By Dustin Albino
For the better part of the last half decade, fans have been clamoring for Josh Berry to get an opportunity at one of NASCAR’s national levels. Instead, the 30-year-old has been relegated to competing at the local level for JR Motorsports, not having enough funding to make the next step into the Xfinity Series on a consistent basis.
Since 2015, Berry has been paired with JRM, focusing on the CARS Late Model Stock Tour. But his late model career came to a head in 2020, where he rolled to the 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly National Championship. In 37 late model stock starts, Berry scored an unbelievable 24 victories (64.9 win percentage), 33 top five and 36 top-10 finishes.
The following week, an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. While talking to SiriusXM NASCAR to discuss the championship victory, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. called into the show to tell Berry that JRM came up with enough funding to run him in 12 races during the 2021 Xfinity season.
Berry was nearly speechless.
“I definitely feel like the success that we‘ve had as a group for the late model program over the last few years has definitely kicked the door in for me a little bit and helped give me this opportunity,” Berry recently told Jayski.com. “I think [JRM has] always had aspirations and desires of me progressing like that, but unfortunately with the market, it doesn‘t always work out that way.”
Berry admitted the two sides have conversed in the past about running more Xfinity races. In fact, the Tennessee native made five Xfinity starts for JRM between 2014 and 2016, scoring two top-10 finishes.
For Earnhardt, he’s over the moon that he could present Berry with 12 Xfinity races. After all, Berry has coached some of JRM’s young hotshots, including Sam Mayer and Christian Eckes.
“We‘ve always wanted to see what [Berry] could do at the next level,” Earnhardt told Jayski. “We‘ve had a few opportunities to get an idea that there‘s good potential there for him at the next level, and now we finally have the opportunity to give him a bunch of races in succession to get his bearings and see what can happen.
“I‘m going to be in his corner, in his ear, trying to give him a lot of information without trying to overwhelm him. He‘s going to be drinking through a firehose this entire time.”
Because of there being limited practice at select racetracks this season, Earnhardt told Berry to hop on iRacing to get a grasp for the different facilities he’ll be competing at. Ahead of the season opener at Daytona — Berry’s first start — the two-time Daytona 500 champion sat down with his driver to go over the 2020 race, to dissect the tactics of superspeedway racing, and why drivers made certain moves in the draft.
“It‘s going to be fast, it‘s going to be furious and he‘s going to have to be tough, tough, tough mentally,” Earnhardt said. “It‘s a hell of an opportunity and I‘m really excited for him.”
One would think Berry has a lot to prove: a local short track racer is getting an opportunity of a lifetime with JRM. But since the announcement in late October, Berry is calm, cool as the other side of the pillow.
“I feel really good going into this, I don‘t know why,” Berry said. “But really from the day we announced this, as caught offguard as I was and excited, I’ve felt really calm about it and prepared. From my previous starts, I feel like I‘m a lot better of a racecar driver than I was then. My results have proven that. I‘ve really done a lot of great things the last few years.
“I feel really confident. We‘re just going to take it week by week and keep trying to get better.”
The 12 races Berry competes in will all come in the first 15 events of the season, with Miguel Paludo running the three road courses, the first of which came last weekend at the Daytona road course, finishing seventh. Once Mayer turns 18 in June, he will be the primary driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet.
But between now and then, Berry will visit some familiar tracks such as Martinsville Speedway, a place he scored the coveted grandfather clock at in 2019, winning the Late Model Stock race in dominating fashion. He’ll also compete at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend, where he competed with JRM seven years prior.
Over the last decade, JRM has been a staple in the Xfinity Series, winning three championships. Straight up, Berry knows the equipment is in place to be competitive.
“There‘s been a lot to think about over the last few months,” Berry explained. “One thought that‘s crossed my mind is, ‘What if I win a race?‘ That‘s a possibility, so what happens if that were to happen? That could drastically change my path for this season and maybe after that. That would be a home run if we‘re able to do that.
“There‘s going to be some good opportunities for me throughout the schedule, but I hope to be in that position.”
Earnhardt knows firsthand the talent Berry has, so he wouldn’t be shocked if he were to be victorious. However, he knows it’s going to be hard given the current guidelines of the sport with no practice, so he’ll be content with whatever Berry can do behind the wheel.
“I‘m going to be pretty happy with whatever he does and anything he does,” Earnhardt said of Berry. “I‘m not going to be surprised by adversity, I‘m not going to be surprised by mistakes or challenges. But I also won‘t be surprised by the glimpses that the ability that I know is there and glimpses of the speed and raw ability. I think all that is going to show through.
“If we were coming up on a year where we had Friday and Saturday practices, qualifying, all of the things, I probably wouldn‘t have to study his experience that hard. But now with him going in and running these races pretty much blind, I‘m going to be tuned into [every] corner of the lap, watching every single thing he does, trying to help him understand what he‘s encountering and help him speed up that learning curve as fast as I possibly can, so that he can maximize the opportunity in the 12 races and they don‘t go by in a flash and he feels he was completely overwhelmed, not prepared, not ready and not able to maximize the results.”
The short-term goal, though, is simple.
“I want to be competitive and I want to be a good bit better than I was in my previous opportunities,” Berry stated. “It‘s going to be a moving target to see where we‘re at, where our program is at and where I‘m at as a driver. My experience is great but for these next 12 races, it‘s going to be about how fast I can learn and hopefully I‘m ready to do that.”
Despite Berry’s rich success at the local level, the goal is still to race full time in NASCAR.
“It’s definitely still possible,” he said. “I definitely want to continue to go up the path, that‘s the goal. Really from the Late Model Stocks side of things, we‘ve accomplished nearly everything together that there‘s out to do.”