Josh Berry’s first career NASCAR national series victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in the Xfinity Series’ Cook Out 250 was a popular one both in the stands and in the garage at the .526-mile short track.
A longtime short-track phenom in late models, the 30-year-old Berry had the second- and third-place finishers in Sunday’s 250-lapper singing his praises in their post-race Zoom interviews — a rarity in a sport with one winner and 30-some-odd losers.
“I really look up to him. He’s kind of like a big brother,” said teammate Noah Gragson, who placed second and earned Sunday’s $100,000 Dash 4 Cash prize. “He’s a short-track legend, and it’s really humbling just to say that I was able to race on the same track as him. That being said, if there’s one guy I want to run second to, it’s him. He’s the short-track king. One of the best ever.”
The 22-year-old Las Vegas native and Berry have only been Xfinity Series teammates for the past two months but became fast friends. After last month’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — where they each finished in the top seven — the pair hung around Sin City, spending time together with brief stints at the Blackjack table (they’re both awful gamblers, according to Gragson) before honing their craft at the nearby Ron Fellows Performance Driving School in Pahrump, Nevada.
“Really thankful to get to know him; we’ve worked really hard together off the track, working out with Josh Wise and Scott Speed and preparing each and every weekend,” Gragson said. “Just very thankful for the opportunity to be on the same track as him and the way our friendship has grown. Really happy for him.”
Third-place finisher Daniel Hemric — whose friendship with Gragson is also growing; more on that in a moment — knows the path Berry has taken to prominence, as a driver who himself cut his teeth at the short-track, late-model level scrapping for opportunities.
Seeing Berry take the No. 8 car (which Hemric piloted a year ago) to Victory Lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Jr. did it in 2006 didn’t appear to instill any hostility in Hemric, despite Berry needing just a handful of starts to accomplish something he has yet to do in 94 races.
“Extremely happy for Josh and his family. It’s an honor to be on the race track with a guy like that and I know a lot of people would say the same thing,” said Hemric, now runner-up in points in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. ” … Have a ton of respect for him and his way he goes about his own duties at the race track. It’s cool to see a guy like that put the effort in and he has and having himself be rewarded. Just having the ride is one thing but then taking the opportunity to do what he did with it today is pretty cool.”
As for Gragson and Hemric, the former teammates talked things over and came to an understanding before this weekend after they came to blows on pit road after the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month. As the laps wound down at “The Paperclip” and the Nos. 9 and 18 ran neck and neck, the question arose around what might happen if contact was made.
The race finished clean, however, and the pair expounded on the current state of their relationship in their interviews, with Hemric explaining he “didn’t have a thought of racing (Gragson) hard or any less hard,” in the interest of putting things aside for the long season ahead for the championship contenders.
Gragson went further and explained the rationale behind how sparks flew in the first place.
“We’re all very emotional in the race car and we kind of step over the line sometimes. … There’s no hard feelings toward any of these competitors. I have a lot of respect for Daniel Hemric and we were teammates last year. It’s not like we hate each other,” Gragson said. “It’s just tempers are high, emotions are high, pressure’s on. Reactions are going to be made in situations like that.
“I think talking to him and telling him my side of the story and what’s going through my head, I definitely don’t think that hurts. At the end of the day, I still have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a person.”