MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Josh Berry has worked for several years as a coach for JR Motorsports, working with up-and-coming drivers and enjoying their success as their careers developed.
On Sunday, he showed he can do what he tells his pupils to do.
Berry passed star rookie Ty Gibbs with 28 laps to go at Martinsville Speedway and earned his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series victory in the completion of a race that started Friday night.
“It’s unbelievable, man. It really is,” Berry said, adding that his familiarity with the track from his short-track career was a source of confidence. “It’s really going to take a while to soak this in.”
That was true for Berry, and also for his boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said on a postrace Zoom call that he was watching the race at home but, “with about 20 to go, I got to where I couldn’t watch it anymore. … I’ve never been so nervous about a finish.”
Earnhardt said he did peek at the TV as the final laps wound down, and once he saw Berry take the white flag with a pretty nice lead, “We cried some happy, happy tears.”
Berry, who has raced in five of the first seven races in the series on a part-time deal with JRM, gave himself enough cushion after getting by Gibbs to withstand challenges by Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric, who ran out of time trying to navigate lapped traffic.
“I had a good gap that allowed me to be patient and not panic,” Berry said.
Berry, making just his 13th career start spread over five seasons and eight years, became the second driver to gain his first Xfinity Series win on the 0.526-mile oval, joining Brett Bodine (1985). Berry’s best prior finish was seventh earlier this year at Las Vegas.
“Oh my gosh. I have so many people I could thank, I could be here ’til tomorrow morning,” he said after climbing from his car.
Chief among those might be Earnhardt.
“He stuck his neck out pretty far by giving me this opportunity,” Berry said. “When it comes to the financial part of racing, this was not the safest or smartest, so this is a big day for him. He believed in me and believed that I could do this.”
Gragson finished second and got a $100,000 consolation prize as the top finisher among four in the Dash for Cash. Hemric was third, followed by Gibbs and Brandon Jones.
Gragson also won the first stage of the race, which went 91 laps on Friday night before it was halted by rain. Hemric won the second stage under sunny skies.
“I’m really happy for Josh,” Gragson said of his teammate, the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series champion last year. “I really look up to him. He’s like a big brother. You know, he’s a short track legend.”
Hemric took some time to adjust to damage done to his hood, but said once he made the adjustment, “we were better than the 8 (Berry) and the 9 (Gragson). Just had to use our stuff up to get there.”
Reigning series champion Austin Cindric finished sixth, followed by Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports