‘Life-changing’: Josh Berry returns to Martinsville a year after first win

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Every racer dreams of their moment. Some drivers get them, but most don’t.

Josh Berry thought his moment came and went in 2015, when a seventh-place run in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway didn’t return any significant sponsorship opportunities.

But six years later, Berry earned his moment – an Xfinity Series victory at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021, driving a part-time schedule in the No. 8 Chevrolet. The 31-year-old JR Motorsports driver returns for the one-year anniversary of that win Friday night, but 12 months later, he’s still trying to process how that victory changed his life.

DEEP ROOTS AT JRM

Josh Berry charged through the racing ranks in his home state of Tennessee. By the time he was 19 years old, the Hendersonville native was already a six-time champion through various Legends divisions, including a track championship at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in 2009.

Simultaneously, Berry was working as a bank teller in his hometown, trying to make enough money to keep racing feasible. He also developed a strong friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. through their iRacing connections.

By 2010, Earnhardt hired Berry to drive his late model stock car for JR Motorsports, meaning Berry would have to move to North Carolina.

Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JRM, helped make sure the then-20-year-old Berry would be right at home, as Berry moved in with her mother, Brenda Jackson, and stepfather William Jackson.

“If you know me well, I have a very nurturing personality,” Earnhardt Miller told NBC Sports. “I mean my relationship with Dale is that way in terms of  us growing up and kind of being that mother hen. I am the mother hen, I tell the guys here at the shop. And I just want to see people be happy. I want to see them do well.”

Berry, an only child, had lost his mother and had been racing with his father before moving east to drive for JRM. By the time he moved into the Gee household, he suddenly found himself a part of the Earnhardt family with a motorsports career in sight.

“The opportunity that I got to move out here and to work and race a late model car and get to basically race for a living is something that I just never dreamed would be possible for me,” Berry told NBC Sports.

THE ‘HAIL MARY’ OPPORTUNITY

By 2015, Berry was no longer the newcomer on the late model tour.

Driving JRM’s No. 88 Chevrolet, Berry stormed to track championships at Motor Mile Speedway in 2012 and Hickory Motor Speedway in 2014 and was racking up wins on a regular basis, collecting nearly 50 career victories by September 2015.

Berry made two Xfinity starts for JRM in 2014, his debut coming at Iowa before participating in the season finale at Homestead, finishing 12th and 25th respectively.

Then came his moment. In a last-minute, “Hail Mary” deal as Earnhardt phrased it, Berry was entered in the No. 88 SpeedCo Chevrolet for the Xfinity race at Richmond in September 2015, the late model driver hired because sponsorship hadn’t been sold otherwise.

Berry qualified fifth and was in contention to win late in the race. Running fourth under caution with less than 30 laps to go, Berry was blocked in his pit stall by Bubba Wallace, forcing him to back up and costing him painful seconds on pit road. Berry fell to ninth and rebounded to finish seventh.

“I think about that night often because it was a great field of cars and I mean stacked with Cup drivers – Kyle Busch, (Joey) Logano,” Berry recalled.

Included in that rundown were several active or eventual Cup drivers, including Wallace, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain.

Elliott, Berry’s teammate, won the race, providing Earnhardt a chance to make his case for Berry.

“I’m ready to race Josh every week,’’ Earnhardt said at the time. “We’ve just got to find a partner.’’

But the partner never came.

“If anybody thinks about me now, I wonder if they remember that race,” Berry said, “because that race, I was a nobody and ran in the top five, ran in the top three and really, like if a certain chain of events happen, I can win it.”

Berry made two more starts for JRM in 2016 and placed ninth at Iowa and 13th at Kentucky. But the upward progression stalled. 

“Honestly I felt like that was it for me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Man, (after) this whole chain of events, I’ll never get back in the Xfinity car. …

“That was my moment. But again, it didn’t come.”

CARVING HIS NICHE

With a lack of sponsorship to race in NASCAR, Berry took his frustration and “turned to just trying to race the hell out of the late model as much as I could.”

As part of JRM’s late model program, Berry was an integral part of working on the cars with crew chief and team manager Bryan Shaffer. And while knocking out win after win, Berry also mentored JRM’s new late model drivers along the way – guys like William Byron, Anthony Alfredo, Sam Mayer and Christian Eckes.

The success kept rolling in, and Berry became more than content in his role, looking past the frustration of his NASCAR endeavors – or the lack thereof.

“I just thought it just wasn’t meant to be,” Berry said. “I thought that my career would lead me to be a career short-track racer and a very good one. And I am and I was, and the things that I accomplished on my resume prove that we’ve had an amazing run in that. And I was at peace with that.

“I know how difficult it is to race at that level, and I know the competition and what it takes to do it. That’s just basically what I thought I was meant to do.”

MARTINSVILLE MEMORIES

Berry has been racing at Martinsville Speedway since 2011. In late model stock racing, there is no greater victory than the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.

“Martinsville is the race,” Berry said. “People’s careers, right or wrong, are judged on whether you’ve won Martinsville or not in that arena. It’s no different than somebody judging a Cup driver because they haven’t won the championship, or they haven’t won the Daytona 500. I mean, that’s what it is.

“You can win every late model stock in the world. But if you haven’t won Martinsville, then everyone’s always gonna say you haven’t won Martinsville.”

Heading into the 2019 edition of the race, Berry was 0-for-8. He didn’t qualify for the 2013 event and crashed out at least three times. His best finish was 13th twice. In 2018, Berry led 93 of 200 laps but got spun late in the event and finished 19th.

“I remember leaving that night thinking like, that’s never gonna happen again,” Berry recalled. “Like, I just remember thinking, I don’t care what I got to do, I’m gonna win this race.”

He did. One year later, Berry dominated the 2019 event, winning the pole and leading all 200 laps en route to the pinnacle win of his late model career.

“It was a huge moment for me personally,” Berry said. “I think I left that night … I was content being the short-track racer and all that, and I think that was just a huge moment of me accomplishing something that was just really important to me.”

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

As Sam Mayer made his transition from late models into NASCAR’s national series, JRM signed the young Wisconsin prospect to an Xfinity Series deal that would see him in the company’s No. 8 Chevrolet starting in June 2021.

There was one problem – at age 17, Mayer was too young to run the full schedule. That left 15 races for JRM to fill before Mayer could take over at Pocono after he turned 18.

“We just started really thinking through, OK, what does the first half of this season look like?” Earnhardt Miller said. “Honestly, we talked to Jeb Burton about doing that. There were several other drivers that we talked to.”

But every driver wants to compete for the full season and a championship. That wasn’t an option.

Then came the idea to put Berry behind the wheel for 12 races, while Miguel Paludo would pilot the car in the three road course races during that stretch.

“It was a conversation that, as we were thinking through what we could do, both Dale and I were like, ‘OK, is this a good place? Is this a good fit for Josh Berry?’” she said. “And we really took a leap of faith from a funding standpoint to say, ‘OK, well, let’s do this, and let’s give him the opportunity to do it.’”

CASHING IN

The first five races of 2021 hadn’t gone particularly well for Berry, producing two top 10s and three DNFs for wrecks.

But the next race on the schedule was Martinsville, the race he and everybody had circled on his calendar. For the first time in his NASCAR career, he was going back to a track he was familiar with and had significant past success to rely on.

“At the same time, I was a little nervous for all those same reasons,” Berry said. “I’m like, this is my opportunity, right? If Josh Berry is ever gonna have his moment, is ever going to do anything with this opportunity, this is the place. And everyone knew it. My team knew it. Dale knew it. Kelley knew it. Everyone knew it. They had their eyes on me that weekend.”

With no qualifying, Berry lined up 29th for that race on April 9, and by using pit strategy, jumped up the leaderboard to start Stage 2. By Lap 78, Berry was out front and leading the first laps of his Xfinity career. Berry led 10 circuits before Brandon Jones worked past him again, and the caution soon fell for rain. That red-flagged the event until Sunday afternoon.

“I remember thinking like, ‘I just led my first laps. Like, I can do this. I can win this race. This can really happen,” Berry said. “I just went home and watched the race back and thought about it and studied it and just came back Sunday and was just ready.”

On Sunday, Berry’s homework spoke for itself. With just over 100 laps remaining, Berry reclaimed the top spot and put his studies on display. Ty Gibbs worked past Berry at Lap 194 and was out front for a 28-lap stretch, but Berry muscled back around him with 29 laps to go.

He counted down every lap, praying the caution flag wouldn’t fly. It didn’t. Berry became a winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“Everything I had been talking about, like that moment – that moment happened,” Berry said. 

MAKING IT LAST

Winning makes most things better. But occasionally, those wins become fleeting moments.

So why did Berry’s win prove to have some lasting power? How did he go from the driver who had Dale Earnhardt Jr. begging for sponsors to someone with enough backing to race full-time in the Xfinity Series? The first answer stems from the “perfect storm” of Berry winning on a Sunday ahead of the Cup race, Earnhardt Miller said.

“They (Cup teams and drivers) had to be there,” she said. “That was still in the midst of COVID whenever we were supposed to be there on different days, but we ended up not being (that way) for weather. … I mean winning the race was huge, but the buzz of the Kyle Busches and different people that were talking about Josh and congratulating him and all these different things, the buzz that that created really was helpful.”

The second answer is how Berry continued to back up his performances on the track. Two weeks after winning, Berry finished second at Darlington and again the following week at Dover. 

“The eyeballs were there once he got in the car and he did well,” Earnhardt Miller said. “And I think that we didn’t have a doubt that really that would be the way that it went. But it’s hard to get in these race cars and contend, and I really attribute that to his late model career, the fact that he knows race cars in and out.”

By August, Berry was announced as the next full-time driver for JRM. In the aftermath of his win, Tire Pros extended its sponsorship with JRM and Harrison’s, a workwear clothing outlet with locations in North Carolina and South Carolina, signed on to support Berry in 2022. Harrison’s had previously sponsored super late model driver Bubba Pollard and wanted to rally around a NASCAR driver with similar roots, Earnhardt Miller said.

She also believes Berry’s success was easy for long-time fans to root for.

“It gave people what they’ve been wanting to see in terms of somebody truly making it on what they felt like was merit, and not just merit, but the way that the old racers made it, right?” Earnhardt Miller said, noting her father and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. didn’t make his first Cup start until he was 28 years old.

“I think that really was probably the thing that propelled Josh up there, really, because people really wanted to wrap their arms around that. And I don’t mean that other people haven’t made it on merit. But that was somebody that they followed, and they knew this 10-year history and then all of a sudden got this opportunity, which people were ecstatic about. And then to put it in victory lane just kind of solidified that whole process.”

BACK TO THE PAPERCLIP

Heading into Martinsville this weekend, Berry sits fifth in Xfinity points with three top fives and four top 10s through seven races. 

It’s been a strong start for the No. 8 team, but Berry is still trying to wrap his head around where his career has taken him.

“Really amazing when I sit and think about it, just how much changed,” Berry said. “And obviously the win, I’ve described it as life-changing, I think that’s the best way to put it. That led to the opportunity to have this year full-time at JRM, but just along the way, not only that, but so many other opportunities come down.

“I was able to make a couple of Cup starts at Spire Motorsports, Truck races, more Xfinity races. It’s just been amazing just how much that really changed. 

“I mean, it was just such a huge day.”

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.