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Every NASCAR team executive keeps phone numbers in his contact list that he hopes he never uses. On Friday, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon had to go that route, summoning Josh Berry to fill in for Chase Elliott.

It’s a great opportunity for Berry, a late arrival to the NASCAR ranks, and a blow for Hendrick Motorsports’ 2023 Cup Series campaign.

Chase Elliott is recovering following a snowboarding mishap

Josh Berry addresses the media before practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 on March 4, 2023, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. | Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Josh Berry addresses the media before practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 on March 4, 2023, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. | Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NASCAR star Chase Elliott underwent surgery on his fractured left tibia on Friday, taking him out of the Cup Series for an undetermined length of time. With the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway just two days away, Hendrick Motorsports recruited Josh Berry to drive the No. 9 Chevy in place of the 2020 series champion.

Elliott, 27, suffered the injury in a snowboarding accident earlier Friday in Colorado. With NASCAR on a three-race swing out west, Elliott was among the drivers who opted not to return to North Carolina after last weekend’s race in Fontana, California. Elliott and his family have a vacation home near Vail, Colorado, according to The Athletic.

Elliott was expected to be released from the hospital on Saturday, but Hendrick Motorsports president Jeff Andrews did not have a timetable for when the competitor voted the Cup Series’ most popular river the past five seasons might resume racing.

Josh Berry’s selection stemmed from a working relationship

With all three NASCAR series in Las Vegas this weekend, Hendrick Motorsports had a full complement of options for a fill-in driver. However, the HMS alliance with JR Motorsports (partly owned by Rick Hendrick) immediately boosted Josh Berry, 32, to the top of the list of candidates despite a limited resume.

Berry began the year with just 75 races, including two Cup Series appearances in 2021, under his belt. However, he’s won Xfinity Series playoff races at the Las Vegas track in each of the past two seasons. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a liking to Berry and gave him his shot; last year was his first full Xfinity season, and Berry responded by reaching the Championship 4.

HMS and JR Motorsports went through a similar arrangement last season. After a concussion sidelined Alex Bowman during the Cup series playoffs, Hendrick Motorsports replaced him with Noah Gragson (now at Legacy Motor Club), who was battling Ty Gibbs for the Xfinity crown.

Alex Bowman came full circle in 2022

Alex Bowman, who drives the No. 48 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports, has now been on both ends of replacement driver scenarios. In 2016, he filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10 races (Jeff Gordon handled eight others) in the No. 88 Chevy while Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.

Last year, Bowman missed five races because of his own concussion. That was tough on him, but so was previously having to fill in for an established NASCAR star. New teammate Josh Berry will be replacing Chase Elliott, the Cup Series champion in 2020 and a Championship 4 participant last season after winning five races.

“It’s really hard,” Bowman said. “I think it’s only gotten harder with the Next Gen car coming in. The Xfinity car used to be so similar to a Cup car, and now they couldn’t be more different in how they drive and how you can approach how to aggressively drive them.”

Berry practiced in the car Saturday and then struggled in qualifying. He’ll start 32nd in Sunday’s race.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].

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