Dale Earnhardt Jr. awoke early Monday and couldn’t fall back asleep. A gnawing thought consumed him.
One hour passed.
After three hours, Earnhardt finally yielded to sleep. When he awoke, his apprehension returned.
He was worried about close friend and JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry.
The day before, Berry filled in for Chase Elliott in the Las Vegas Cup race. Elliott was out after he fractured his left leg snowboarding two days earlier.
It was Berry’s first Cup race in two years and his first time in the Next Gen car. While the other Hendrick cars finished 1-2-3 that day, Berry placed 29th, hindered by a throttle issue.
As Earnhardt tried to sleep early Monday morning, the JR Motorsports team owner and NASCAR on NBC Sports analyst said he “worried about whether (Berry) would get another chance at Phoenix in (Elliott’s) car. That’s the friend in me wanting the best for him, wanting him to have another shot to redeem himself.”
Earnhardt said that the mechanical issue with Berry’s car meant Berry “didn’t get a chance to prove what he could do.”
Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday that Berry would drive the oval events until Elliott returns, beginning with Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Elliott’s recovery, according to the team, is expected to take about six weeks.
“I couldn’t have been more thrilled,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports about when car owner Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon told him that Berry would run more races in Elliott’s car.
Berry is a driver Earnhardt has bet on. They met racing online and became friends. When Berry moved to North Carolina, he lived with Earnhardt’s mother and her husband. Berry is as close to being family without sharing the same last name.
When Elliott won the Richmond Xfinity race for JRM in September 2015, Earnhardt spent nearly as much time in the post-race press conference talking about Berry, who finished seventh in his lone start of the season with the team.
That race was a “Hail Mary” for Earnhardt. He hoped that by putting his Late Model driver in the Xfinity race, Berry would do well enough to attract sponsorship to run more races.
“I’m ready to race Josh every week,” Earnhardt said that night. “We’ve just got to find a partner.”
It didn’t happen.
Berry ran three Xfinity races in 2016 and one in 2017, while continuing to run Late Models. He wasn’t back in the Xfinity Series until 2021. Earnhardt put Berry in the No. 8 car to run 12 of that season’s first 15 Xfinity races before Sam Mayer turned 18 years old and took over the ride.
Berry won at Martinsville in his sixth start of the season. Earnhardt admits he “cried like a baby” because of the long road Berry had traveled to that point.
“I felt like I had watched my own son or brother win a race,” Earnhardt said.
That victory started conversations with sponsors and led to Berry returning to JRM in 2022. He reached the championship race, finishing fourth that year and gained more sponsors to fund another year with JR Motorsports.
As for next year, Earnhardt has high hopes for Berry, who has drawn interest from Cup car owners.
That’s why Earnhardt was worried if Berry would get another chance in Elliott’s car after Las Vegas.
“Vegas didn’t go the way we hoped,” Earnhardt said. “With these people that are interested in Josh for next year, whoever’s looking at him, I badly, dearly wanted him to have another shot at Phoenix so he could somewhat improve on what he did. … I was just terrified that Josh wasn’t going to get that chance and would he ever.
“He was telling me, he said, ‘Man, I was riding around there those last 50 laps thinking these might be the last laps I run in a Cup car ever in my life.’”
Earnhardt said he could relate. He recalls being among one of 15 drivers who failed to make the 1997 fall Charlotte Busch Series race. He crashed in practice and his team didn’t have a backup car. Earnhardt said he worried about his future in the sport.
“I went home and I sat on the couch, and I thought my racing career was over,” he said. “I was never going to make it outside a Late Model stock car. I was convinced that it was over.
“Drivers, we go on these massive roller coasters. Obviously, the reality of the situation is different, but we take it way, way lower than it has to go. We take the highs way, way higher than they have to go or should go.
“That’s where I was (early Monday). I was sitting there going, ‘God I hope he gets a chance.’ I don’t know what Hendrick is thinking. I don’t know what they might be looking at. I know that people are wondering why he didn’t run better at Vegas.”
With the chance for Berry to run more races for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt knows that Berry can provide an inspiration for other Late Model drivers, including those in the CARS Tour that Earnhardt acquired along with Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks earlier this year.
“(Drivers in the CARS Tour) can at least sit there and think, man, if I can go out here and I win this race, with all the people that are watching on Flo (Racing) and all the people that are now tuned into a series like this because of the investment we’ve made … the right person might notice.
“While that path that Josh went on is unlikely for a lot of people, there’s still that chance. There is at least a glimmer of hope that if they do enough, the right person is going to mention their name and their name starts cycling into the conversation.
“If a Mark Martin or Harvick or anybody was to positively comment on any of these drivers at the grassroots levels on social media, that introduces that driver to everybody that sees that comment. They’re now in the pipeline of the discussion of who should we be paying attention to, who’s a good guy that deserves a chance.”
For now, the focus is on Berry and what he’ll be able to do in Elliott’s car. Earnhardt can’t wait to see what’s next for Berry.
“My hope is that by the end of this year he’s got a deal for next year at the Cup level with someone,” Earnhardt said. “That would be the best-case scenario.
“JR Motorsports, even if we were going Cup racing, I would be hesitant to make Josh have to deal with that growth and building that program. He’s 32 years old. He’s Cup ready.”
2. Fill-in experience
David Ragan understands better than most what Josh Berry is likely to experience in his fill-in role for Chase Elliott.
Ragan had the same role in 2015 when Kyle Busch was injured. Busch suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg and fracture of his left foot in a crash in the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona.
The injuries sidelined Busch for 11 Cup races. Ragan drove Busch’s No. 18 car for nine of those events, scoring a fifth-place finish at Martinsville for Joe Gibbs Racing.
When Busch returned, he won five races on the way to the first of his two Cup championships.
Ragan, who does wheel-force testing, simulator development and driver coaching for Ford these days, understands the challenges for any fill-in driver to excel with an elite team.
“What I would encourage Josh to do,” Ragan told NBC Sports, “is to take this opportunity to learn and to enjoy it, but also remember that you’re just keeping that team rocking and rolling. You are keeping them moving forward so when Chase comes back, he will be 100 percent and the team still will be 100 percent.”
Ragan points to his fifth-place finish at Martinsville as a key example from that 2015 season. When the series returned to Martinsville in the playoffs, Busch finished fifth, better than he had placed in his previous three races at the short track.
“I remember Kyle texted me after that race, ‘Thank you for all the things you did in the spring because it helped us today,’” Ragan said. “That kind of made me proud … I felt like the effort that I put in six months earlier, it allowed them to not miss a beat and they ended up running well in the fall at that same track.”
Ragan admits it took a little time for him to feel comfortable in how he fit in with the team until a conversation with crew chief Adam Stevens.
“I was a little hesitant the first several weeks to really criticize the car or to say certain things because you just didn’t know how they would take it, and I didn’t really know my role just yet,” Ragan said. “After the first couple of weeks, Adam was like, ‘Look, you’re the driver. You tell us if the thing is not driving good. You feel free to talk to me about the pit crew. Feel free to talk to me about what setup direction we’re going to unload at a racetrack.’”
Communication between a driver and crew chief can be critical to a team’s success. How long it takes for a driver and crew chief to work together varies. That adds a challenge for a fill-in driver.
“I think the crew chief is certainly going to put in some extra effort into that communication,” Ragan said. “It took me a few weeks to relax and take a deep breath. The newness was pretty intense those first couple of weeks.
“You’re stepping into one of the most well-known cars in the circuit and replacing one of the most well-known drivers. It’s a fast car.
“You do have a lot that could make you nervous, but, at the end of the day, you take a deep breath and remind yourself as a driver, they chose me for a reason, I need to go do my job and be who I am.”
3. SHR’s start of the season
Kevin Harvick heads into Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway third in the season standings. No other Stewart-Haas Racing driver is in the top 20 in points after three races.
Chevrolets have been strong, winning the first three races: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Daytona 500), Kyle Busch (Auto Club) and William Byron (Las Vegas). Fords have struggled. Stewart-Haas Racing, other than Harvick, has not had strong results.
Aric Almirola is 21st in the points, Ryan Preece is 31st and Chase Briscoe is 32nd. Almirola and Preece have each failed to finish two races because of accidents. Briscoe has failed to finish one race because of an accident. Almirola’s best finish this season is 16th, Briscoe’s best result is 20th and Preece’s best finish is 23rd.
Asked about what’s happened among the Fords, Harvick said:
“I think everything is kind of a crapshoot right now for us because our cars are a little bit different than what it was before. We raced in the top five at California and Daytona most of the day, so Vegas wasn’t spectacular and we raced seventh to 10th all day.
“I think we have some things that we need to work on on the 4 car and try to get our balance right and do some things differently than what we did last year based upon the balance of the race cars and the things that we’ve done, but sometimes you just have to survive the West Coast swing and get home and start working on your cars.
“You’ve got what you’ve got is basically what I’m telling you until you get back to Atlanta and start working on things. Atlanta is kind of a unique racetrack, but we definitely have a few things to work on, but, really, in the end, it looks pretty similar to what the Chevrolets had last year when we started the season.”
4. A long time ago …
Kevin Harvick has scored 19 consecutive top-10 finishes — including six wins — at Phoenix. The last time Harvick did not finish in the top 10 there was March 3, 2013, when he placed 13th in what was the season’s second race.
That race was won by Carl Edwards. Thirty-three of the 43 drivers in that field no longer compete full-time in Cup.
In that race, Harvick raced against the fathers of three sons he now races against in Cup: Jeff Burton (son Harrison), Dave Blaney (son Ryan) and David Gilliland (son Todd).
Among those that Harvick will race Sunday, Cup rookie Ty Gibbs was 10 years old at the time of that March 2013 Cup race. William Byron, who won last weekend’s Cup race at Las Vegas, was 15 years old and just at the start of his driving career.
5. Friendly advice
After starting on the pole, Chandler Smith led 118 of 200 laps in last weekend’s Xfinity race at Las Vegas but was passed for the lead by Austin Hill with two laps to go.
Smith went on to finish a career-high third in just his sixth series start. Hill won his second race of the year.
To have had the dominant car and lead 53 laps in a row before losing the lead so close to the end can be devastating.
Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice used lessons he learned two years ago in how he approached Smith after the race.
Rice pointed to the September 2020 Xfinity race at Darlington that Ross Chastain, driving for Kaulig at the time, finished second. Chastain lost the lead to Denny Hamlin with less than two laps to go, but Hamlin hit the wall and Chastain ran into the back of him, allowing Brandon Jones to win.
“(Chastain) had a heck of a race,” Rice told NBC Sports, recalling that Darlington race. “It was devastating for him because he had tried all year to win and finished second quite a few times. He kind of taught me how to deal with that situation.
“(At Las Vegas) I basically told Chandler, ‘You’ve got to lose them before you win them. Don’t be negative, be positive. … At the end of the day it’s only three races in. You’ve been a competitor and competing for the win each time. That’s the positive.’
“We’ve got to remember he’s 20 years old and he’s run six Xfinity races.”