LONG POND — It has been a bit of a rough season for Josh Berry.
Coming off a 2022 campaign that saw him win three NASCAR Xfinity Series races and clinch a berth in the Championship Four, expectations were high. But he and the team have underperformed.
However, after winning the pole for the Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 on Friday at Pocono Raceway, Berry hopes things may be turning around.
The 32-year-old driver of the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet ran 53.587 seconds at 167.951 mph around the 2.5-mile triangular track to earn his second career Xfinity pole in 81 starts; the other came last July at New Hampshire.
“The car felt really good,” Berry said. “We probably had our best practice of the year. We know we’ve needed to improve. We’ve struggled a lot and had our issues throughout the season. But the guys have been working really hard and they brought me a really good car. Practiced well, felt good about qualifying. Was hoping for a top four or five, but obviously hit a really good lap there. A lot of credit just goes to the guys. We’ve been working really hard to make our cars better. It’s been a challenge for us to find something to hit on and fix. Hopefully today and this weekend we’re headed in the right direction.”
Daniel Hemric qualified second in the No. 11 Chevrolet at 167.128 mph. Sheldon Creed was third at 167.004 mph in the No. 2 Chevrolet. Connor Mosack was fourth in the No. 19 Toyota at 166.982 mph and points leader John Hunter Nemechek rounded out the top five in the No. 20 Toyota at 166.834 mph.
Through the first 11 races this season, Berry had five top-five and nine top-10 finishes. But in the last seven races, he has just two top fives and hasn’t placed better than 15th in the other five races.
Serving as a possible distraction was the fact that Berry ran eight Cup Series races for injured Hendrick Motorsports drivers Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. Then came the news last month that he will replace the retiring Kevin Harvick next season at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“The last couple of months have been a struggle,” Berry said. “Internally, we’re not going to shy away from that. We’ve had some tough days and days where we finished better than we should have. This whole group has stayed together and worked really hard. There’s a lot going on with me with the Cup opportunities early on and then transitioning to the Cup Series next year. But this Xfinity season is still very, very important to us. We want desperately to get this turned around.”
Eight races remain in the Xfinity regular season. Despite his struggles, Berry is 105 points above the cutoff line for the 12-driver playoff field.
Even if Berry qualifies, he knows if his performance doesn’t improve that his stay in the postseason will be a short one.
“Winning a race would be important and a relief for all of us,” Berry said. “More than that, we need to run better, we need to score more stage points. We need to be more of a threat than we’ve been. Internally, we’ve had a lot of tough days and tough conversations. We know that if we’re at our potential, we can do amazing things together. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. For the playoffs, we know we need to be faster, we need to be up front leading laps. Otherwise, we’re going to be skirting each round of eliminations.”
Friday at Pocono was a good first step.
He has three career starts at the track. He finished 11th in the Trucks Series and ninth in the Xfinity Series in 2021 and placed third in the Xfinity Series race here last year.
“Starting up front is going to be great for us. Hopefully we can lead some laps early on and go to work from there,” Berry said. “I really love this track. I’ve had good results here. These style tracks seem to fit me a little bit better than most. So I’m encouraged and excited for tomorrow.”
As for Hemric, he turned in a season-best qualifying effort. He has top-eight finishes in the last four races, including a runner-up at Atlanta. He is 71 points above the playoff cutline.
Creed continues his strong qualifying this season with this 15th top-10 starting spot in 19 races. He is 45 points above the playoff cutline.
The Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 is scheduled for Saturday at 5:30 p.m.