It was a somewhat convoluted path to the most likely outcome.
Josh Berry claimed the inaugural Battle of the Stars at Goodyear All-American Speedway in Jacksonville, North Carolina on Sunday night but it wasn’t just another straightforward victory for the 31-year-old JR Motorsports Late Model Stock ace.
Berry started the race from pole but immediately conceded the lead to fellow veteran Chad McCumbee. Brandon Clements passed both of them by the first caution on Lap 25. Meanwhile, Chris Burns and Trevor Ward charged from outside the top-15 to take the first two spots by the end of the first stage on Lap 50.
That was surprising because the former Coastal Plains Raceway remains extremely abrasive with races often determined by tire management.
Berry and McCumbee opted to simply ride inside the top-five as Clements, Burns and Ward drove to the front. At one point, Berry was third but fell to within 10 seconds behind Burns and Ward, who seemed content to use up their American Racer rubber.
Meanwhile, Justin Johnson qualified sixth but pitted before the green flag just so he could start the race at the back of the field. That was his way of trying to save the maximum amount of life in his tires.
There were three distinct strategies at play, not to mention an invert after the second stage on Lap 100, which proved to be just two cars before the final 50 lap dash. Despite each of the various entertainment levers that were pulled throughout the night, Berry took the lead from McCumbee on a restart with 45 laps to go and went unchallenged the rest of the way.
This was the first time he has raced in Jacksonville.
"It was exciting to come someplace new," Berry told Racing America in Victory Lane. "The Goodyears have done a great job building this place back up. You can tell they're really enthusiastic about what they're doing, and we wanted to support them. With everything that I have going on next year, I'm not sure how often I can race Late Models.
"I felt pretty confident racing with Chad. He's good and runs a lot of (abrasive) tracks like this so I knew he would have a good plan. We were just trying to save. With the stage breaks and inverts, there wasn't a lot of reasons to get to the front.
"The last stage break, we made some good adjustments, but it was already good car and I'm just thankful for my time with this group and in Late Model racing."
Berry will race full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next season with JRM after scoring two victories in a part-time role in 2021.
Johnson finished second after spending the first half of the race at the tail-end of the field. The final 41 laps were contested without a caution. Johnson believes he saved more right rear than Berry but needed one last heat cycle to put the theory to test.
"We knew we were going to get those cautions on Lap 50 and Lap 100, so that helped us plan our strategy, and I do think we probably would have had a shot with another restart," Johnson said. "Every time I run one of these (tire management) races, I drive back home and think about everything I should have done different.
"But it is what it is. Maybe we could have chosen to go the front and get track position and maybe it turns out another way. Who knows?"
Johnson was the first to congratulate Berry in Victory Lane. There's a lot of respect between the two, and there's no shame in losing to the JR Motorsports No. 8 these days.
"No, there's not, but we're tired of getting beat by them though," Johnson said.
At one point, Ward led by almost five seconds over Burns in second. At one point, the team seemed convinced that the invert only applied to second-place on back, with Ward wanting to have track position over Berry on the final restart with 50 laps to go.
In fact, the invert was a dice roll with a minimum of two and a maximum of eight, and Ward luckily rolled a ‘2.’ Unfortunately, he burned up too much of his right rear during the first 100 laps. His No. 77 team swapped the right rear and left fronts, but that made the car way too tight and Ward went on to finish 11th and one lap down.
While leading the race, he was singing ‘Black Betty’ over the radio to his team, later confirming that was the name of this particular chassis.
Nevertheless, Ward knows he should have better managed his tires.
"I just give everything I’ve got every lap and I probably should have saved," Ward said. "The last adjustment we made during the final stage break wasn’t what we needed. Bottom line: Josh had the fastest car yesterday and we were all racing for second."
Burns was the only driver to lead laps in all three segments, but a mechanical failure ended his race in the closing laps.
"We actually were riding pretty decent," Burns said. "We had something in the suspension bind up and it generated a major push. We had plenty of tire left. Just part failure of some sort. I don’t think we had anything for Berry, but I think we could have finished in the top-five."
The only moment Berry did not look in control came in the final two laps of the second stage when he was running third and found himself in a three-wide battle coming to the checkered flag. He was willing to lose a couple of spots to play an invert that never materialized and nearly got run into for it.
"Yeah, that invert never comes up a ‘2,’ you know," Berry said. "It always seems like a higher number. I think Chad was trying to let me go, and then I tried to let him go, and a couple of other guys caught us.
"It’s just part of the game you have to play at tracks like this. You have to save your tires, but you also have to have track position."
BATTLE OF THE STARS
- Josh Berry
- Justin Johnson
- Connor Hall
- Carter Langley
- Conner Jones
- Chad McCumbee
- Tate Fogleman
- Brandon Clements
- Camden Gullie
- Kenneth Mercer
- Trevor Ward
- Amber Slagle
- Ryan Millington
- Christian Rose
- Thomas Burbage
- Chris Burns
- T.J. Barron
- Tony Grady
- Chris Chapman
- Zach Lightfoot
- Jason York
- Matt Gould
- Tyler Matthews
- B.J. Mackey
- Paul Williamson