When Josh Berry made the move from middle Tennessee to North Carolina in the summer of 2010 after meeting Dale Earnhardt Jr. online in iRacing, nothing was a guarantee. He did, though, have a chance to work full time at JR Motorsports.
While living with Earnhardt‘s mother Brenda and her husband Willie for a couple of months, Berry worked at the JR Motorsports‘ shop doing teardown and washing the cars. At night, he worked on his late model car, which is how he caught the eyes of Earnhardt.
“[Earnhardt] knew that I was racing at the [Nashville] Fairgrounds in a legends car and a lot of tracks in middle Tennessee,” Berry told Jayski.com last weekend at Nashville Superspeedway. “That led to an opportunity to test his car and that‘s what changed the whole path of my career.”
While working at JRM, Berry developed young talent in the team‘s late model program. The posterboy of that program is William Byron, who worked closely with Berry despite having limited time behind the wheel of a stock car at that time.
“Josh and I traveled to the racetracks together and we spent a lot of time in the hauler and truck, driving to the tracks,” Byron said. “He taught me more about growing up than anything in particular on the racetrack. He was a good life mentor and gave me a chance to learn under his ropes and toughen me up.”
Berry has always enjoyed helping younger talent hone in on their race craft. The most recent case is JRM‘s Carson Kvapil, the current championship leader in the CARS Tour Late Model Stock division..
But despite winning 95 late model races, including the Marinsville crown jewel race and locking up two CARS Tour championships, he struggled to find funding to move up the proverbial ladder. Even after winning 27 races during the 2020 season, he thought the ship had sailed on finding an opportunity in NASCAR. His focus wasn‘t on making it to NASCAR, rather how to make JRM‘s program better.
“I almost looked at it as if I failed,” Berry said. “Even though, in my eyes, I never got a legitimate opportunity or a fair opportunity, I did get opportunities. Over the course of that time, it was five (Xfinity Series) races. I looked at it as if I didn‘t do a good enough job to deserve an opportunity at that level.
“I raced the late model car and enjoyed that. Worked hard and won races, and I thought of myself as a career short-track racer and I was OK with that.”
That changed in the fall of 2020. While doing a hit on SiriusXM to promote his NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series championship, Earnhardt surprised Berry with a 12-race opportunity in the Xfinity Series during the 2021 season. That was a complete shock to the Tennessean, who hadn‘t competed in an Xfinity Series race in four years.
Out of the gate, it was a struggle. Berry had never competed on a superspeedway and needed to learn how to race in the draft. His next two starts at Homestead and Las Vegas ended with top 10 efforts. But his true breakthrough came in April, when he led 95 laps and won at Martinsville.
“Martinsville was a huge step in the right direction,” Berry said. “Winning that race solidified the whole opportunity.”
Berry had consecutive runner-up finishes at Darlington and Dover in the spring, two of the toughest tracks on the schedule. Then he won again at Las Vegas in the fall while filling in for Michael Annett. But he highlights top 10 finishes with Jordan Anderson Racing, which was in its debut season, as being just as impressive.
“I‘ll be honest, I ran a lot better than a lot of other people that raced that year,” Berry said. “That was a fun time and I enjoyed that opportunity to do those. It was laid back and fun.”
In mid-August, Berry was announced as the full-time driver of the No. 8 car for the 2022 season. In his first full season, he won three races and qualified for the Championship 4, though he ultimately finished fourth in the championship standings with a 13th-place finish at Phoenix.
With Kevin Harvick‘s retirement at the end of the 2023 season, Stewart-Haas Racing progressed to having conversations with Berry regarding the open seat. Berry met with co-owner Tony Stewart at Daytona and soon after, the deal was done.
Management at JRM agreed that it was an opportunity that Berry had to take, even though he would leave the Chevrolet camp for Ford.
“Our company is a pathway to the Cup level,” Earnhardt said last week on the “Dale Jr. Download.” “We should embrace that. We‘re not a Cup team. We‘re not the final destination. For a lot of people, we‘re the opportunity that gets them the next opportunity. We‘re a rung on the ladder.
“When someone is hired out of this building by a Cup team, I stick my chest out and am proud of that. It‘s a big win for our company and tells me we‘re doing everything right.”
Berry‘s crew chief Taylor Moyer said on this week‘s “Door Bumper Clear” episode that Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, co-owner of JRM, put at the top of the No. 8 team‘s goals this season was to get Berry to the Cup Series.
“When you can get somebody there purely on talent and somebody gives them a chance in a good ride, that‘s a win for the little guy,” Moyer said. “That‘s the American dream. Hard work pays off.”
Despite having personal connections to the majority of the employees at JRM, there wasn‘t any hesitation about leaving the company.
“I don‘t know that I would have gone Cup racing unless it was a great opportunity,” he said. “That‘s what I have in front of me, is a really good opportunity.”
Through 15 races this season, Berry calls the season “tough.” The No. 8 car has seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes, with the same 10.8 average finishing position as 2022. But there has been more noise around Berry this season, not only as being announced to drive the No. 4 car in 2024, but after serving as the relief driver for Chase Elliott when he broke his leg in a snowboarding accident. He also drove the No. 48 car after Alex Bowman suffered a fractured vertebrae in his back.
Berry isn‘t sure that those additional races have served as a distraction. He does know that the No. 8 team has had his full attention.
“We want to lead races, we want to win stages, get stage points and go back to Victory Lane,” Berry said. “That‘s our goal to get back to that point and maybe with this opportunity out there, it will allow us to refocus, come out and do the things we know we‘re capable of doing.”
There‘s still more than half of a season to be completed in the Xfinity Series and Berry is trying not to get too emotional yet. Though he did when telling JRM employees the news last week.
He‘s going to miss the people the most.
“Dale, Kelley and L.W. [Miller] have been so supportive of me over the years; I know that I will still have relationships with them,” he said. “Those relationships will never go away. It‘s just the day-to-day, being able to walk in there and see the people. I will miss that. At the same time, change can be a good thing and I‘m excited to go somewhere new and have new experiences.”
As for memories Berry will take away is winning a whole lot of races — 100 to be exact. Both wins at Martinsville in late models and Xfinity stand out as key moments. Being a national champion is also paramount. But he wants to celebrate at least one more win with JRM.
Berry concluded, “I always said my favorite win is the next one, so I will be ready for that one.”