Josh Berry Wins One for Every Short Track Racer with a NASCAR Dream

It’s September 11, 2015 and Chase Elliott just captured his fourth career NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Richmond Raceway and is well on his way to replacing Jeff Gordon in the iconic No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series come February.

His future, as it always was, is secure.

As the winning team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. participated in the post-race press conference that night, but it was the future of another driver under his purview that he most wanted to discuss.

Josh Berry.

Fresh off Late Model Stock championships at Hickory Motor Speedway (NC) and Motor Mile Speedway (VA) the previous season for JR Motorsports, Berry only took the green flag that night because the race hadn’t been sold to anyone else.

It was essentially a thank you to Berry and then-sponsor SpeedCo for their short track accomplishments the past two summers. After the race, Earnhardt made a 10-minute plea to the motorsports industry to sponsor Berry.

He called it a Hail Mary effort to get Berry what he needed to break through at the highest levels of NASCAR.

Berry had won nearly 50 races by that point. In addition to driving the car, the real work came throughout the week as he managed the JR Motorsports driver development program. Earnhardt felt even back then he deserved a shot at the highest levels and just needed someone to help pay for it.

“I was really curious as to what that night might produce in terms of opportunities for Josh and it didn’t live up to my expectations,” Earnhardt said. “I was really disappointed in the lack of interest in working with us and doing more with Josh after that night.

“But we soldiered on and Josh went back to work with the opportunities we created with the Late Model program and the partners that we have there so he could keep racing and keep himself relevant. We’ve done things since then that I never dreamed of.”

Berry became the face of the CARS Tour, a popular and important Late Model series that is the successor to the old Pro Cup series from the 90s and early 2000s. Berry captured its 2017 championship and is the winningest driver in series history. He led every lap of the 2019 Martinsvillle 300 — the most prestigious event in the discipline.

Hickory Motor Speedway announcer Trevor Townsend calls Berry ‘The Mailman’ because he always delivers.

Berry now has over 75 Late Model Stock victories on his resume and claimed the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national championship last season.

Earnhardt rewarded Berry with over a dozen races to open the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season until Sam Mayer is old enough to take over in June. JR Motorsports has mostly paid for the opportunity out of pocket due to Earnhardt’s conviction that Berry deserves it.

“We have a financial budget and plan that will succeed this year, but we had to sacrifice and do some things that we probably typically weren’t comfortable doing in the past,” Earnhardt said.

If 2015 was a Hail Mary, this effort in 2021 was the equivalent of a game winning field goal, with Berry having turned 30-years-old in October.

“I thought, well, maybe we can make something special happen during this span,” Earnhardt said.

After running up front virtually every week, often with nothing but misfortune to show for it, Berry returned home to Martinsville and broke through for his first win in his 13th start. It was fitting because Berry had raced nine times at Martinsville in a Late Model Stock, but never in NASCAR.

If there was ever a track for the Hail Mary to land, it was the Virginian half mile.

“This is for all those short track guys,” Berry said. “There’s a ton of them out there that are like me, that have won here and at all these great short tracks around here. We can do it. We just need the opportunities. Today proved it. Yeah, it’s a short track. But it’s still damn hard to win here and we did it.”

It was an accomplishment that Earnhardt couldn’t even bring himself to watch over the closing laps.

Watching from home due to COVID-19 protocols, Earnhardt was listening to the race while working on his lawn. He knew Berry was leading approaching the final 30 laps and had dominated throughout the race, but just couldn’t bear the thought of watching another misfortune strike his friend and protégé.

Earnhardt finally allowed himself to walk in the living room only after Berry took the white flag.

“I never cried like I cried today over racing, over anything I ever did or anything my dad did,” said Earnhardt, the youngest son of seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt. “I don’t know why that brought the emotion out of me because I never experienced that before. I just wanted this so bad for Josh.”

Berry first met Earnhardt while virtually racing together on the servers of iRacing in 2008. At the time, Berry was racing Legend Cars at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in Tennessee. They forged a quick friendship and Earnhardt eventually hired Berry to drive his Late Model Stock in 2010.

Since then, Berry has become something of an honorary Earnhardt, a true member of the JR Motorsports family.

In accordance to his duties as driver development manager, Berry has also shepherded the formative years of current Cup Series racers Anthony Alfredo and William Byron, while often wondering what it would take to be able to join them at the highest levels someday.

They say, those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, but Berry felt like he was just as capable as any young driver that came through his development system — including the teenager that is set to replace him in June.

“When Dale told me (that) I was getting this opportunity, I knew I was ready,” Berry said. “I knew I could do this.”

That also meant making peace with what would happen if he didn’t.

“To be honest, man, I was scared that I wouldn’t win,” Berry said. “I was like, we won almost 30 races, won everywhere we went, and now I’m 30 years old. I should be ready to win, and win a lot, and the only chance I have moving forward is it I win.”

But what does a win really do moving forward if Earnhardt pleading to the world five years ago at Richmond didn’t make a difference?

Earnhardt, ever the optimist is hopeful the outcome will be different, but he isn’t sure, either.

“I thought about (that 2015 press conference) a few minutes ago, but a few times in the last couple of weeks, and after winning today, I don’t know what it means,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know if the phone is going to start ringing next week or if a corporate entity will think this is a great way to get involved in NASCAR.”

“I don’t even know what a win means to world anymore, in terms of creating opportunities and partnerships. And I’m really optimistic. I’m always going to be optimistic. We were able to piece together this half year for Josh, and we just need more people to keep this deal going. We just have to work hard and keep hoping.”

At just short of 75 career wins, Berry has done nothing but win and it’s only gotten him so far. Berry could just as easily find himself back in the short track ranks next season. While he has accomplished everything there is to do in Late Model Stock competition, he also covets major victories in Super Late Models — like the Snowball Derby.

It’s a good life, but Earnhardt feels Berry is deserving of so much more at the highest levels of NASCAR.

“Josh has developed so much young talent, and has supported them every step of the way,” Earnhardt said. “He has not been able to experience that same joy, but we are not going to stop working towards that. We’re not giving up on the idea that he deserves it.

“We would love more than anything to get him into a car full time,” Earnhardt said. “I think that he has still not reached his prime.

“At 30-years-old, he still has 15-20 years of great ability left in him. I think he’s one of the best free agents on the market. I hope we can keep him at JR Motorsports, but I want to see him succeed and keep on winning. I’m just not going to give up on that being a possibility.”

Berry kicked the figurative game winning field goal on Sunday, but there are other games, and championships to win next.

“I’m 30. I can’t wait around for much if opportunities do present themselves,” Berry said. “We’re just going to celebrate this and see what happens.

“I would sure hope this would open up some opportunities, but you never know in these times.”

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