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.”