast,” Earnhardt recalled. “I’d never felt that way about a race, even when my dad raced and certainly when I raced. I’d never been so nervous about a finish.”

Earnhardt could only look at the TV again as Berry got the white flag. Once he got the checkered, tears were shed. Not just for the accomplishment, but what it took to get there.

“I think I’m not saying anything Josh doesn’t know – we just weren’t sure whether we’d ever get the chance to give Josh enough opportunities,” he said. “We gave him a few here and there, and getting a ‘shock the world’ kind of win and those one opportunities that come along every once in a while are tough to do.

“But we had a little string here of over a dozen races for him to run, and I thought ‘Well, maybe we can have something special happen during this span.’ I wasn’t sure exactly what special was gonna be, whether that’d be a win or not. But he just drove an amazing race. (Crew chief) Taylor (Moyer) and the guys did a great job giving him track position and a great car. It just happened.”

The respect for Berry was also evident in those he beat on Sunday.

JRM teammate Noah Gragson, who bonded with Berry following last month’s race at Las Vegas over games of blackjack, said that if he had to finish second to anyone, he’s glad it was him.

“I’m really thankful to get to know him,” Gragson said. “We’ve worked really hard together off the track, working out with (coaches) Josh Wise and Scott Speed, and preparing each and every weekend. I’m just very thankful, one for the opportunity to be on the same track as him, and for the way our friendship’s grown.”

Third-place finisher Daniel Hemric, who drove part-time in Berry’s No. 8 car last season, also recognized what Berry’s win means for the short-track community that they both call home.

“It lets you know that it can be done,” said Hemric, now with Joe Gibbs Racing. “If you put the effort in, put the work in, put the time in and continue to show up, hard work is rewarded. Him having that ride for these number of races this year, that opportunity he’s worked his tail off for his entire life. It was really cool to see.”

Martin Truex Jr., short track king

Read that headline again. Not long ago, such a headline would be preposterous.

Even after he overcame years of mid-pack mediocrity to become a NASCAR Cup Series champion and one of the sport’s elite drivers, Martin Truex Jr. could never solve the bullrings.

Then came the breakthrough: April 13, 2019 at Richmond Raceway. Truex led a race-high 186 laps and then held off a charging Joey Logano to finally claim his first short track win after going 0-for-80 to start his Cup career.

Since then, he’s gone five-for-11 on the short tracks. That run includes three wins in the last four races at Martinsville Speedway, where he out-dueled Denny Hamlin in the closing laps on Sunday.

MORE: Winners and losers from Sunday’s Martinsville races

MORE: Another top five for Hamlin, but will no wins hurt him later?

It’s not like Truex had never been great on short tracks before recently.

During his run to the 2004 Xfinity Series title, he claimed victories at the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway and the 3/4-mile Memphis International Raceway.

When he repeated as Xfinity champion in 2005, his sixth and final win that year came at the .686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis.

During those years, he also won at several, “short track adjacent” miles: Concrete, high-banked Dover International Raceway, flat New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and the long gone Nazareth Speedway.

“There was a time in my career when I go back to the (Xfinity) Series days, all the races I won there were short tracks,” Truex recalled Sunday. “We never won any mile-and-a-halves – “Damn, I need to get better at mile-and-a-halves.’ You work on that. In the Cup Series, every track is tough. Everybody is working constantly at being better every type of track.

“For whatever reason for me, the short tracks never really panned out (in Cup). Even though we had a lot of great runs over the years, for instance, I think we led the most laps at Richmond three or four races in a row before we finally won there. Sometimes, you need things to go your way.”

Things went Truex’s way Sunday, a day where Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin (race-high 276 laps led) and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney (157 laps led) were the strongest drivers.

Truex couldn’t match either of them for much of the race until his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota came alive as the afternoon progressed into the evening.

During the race’s final pit stops, the No. 19 crew got Truex out first while Blaney committed a costly mistake. Hamlin regained the lead off the restart with 42 laps to go, but as his No. 11 JGR Toyota tightened up on the long run, Truex caught and eventually dispatched him with 16 laps to go.

With his third grandfather clock now in possession, Truex has turned Martinsville from a symbol of his short track woes in Cup – prior to 2017, his best finish there were a pair of fifths – into a place where he’s the driver to beat.

And when it comes to short tracks in general, he’s turned the preposterous into reality.

“I’ve just been lucky to be with really good people, have really good cars, have that communication, that belief in one another that you can make the thing do the things you want it to do,” Truex said. “They know you’re driving it right, you know they know how to set it up. You work together.

“That’s where we’ve been the past, really, six, seven years (at Martinsville). It’s a place where it doesn’t change all that much other than depending on the tires that Goodyear brings. You can really just continue to work on similar things and refine those. That’s what we’ve been able to do here.

“It’s been awesome. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

Post-mortem

Martin Truex Jr. became the first repeat winner of 2021, but it could’ve been Ryan Blaney.

The Team Penske pilot swept both stages Sunday and was poised to duke it out for the win with Hamlin. But on his final stop under caution with 47 laps to go, he ran over his air hose and took the pit gun with him as he exited his pit stall.

The subsequent penalty sent him to the rear for the restart. Blaney finished 11th.

Martinsville takeaways
A late-race penalty for removing pit equipment outside his box ruined Ryan Blaney’s hopes for a win Sunday at Martinsville. (Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images)

On Monday, Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, explained what went wrong during the stop on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

“There’s about three or four different things that happened that kind of caused it,” Gordon said. “It’s not one piece. It’s not one person. It’s just an unfortunate situation.

“We slid long in the box, near the front of it. The hose got underneath the front of the nose by being long, and the hose puller behind the wall tried to loop it back out. When he did, it pulled the corner out by the changer under the splitter. When (the changer) got up from changing the right front (tire), the hose was hooked there on the right side of the splitter.”

The gaffe continued a string of recent setbacks for Blaney at Martinsville.

Last June, Blaney was leading when a caution came out on Lap 327. During subsequent pit stops, a member of the No. 12 crew went over the wall too soon and Blaney was sent to the rear. He climbed all the way back to second with less than 50 laps to go, but went no further.

Last November in the playoff race, Blaney recovered from a pit road speeding penalty in Stage 1 to contend. He was running second at the race’s final caution with 59 laps to go, but lost two spots in the pits and took the final restart in fifth (one car stayed out to inherit the lead). Again, Blaney worked back up to second, but came up short.

On Sunday, Blaney’s hopes were dashed again in the pits.

“I was just kind of trying to hold off the guys behind me until we got 20 or so laps in and then I could kind of start creeping forward,” Blaney said after the race. “But, we just got that pit road penalty at the end. It’s just a mistake and something that should be avoided.

“We’ve had an issue the last three times we’ve been here with a car to win, so that’s frustrating but I’m real proud of the effort. I just wish we could close one out.”

That clean feeling

Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott is still missing his first win of the season. But after finishing second Sunday, he was just glad to have had a clean run.

Elliott’s first seven races included a win slipping away at the Daytona road course, sub-par runs at Miami and Las Vegas, and an engine failure at his home track of Atlanta.

Martinsville Cup race
Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott’s second-place finish at Martinsville was just what he needed after a rocky start to the season. (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

But Sunday saw him avoid trouble in route to a season-high 49 points. That includes 14 stage points (finished fourth in both stages), the most he’s had since the 15 he scored at the Daytona road course before finishing 21st.

“Every week, I feel like it’s been one thing or another, a bad run or just whatever,” Elliott said. “Just nice to have just a smooth day, no damage. We didn’t break anything. Everything was just smooth. It was uneventful. That’s the days you have to have to compete for wins ultimately. Some of that is in your hands, some of it’s not.

“Truly nice to have an uneventful day, so to speak, just get a solid finish. Got some solid stage points. It was definitely a step in the right direction for us.”

During the final run to the checkered flag, Elliott closed on Truex and Hamlin as they started to battle for the lead with around 25 laps to go.

Once Truex took the lead, he pulled enough of a gap to where the result wasn’t in doubt, even after Elliott worked past Hamlin for second with five laps to go.

“Rear grip for me was kind of the story of my day,” Elliott said. “That was also the problem there at the end. Just didn’t have the drive I needed to get up off the corner like I wanted and to be able to really get the power down early.”

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.