By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
In his second start in a substitute role for the injured Chase Elliott, Josh Berry drove the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 to his first top-10 in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Unlike last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Berry had time to adequately prepare for a start in the Next Gen platform with a full assortment of simulator time, an entirely fitted interior and a week to prepare.
He responded by running around 15th all race and capitalized on a fantastic final pit stop to finish 10th.
“I feel like, obviously, we improved from last week,” Berry told FOX Sports after the race. “We could work on things and I feel like this is a really good track for me too.
“We were able to solidly build on what we did last week. We stayed on the lead lap, ran 15th to 20th, and that’s where we thought we were after practice. We were able to execute on pit road, the restarts and came away with a top 10.”
The first person to greet Berry upon climbing out of the car was Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon. The four-time Cup Series champion also spent the majority of the race on the No. 9 pit stall with crew chief Alan Gustafson and came away impressed with the Xfinity Series contender.
“I’m really impressed with today’s effort,” Gordon said. “I was on the 9 box most of the race. It didn’t start off so great. To see them just continue to work through changes on the car, changes of the track conditions, just continue to push forward.
“Then he was mixing it up, man. On those restarts, he was right in the middle, three- and four-wide. I was a little bit nervous because they’re pretty deep in points and needed a solid finish.
“It was great to see Josh get that. That’s going to build his confidence. I don’t think anybody can explain how difficult a situation this is. I mean, an Xfinity car today could not be more opposite than what the Cup car is throughout the history that I can recall of those things being so different than they are today.
“To get out of an Xfinity car and hop into a Cup car that’s so different I think is a big, tall task. We put him in a bad situation last week. This week I saw him putting in the effort and the time, the sim, getting fitted in the seat, doing his homework. It really showed up.”
Berry will continue to drive the No. 9 on ovals with IMSA champion Jordan Taylor driving the car at Circuit of the Americas.
Gordon said Taylor was always targeted as a potential Hendrick backup driver for road courses should one become necessary should a driver miss time due to a positive COVID-19 test.
“Not always, but maybe this really started a few years ago, where you kind of have to have a backup plan. Sort of started with COVID,” Gordon said. “It’s continued on since then of if something were to happen, a driver could get sick, a driver could get injured, that you have something in place that can happen immediately.
“We’ve gone down the path of not having a game plan, and it’s really difficult to find somebody. Sometimes they’re already on their way home, already left the racetrack.
“Have a relationship with JRM, with their drivers, having a backup plan in place. I don’t know that Josh has ever really gotten an opportunity with Hendrick before, so that was a team decision, a lot driven by Alan and who he thought would fit in with their team, personality-wise. I think they’re making the right decision.
“As far as the road course, I think the road course just opened up the door for should we look at an option that is sort of a road-racing option. We feel confident in Josh, want to keep Josh in the car as much as possible. I raced with Jordan Taylor. He’s very talented. He’s been in our Garage 56 car, showing a lot of speed. Just the right timing, place to be able to pull that off.”