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Josh Berry answers critics with Phoenix run

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Marty Snider, Jeff Burton, and Parker Kligerman speak to how NASCAR's new low downforce package, to be used at short tracks and road races, has improved handling issues and increased tire falloff.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Josh Berry heard the noise about if he belonged in the No. 9 car for Chase Elliott.

After Hendrick Motorsports went 1-2-3 with William Byron, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman earlier this month at Las Vegas and Berry finished 29th, doubters questioned the team keeping Berry in the car for the oval races until Elliott returns from his broken leg.

MORE: Phoenix winners and losers

Of course, it was easy to criticize Berry without looking at the fact that he had not driven a Next Gen car until the Las Vegas weekend and that a throttle issue in that race also made his day more difficult.

With that hanging over him, finishing 10th Sunday at Phoenix felt special to Berry.

“I kind of feel like I received some unnecessary criticism last week for getting thrown into a really tough situation filling in for Chase, my first start in the Next Gen car, no preparation at all,” Berry told NBC Sports after the Phoenix race.

“I feel like I kind of got held to the fire. We worked hard this week to remove doubt that we can do this, and I feel like we did that.”

Berry took advantage of four fresh tires on the final pit stop. He gained five spots over the last two cautions to help put all four Hendrick cars in the top 10.

Berry’s performance earned praise from Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I’m really impressed with (Sunday’s) effort,” Gordon said after the race. “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.”

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Phoenix marked the end of the West Coast swing of Cup races at Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway.

Kevin Harvick and Alex Bowman were the only drivers to score top 10s in all three races. William Byron won twice (Las Vegas and Phoenix) and Kyle Busch won at Auto Club Speedway.

Here’s a look at the top 10 in points scored in the three West Coast races:

136 — William Byron

114 — Kevin Harvick

113 — Alex Bowman

113 — Kyle Larson

110 — Ross Chastain

104 — Kyle Busch

103 — Denny Hamlin

93 — Christopher Bell

90 — Martin Truex Jr.

89 — Daniel Suarez

Here’s a look at the top 10 in stage points scored in those three races:

44 — William Byron

38 — Ross Chastain

37 — Kyle Larson

32 — Denny Hamlin

26 — Ryan Blaney

25 — Christopher Bell

22 — Kevin Harvick

22 — Alex Bowman

14 — Daniel Suarez

14 — Brad Keselowski

14 — Martin Truex Jr.

Here is a look at top 10s by organizations in the West Coast races:

9 — Hendrick Motorsports (2 wins)

4 — Stewart-Haas Racing

4 — Joe Gibbs Racing

3 — Richard Childress Racing (1 win)

3 — Trackhouse Racing

3 — Team Penske

2 — 23XI Racing

1 — RFK Racing

1 — Kaulig Racing

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Chase Briscoe’s seventh-place finish marked the first time he’s placed better than 20th this season.

“That’s a little bit of a relief,” crew chief John Klausmeier told NBC Sports. “We ended last year with some momentum and expected to pick up there at the start of the season and it has not been the case at all. We kind of had this (race) circled on the calendar.”

Briscoe started 24th. He was the only driver outside the top 20 to finish in the top 10.

“To be in contention today, everyone’s confidence is a little bit better than the last two weeks,” Klausmeier said. “You get beat down and you start questioning yourself and second-guessing things. … Obviously, we didn’t qualify good, so we had to battle track position all day, but we stayed in the game and it’s a shot in the arm for everybody. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.”

Said Briscoe after the race: “I think we overall had a pretty strong and solid day. Starting that far back in the pack, it just takes forever to get up there. I thought my car was good enough – if you would have put it in the lead, I would have been fine staying there. But, it was just a matter of getting up there – it takes a long time.”