NASCAR Xfinity Series
The NASCAR Xfinity Playoffs Are Also Wide Open
Sep 21, 2022
At this time a year ago, Josh Berry was fighting to stay in the NASCAR Xfinity Series so having a chance to race for the championship almost feels like small potatoes in comparison.
Fresh off the 2020 NASCAR Weekly Series championship, Berry earned a 12-race limited schedule to drive the No. 8 for JR Motorsports and won at Martinsville in April the next year. When Michael Annett was sidelined with an injury, Berry took over his No. 1 car and drove it to another victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The performance, combined with the support of team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned him a full-time effort this season, where he’s added wins at Dover and Charlotte. Now the 31-year-old is solidly in the playoffs and could be a sneaky championship threat.
That is a remarkable two-year stretch for a driver who had made peace with becoming a short track ace before suddenly breaking through into the big leagues.
So here Berry is, entering the final seven races with a chance to compete for the championship, and that isn’t the most pressure he has felt over the past calendar year or so.
"The pressure of the playoffs is going to be unique, something I haven't experienced yet," Berry told Racing America. "I'm looking at it like last year when I had 12 races in the No. 8 to make it or not. I got thrown in, sink or swim, and I needed to make something happen just to continue racing in the Xfinity Series.
"I think that kind of pressure is going to be similar for sure."
Berry enters as gamut as the fifth seed and 21 points above the elimination cutline with Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL serving as the first round. He has 16 top-10s in 26 races and that is the sort of consistency he wants to maintain to make the Round of 8, which contains two tracks he’s won at in Vegas, Martinsville, combined with Homestead-Miami.
"I feel like our team is fast," Berry said. "We've had some execution errors. I've made some mistakes this summer, some speeding penalties, got in the wall here or there. If some things had gone our way, I feel like we could have a few more wins. I'm not concerned about our pace or how competitive we are."
Road course racing has been the biggest personal challenge, as it's something he hadn't done much of before breaking in last year, and it could be the decisive race of this first round at Charlotte.
"We won early and we've worked on our road course racing with an eye towards the Roval," Berry added. "That was in our minds all summer as we went to all those different road courses. I would be lying if I said I didn't wish we had more momentum going towards this, but I also know that could change really fast."
Despite his status as a playoff rookie, Berry says he and crew chief Mike Bumgarner set making the championship race as the goal from Day One of their pairing. Given the overall strength of the organization and a conviction in himself as a driver, he felt it was realistic and they’ve backed it up since the start of the season.
So when someone suggests Berry could have a shot mostly on the chance that the penultimate race of the season is at Martinsville, a place he has now won in two different cars, he dismisses it with the hopes he could have advanced by then anyway.
"Hopefully we're not in a position where we must win Martinsville," Berry said. "We just need to be solid through this first round. It doesn't take a high average finish to get out of the first round. We just need to limit mistakes. Once we get to the Round of 8, two of those tracks we've already won at and think we can do it again and then we'd be off to Phoenix."
Berry got off to the hot start with two wins through the first 13 races, and has taken a backseat to teammate Noah Gragson in the second half but believes his team isn’t that far off the pace set by the No. 9 the past two months.
"Noah has been killing it the past few weeks," Berry said. "We've been close. We just missed out balance a little bit. That's put us behind. Kansas. We had really run fast lap times and it rained and then it was over. We just have to get through this first round, hopefully it's a win at Texas or Talladega, and then we can win at one of those Round of 8 tracks at for sure."
And most importantly, Berry isn't championship or bust, because it's not like his entire NASCAR national touring career is on the line this time. He says he feels pretty confident about returning to the No. 8 next season.
"I feel pretty good about it," Berry said. "We're waiting for some things to get locked in. I feel pretty good about being able to continue in the Xfinity Series. You never know until it's done but we've worked really hard to do a good job for our partners and hopefully we can keep the ball rolling."
And that would mean even more chances to get back to the final four and close out.