Berry and D’Hondt building a relationship at full speed

Eddie D’Hondt and Josh Berry needed to go to war.

“It’s so hard; I can’t emphasize how hard it is to be a rookie in this series,” D’Hondt told RACER. “It’s hard to jump into the Cup Series and be great. It’s a developed and acquired taste and an acquired big bundle of knowledge and confidence.”

D’Hondt is Berry’s spotter on the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. The duo, who instantly had chemistry last season when Berry did a short stint at Hendrick Motorsports filling in for D’Hondt’s previous driver, Chase Elliott, are in a fight to the front, and doing so while still learning each other.

“I just want to be the best support I can for Josh because I care about him,” D’Hondt says. “I think he’s a good guy. I think he has a lot of talent, and I want to see him make it because I see he really wants this.”


Any success Berry experiences will be due in no small part to D’Hondt. The industry veteran is far more than a set of eyes on the roof above the racetrack or a voice clearing a driver through traffic.

“It’s so much more, I can’t even begin to tell you,” D’Hondt says. “I’ve done this since 2000. I promise you, I know the inside and outs of it, and it’s so much more than that.”

Although he can’t recall which early-season NASCAR Cup Series race it was, D’Hondt likes to give one particular example to explain just how deep his role goes.

Berry was running inside the top 15, which would have been a respectable day given the season’s early nature and the realistic goals for the team at the time. He was fighting a tight race car and started running a higher lane and, in one corner, lost multiple positions. D’Hondt got on the radio after the fifth driver went by, observing that the line might not be the best one to run. A frustrated Berry bit back at D’Hondt, who wanted his younger driver to understand that the best plan of attack might have been running the bottom to make drivers work harder to get around him. Doing so might have netted a better finishing result.

“Afterward on the plane, I went up right to him and said, ‘Look, I’m not always going to tell you what you want to hear, and you’re going to have to be OK with that,’” D’Hondt said. “He told me everything was good and that he needed to hear that [on the radio], and we moved on from there. Right then and there, I established that I’m not a ‘Yes Man.’

“I’m going to support you with everything I’ve got, but I have a lot of knowledge and wisdom. I’ve done more races than he’s been alive to see, and that’s what I want to contribute to him.”

Berry is a different kind of teammate for D’Hondt. In his own words, his spotting closed out the careers of drivers like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and other veterans. They were drivers who built nice resumes, had plenty of money in the bank, nice families, but that comfort level led to riding out the rest of their careers as best they could without pushing the envelope as much as a younger driver.

The idea of having to push for an opportunity or to get noticed is what Berry did to land in the Cup Series. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the eye Berry caught, landing him a ride at JR Motorsports to further put him on the map. D’Hondt and Earnhardt talked quite a bit about Berry’s potential if given the right tools.

“He’s just got to go do it with the right people behind him,” D’Hondt expressed to Earnhardt at the time. “Rodney [Childers] is the right person. I hope I am, too and I hope it works.”

This season is the first in some time that D’Hondt is working with a new driver. The last eight years were spent with Elliott and seven before that with Jeff Gordon. There’s been quite an adjustment to joining a new organization and working with a new driver, especially one trying to find his way.

“I will say this about him: he studies more than anybody I’ve seen,” D’Hondt says, describing Berry as a sponge and someone willing to listen. “He puts the work in, and that makes me feel good to see that he cares that much. He knows this is his shot.”

Berry, however, wanted D’Hondt in his ear. He reached out about working together when word spread last season that D’Hondt might be making a change. A strong driver/spotter relationship is just as crucial as a strong driver/crew chief relationship. So far, there have been the expected growing pains, but there have been no five-alarm fires.

Going through film study together was a good early season exercise, which helped D’Hondt and Berry find a common language. By walking through races, especially superspeedways, Berry understands the tendencies D’Hondt sees from other drivers, why they happen, and what is getting ready to happen while developing trust in the information relayed. It has since evolved into D’Hondt doing his note work during the week to pass along to Berry before team meetings.

The needs and personalities of every driver are different. D’Hondt works with Berry on Sundays but is also in the ear of Justin Allgaier (Xfinity Series) and Tyler Ankrum (Craftsman Truck Series). Allgaier is an experienced veteran who doesn’t need much coaching, and D’Hondt practically knows when the JR Motorsports driver is going to sneeze. The two can easily understand the situation just by the other’s tone of voice.

On the other hand, Ankrum has worked with D’Hondt for a few years and has gone through a learning curve. There have been a lot of races where D’Hondt admitted he wanted to pull his hair out, but it’s finally clicked. The 23-year-old McAnally Hilgemann Racing driver led the point standings earlier this year, and D’Hondt sees that he’s dedicated himself and is applying the teachings of others.

The same type of progress is also beginning to show within Berry’s team. He has a pair of top-10 finishes as the crusade continues translating speed into results. Everyone on the No. 4 team, including the driver-spotter relationship, is growing stronger.

One thing D’Hondt wants people to understand is just how much work actually goes into his job high above the stands.

“How much work I put in and how many things I pay attention to…[means] you could blow a bomb up next to me during a race and I wouldn’t know.”

Story originally appeared on Racer