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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”