By Dustin Albino

Josh Berry is known as the face of JR Motorsports‘ late model program since 2010. Along the way, he‘s helped plenty of up-and-coming talent through the racing ranks. This week, however, he gets to help the guy at JR Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In a reunion from 1993 with sponsor Sun Drop, a regional citrus soda brand, Earnhardt will drive the No. 3 car in Wednesday‘s CARS Tour Late Model Stock race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Berry, who has won 94 late model races and the 2017 CARS Late Model Stock Tour championship before winning the 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series championship, will be his crew chief. 

“I hate being called crew chief, I don‘t know why,” Berry told at Watkins Glen International. “The best way I can explain it, when I raced our late model car for all those years, we had a group with that program that when we got to the track, my racecar was my own responsibility. That‘s where this comes in. 

“Those guys with our late model program have done all the work, making sure everything is wrapped up and ready to go.”

Originally, Earnhardt wanted Berry to compete in the race at North Wilkesboro. However, the crew chief, Berry, didn‘t want to overextend the program and attempt to run three cars in the race. Carson Kvapil, former NASCAR driver Travis Kvapil‘s son, will pilot JRM‘s second car, as he has two wins in five CARS Tour Late Model Stock Tour races this season with an average finish of 2.2.

While Berry has mentored the likes of Kvapil, William Byron, Sam Mayer and Christian Eckes, Earnhardt is nervous about his full time Xfinity Series driver calling the shots, Berry mentioned.

Berry assured him that everything will be just fine.

“Dale is kind of anxious about me being the crew chief,” Berry said. “I can tell that he‘s like, ‘Man, are you sure you want to do this?‘ This is how I‘ve been racing for 10 years. I‘m going to prepare the car for you just as if I was driving it myself, just like I did for the last 10 years and we‘re going to go race.”

Topping the charts is @DaleJr in practice 🤙

— CARS Tour (@CARSTour) August 31, 2022

Since Berry‘s been embedded in the JRM late model program, Earnhardt has tested a late model a handful of times. The most recent time was in June at North Wilkesboro, just to see if it was possible to have the event given there‘s a tire shortage and the track‘s old surface wears tires quickly. 

But Earnhardt hasn‘t competed in a late model race since 1997. And he‘s won just three times (Myrtle Beach 1994 and 1995, Florence 1996 ) in 159 career starts. Even with nothing but pride on the line, he just wants to have fun.

“I don‘t think I‘ll be nervous about just driving or running well, I just want to run all the laps,” Earnhardt said in a media availability at Watkins Glen. “I‘ll be really nervous that I‘m going to wreck out, or I‘ll wreck the car, or not finish the race. Finishing the race is my only objective. 

“My heart is in that series, that type of car, so I‘m super pumped about it. I‘ve wanted to drive the late model car for a really long time, but I haven‘t had the guts to do it.”

Earnhardt said watching drivers like Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman branch outside of their comfort zones and compete in other racing series has inspired him to run a late model once more. If all goes well, he‘d like to race more in the 2023 season. 

“I‘ve always thought that people would say, ‘When he comes, he should win. He‘s a Cup guy, has great equipment,” Earnhardt noted. “You don‘t and you‘re afraid to get criticized or ridiculed for it. We‘ll go have fun. I think I‘m old enough now that I can just blame being old if I don‘t run well.”

With what Berry saw in the June test, he believes that Earnhardt can be competitive. He‘s just got to manage his tires for the first 75-lap stint before changing two tires at the stage break for the final 50 laps. 

“I think it‘s very realistic that we‘re going to be competitive,” Berry noted. “He keeps saying, ‘I just want it to be fun.‘ And I‘m like, ‘Well, it‘s a lot more fun if you win.‘ 

“I‘m not trying to add additional pressure to him to think that he has to win just because our program has had a lot of success. I don‘t want him to go into it thinking he can‘t win either because I think he can win. I want him to race like he thinks he can win that race and I think we‘ll find ourselves up front.”

The chassis that Earnhardt is driving is undefeated in competition. Berry has claimed three checkered flags in the car at three different tracks: Florence, Greenville Pickens and Hickory. 

Oh yeah, then there‘s the added incentive that the race is being held at North Wilkesboro, a project that Earnhardt has helped revitalize part of racing history. In the winter of 2019, Earnhardt was among many people that went to the track to get it in shape so that iRacing could scan the race for its service. 

Back then, Earnhardt didn‘t think the track would ever see competitive action again. But he will get his shot to get a win at the historic venue on Wednesday evening, a place he grew up watching his father Dale Earnhardt compete at. 

“Dale is super passionate about that place and I want to support him as much as I can,” Berry stated. “It‘s a cool racetrack. I know our race is going to be packed. Ticket sales and everything that‘s going on there, it‘s going to be a huge turnout. But even past that, I hope whatever they keep doing, that they continue to have some success and bring back the place full time.”

That‘s a real possibility. 

Speedway Motorsports has been working with Wilkes County and North Carolina state officials to utilize an $18 million American Rescue Plan budget allocation earmarked for infrastructure improvements at the track. Following the CARS Tour Late Model Stock race on Wednesday, the track surface will be dug up so Racetrack Revival, a multi-week grassroots racing series featuring many racing series, can race on the dirt underneath the track before a full repave takes place in 2023.

In Tuesday’s practice session, Earnhardt was atop the leaderboard and qualified sixth.

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