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April 2, 2024

Bolstered by Richmond run, Josh Berry makes early strides in rookie campaign: ‘The potential’s there’

Josh Berry will make just his 20th NASCAR Cup Series start this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The measured progress he’s made in the early portions of his first full year at this level comes with a bit of a perspective — one he admits to and references — that Kevin Harvick, the Hall of Fame-caliber driver he succeeded at Stewart-Haas Racing, retired with 826 starts.

Sunday at Richmond Raceway, the track where Harvick scored the last of his 60 Cup wins, Berry played to his short-track strengths and turned in one of the best performances of his rookie Cup Series campaign. His 11th-place finish in SHR’s No. 4 Ford was marked by early charges into the top five, and only a miscue on a late-race stop kept his result from being better.

RELATED: Weekend schedule: Martinsville | Cup standings

It’s all been part of the adjustment period to a new role, fostering chemistry with veteran crew chief Rodney Childers and growth within a new-look Cup Series roster at Stewart-Haas.

“It’s just a little bit of momentum building,” Berry said Tuesday during an availability at the NASCAR Productions Facility. “I think we’re working together, figuring each other out a little bit more. I’m getting more comfortable getting reacclimated to the Next Gen car, but more than anything, I think we’ve just had good cars the last couple weeks. I feel like, especially at the short tracks. It’s just going to take time.

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“I told Rodney this not too long ago, Kevin was 800-and-something starts into racing, and I’m only in the teens, so it’s going to take a little time for me to get acclimated to eliminate some of the mistakes I’ve made at the start of the season. But I think we’re already seeing the potential’s there, the speed can be there, we’ve just got to start executing that and figuring out how to be more consistent, and I think we’ll be fine.”

Berry’s opportunities should be present again this weekend when the Cup Series convenes for more short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s Cook Out 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The historic venue was the site of Berry’s breakthrough victory in the Xfinity Series in 2021, and Stewart-Haas Racing has had glimmers of improvement there, with teammates Chase Briscoe and Ryan Preece each leading 100-plus laps in this race last spring.

Richmond may have provided a springboard for Berry, who was a runner-up there a year ago in just his sixth Cup Series start, filling in for an injured Chase Elliott in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 Chevrolet. Sunday, his rise on the leaderboard — first on wet-weather tires, then slicks as the weather cleared — prompted an attaboy from spotter Eddie D’Hondt after Stage 1: “You came to play today, buddy.”

Berry’s bobble on an attempted pit-road entry for his last green-flag stop hampered the final result, and the 33-year-old driver radioed his crew to say he’d neglected to adjust his brake bias to the proper setting. A re-rack of the field for an overtime restart also kept him on the fringes of the top 10.

Josh Berry drives during a NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond.
Alex Daus |

“It’s part of that learning curve and figuring this stuff out, and what can we help him with on all those kinds of things — reminders and different things like that. But he was awesome all night,” Childers told, noting how few adjustments the team needed to make during the course of the weekend. “I was hoping that we could get some on that last restart and get back up there where I felt like we deserved, and it just didn’t work out. It was like a roadblock, but overall, he did a great job.”

MORE: Power Rankings: Berry breaks into top 20

Berry is still writing this chapter of his racing career, but so is Stewart-Haas Racing in the first season of the post-Harvick era. The contributions by Harvick — both in leadership and the win column — were invaluable to the organization during his 10-year run with the No. 4 team, but his retirement and transition to the FOX Sports broadcast booth have forced the group to move forward without relying on his expertise.

“Honestly, it was really great to lean on him, but at the same time, there’s been some really productive conversations that we’ve had this year in our group, between the four of us,” said Preece, who — like Berry — is a client with Harvick’s sports-marketing agency. “I feel like that’s, between the vibe and some of those conversations, also going to help us. It was time … I don’t know how to really put this, but man, he carried it for so long, right? How are we supposed to carry it? How do we find our direction? I know Josh and I both, we talk to Kevin and we race for Kevin, but this is sink or swim. Figure it out. You can’t always keep going back to Dad, right?”

Berry, even in his brief time under the SHR roof, has seen a notable shift.

“I just feel like just the philosophy itself has changed, and everybody just seems like they’re more motivated to work together and being open-minded,” Berry said. “I mean, everybody’s done a really good job of that, I feel like. Like Ryan said, what we want to see is just the consistency. Everybody’s searching for the balance and speed and to get better, so one car might hit it better than others because we’re not all the same. We’re working together but it’s, ‘Hey, you try this. Hey, you try that,’ from what I see. I’m sure it’s a lot different, but I think change was needed.”

The other side benefit to Berry’s showing last weekend was a tangible boost in the Cup Series standings and the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race. Berry jumped five spots to 23rd in the points, leapfrogging fellow first-year driver Carson Hocevar to grab the lead in the rookie standings.

“That definitely was a goal of ours, for sure, so we want to get as many points as we can and give ourselves the best opportunity to win that award,” Berry said. “Like I said before, I think the potential’s there. We felt like what we had Sunday night and what we had at Bristol, we feel like those nights are in front of us. We’ve just got to figure out how to get there, week in and week out, and it’s going to take some time to get there, but I feel like the potential’s there to keep getting better and running well. Just got to figure it out and go do it.”