‘Life-changing’: Josh Berry returns to Martinsville a year after first win

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Every racer dreams of their moment. Some drivers get them, but most don’t.

Josh Berry thought his moment came and went in 2015, when a seventh-place run in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway didn’t return any significant sponsorship opportunities.

But six years later, Berry earned his moment – an Xfinity Series victory at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021, driving a part-time schedule in the No. 8 Chevrolet. The 31-year-old JR Motorsports driver returns for the one-year anniversary of that win Friday night, but 12 months later, he’s still trying to process how that victory changed his life.

DEEP ROOTS AT JRM

Josh Berry charged through the racing ranks in his home state of Tennessee. By the time he was 19 years old, the Hendersonville native was already a six-time champion through various Legends divisions, including a track championship at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville in 2009.

Simultaneously, Berry was working as a bank teller in his hometown, trying to make enough money to keep racing feasible. He also developed a strong friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. through their iRacing connections.

By 2010, Earnhardt hired Berry to drive his late model stock car for JR Motorsports, meaning Berry would have to move to North Carolina.

Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JRM, helped make sure the then-20-year-old Berry would be right at home, as Berry moved in with her mother, Brenda Jackson, and stepfather William Jackson.

“If you know me well, I have a very nurturing personality,” Earnhardt Miller told NBC Sports. “I mean my relationship with Dale is that way in terms of  us growing up and kind of being that mother hen. I am the mother hen, I tell the guys here at the shop. And I just want to see people be happy. I want to see them do well.”

Berry, an only child, had lost his mother and had been racing with his father before moving east to drive for JRM. By the time he moved into the Gee household, he suddenly found himself a part of the Earnhardt family with a motorsports career in sight.

“The opportunity that I got to move out here and to work and race a late model car and get to basically race for a living is something that I just never dreamed would be possible for me,” Berry told NBC Sports.

THE ‘HAIL MARY’ OPPORTUNITY

By 2015, Berry was no longer the newcomer on the late model tour.

Driving JRM’s No. 88 Chevrolet, Berry stormed to track championships at Motor Mile Speedway in 2012 and Hickory Motor Speedway in 2014 and was racking up wins on a regular basis, collecting nearly 50 career victories by September 2015.

Berry made two Xfinity starts for JRM in 2014, his debut coming at Iowa before participating in the season finale at Homestead, finishing 12th and 25th respectively.

Then came his moment. In a last-minute, “Hail Mary” deal as Earnhardt phrased it, Berry was entered in the No. 88 SpeedCo Chevrolet for the Xfinity race at Richmond in September 2015, the late model driver hired because sponsorship hadn’t been sold otherwise.

Berry qualified fifth and was in contention to win late in the race. Running fourth under caution with less than 30 laps to go, Berry was blocked in his pit stall by Bubba Wallace, forcing him to back up and costing him painful seconds on pit road. Berry fell to ninth and rebounded to finish seventh.

“I think about that night often because it was a great field of cars and I mean stacked with Cup drivers – Kyle Busch, (Joey) Logano,” Berry recalled.

Included in that rundown were several active or eventual Cup drivers, including Wallace, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain.

Elliott, Berry’s teammate, won the race, providing Earnhardt a chance to make his case for Berry.

“I’m ready to race Josh every week,’’ Earnhardt said at the time. “We’ve just got to find a partner.’’

But the partner never came.

“If anybody thinks about me now, I wonder if they remember that race,” Berry said, “because that race, I was a nobody and ran in the top five, ran in the top three and really, like if a certain chain of events happen, I can win it.”

Berry made two more starts for JRM in 2016 and placed ninth at Iowa and 13th at Kentucky. But the upward progression stalled. 

“Honestly I felt like that was it for me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Man, (after) this whole chain of events, I’ll never get back in the Xfinity car. …

“That was my moment. But again, it didn’t come.”

CARVING HIS NICHE

With a lack of sponsorship to race in NASCAR, Berry took his frustration and “turned to just trying to race the hell out of the late model as much as I could.”

As part of JRM’s late model program, Berry was an integral part of working on the cars with crew chief and team manager Bryan Shaffer. And while knocking out win after win, Berry also mentored JRM’s new late model drivers along the way – guys like William Byron, Anthony Alfredo, Sam Mayer and Christian Eckes.

The success kept rolling in, and Berry became more than content in his role, looking past the frustration of his NASCAR endeavors – or the lack thereof.

“I just thought it just wasn’t meant to be,” Berry said. “I thought that my career would lead me to be a career short-track racer and a very good one. And I am and I was, and the things that I accomplished on my resume prove that we’ve had an amazing run in that. And I was at peace with that.

“I know how difficult it is to race at that level, and I know the competition and what it takes to do it. That’s just basically what I thought I was meant to do.”

MARTINSVILLE MEMORIES

Berry has been racing at Martinsville Speedway since 2011. In late model stock racing, there is no greater victory than the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.

“Martinsville is the race,” Berry said. “People’s careers, right or wrong, are judged on whether you’ve won Martinsville or not in that arena. It’s no different than somebody judging a Cup driver because they haven’t won the championship, or they haven’t won the Daytona 500. I mean, that’s what it is.

“You can win every late model stock in the world. But if you haven’t won Martinsville, then everyone’s always gonna say you haven’t won Martinsville.”

Heading into the 2019 edition of the race, Berry was 0-for-8. He didn’t qualify for the 2013 event and crashed out at least three times. His best finish was 13th twice. In 2018, Berry led 93 of 200 laps but got spun late in the event and finished 19th.

“I remember leaving that night thinking like, that’s never gonna happen again,” Berry recalled. “Like, I just remember thinking, I don’t care what I got to do, I’m gonna win this race.”

He did. One year later, Berry dominated the 2019 event, winning the pole and leading all 200 laps en route to the pinnacle win of his late model career.

“It was a huge moment for me personally,” Berry said. “I think I left that night … I was content being the short-track racer and all that, and I think that was just a huge moment of me accomplishing something that was just really important to me.”

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

As Sam Mayer made his transition from late models into NASCAR’s national series, JRM signed the young Wisconsin prospect to an Xfinity Series deal that would see him in the company’s No. 8 Chevrolet starting in June 2021.

There was one problem – at age 17, Mayer was too young to run the full schedule. That left 15 races for JRM to fill before Mayer could take over at Pocono after he turned 18.

“We just started really thinking through, OK, what does the first half of this season look like?” Earnhardt Miller said. “Honestly, we talked to Jeb Burton about doing that. There were several other drivers that we talked to.”

But every driver wants to compete for the full season and a championship. That wasn’t an option.

Then came the idea to put Berry behind the wheel for 12 races, while Miguel Paludo would pilot the car in the three road course races during that stretch.

“It was a conversation that, as we were thinking through what we could do, both Dale and I were like, ‘OK, is this a good place? Is this a good fit for Josh Berry?’” she said. “And we really took a leap of faith from a funding standpoint to say, ‘OK, well, let’s do this, and let’s give him the opportunity to do it.’”

CASHING IN

The first five races of 2021 hadn’t gone particularly well for Berry, producing two top 10s and three DNFs for wrecks.

But the next race on the schedule was Martinsville, the race he and everybody had circled on his calendar. For the first time in his NASCAR career, he was going back to a track he was familiar with and had significant past success to rely on.

“At the same time, I was a little nervous for all those same reasons,” Berry said. “I’m like, this is my opportunity, right? If Josh Berry is ever gonna have his moment, is ever going to do anything with this opportunity, this is the place. And everyone knew it. My team knew it. Dale knew it. Kelley knew it. Everyone knew it. They had their eyes on me that weekend.”

With no qualifying, Berry lined up 29th for that race on April 9, and by using pit strategy, jumped up the leaderboard to start Stage 2. By Lap 78, Berry was out front and leading the first laps of his Xfinity career. Berry led 10 circuits before Brandon Jones worked past him again, and the caution soon fell for rain. That red-flagged the event until Sunday afternoon.

“I remember thinking like, ‘I just led my first laps. Like, I can do this. I can win this race. This can really happen,” Berry said. “I just went home and watched the race back and thought about it and studied it and just came back Sunday and was just ready.”

On Sunday, Berry’s homework spoke for itself. With just over 100 laps remaining, Berry reclaimed the top spot and put his studies on display. Ty Gibbs worked past Berry at Lap 194 and was out front for a 28-lap stretch, but Berry muscled back around him with 29 laps to go.

He counted down every lap, praying the caution flag wouldn’t fly. It didn’t. Berry became a winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“Everything I had been talking about, like that moment – that moment happened,” Berry said. 

MAKING IT LAST

Winning makes most things better. But occasionally, those wins become fleeting moments.

So why did Berry’s win prove to have some lasting power? How did he go from the driver who had Dale Earnhardt Jr. begging for sponsors to someone with enough backing to race full-time in the Xfinity Series? The first answer stems from the “perfect storm” of Berry winning on a Sunday ahead of the Cup race, Earnhardt Miller said.

“They (Cup teams and drivers) had to be there,” she said. “That was still in the midst of COVID whenever we were supposed to be there on different days, but we ended up not being (that way) for weather. … I mean winning the race was huge, but the buzz of the Kyle Busches and different people that were talking about Josh and congratulating him and all these different things, the buzz that that created really was helpful.”

The second answer is how Berry continued to back up his performances on the track. Two weeks after winning, Berry finished second at Darlington and again the following week at Dover. 

“The eyeballs were there once he got in the car and he did well,” Earnhardt Miller said. “And I think that we didn’t have a doubt that really that would be the way that it went. But it’s hard to get in these race cars and contend, and I really attribute that to his late model career, the fact that he knows race cars in and out.”

By August, Berry was announced as the next full-time driver for JRM. In the aftermath of his win, Tire Pros extended its sponsorship with JRM and Harrison’s, a workwear clothing outlet with locations in North Carolina and South Carolina, signed on to support Berry in 2022. Harrison’s had previously sponsored super late model driver Bubba Pollard and wanted to rally around a NASCAR driver with similar roots, Earnhardt Miller said.

She also believes Berry’s success was easy for long-time fans to root for.

“It gave people what they’ve been wanting to see in terms of somebody truly making it on what they felt like was merit, and not just merit, but the way that the old racers made it, right?” Earnhardt Miller said, noting her father and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. didn’t make his first Cup start until he was 28 years old.

“I think that really was probably the thing that propelled Josh up there, really, because people really wanted to wrap their arms around that. And I don’t mean that other people haven’t made it on merit. But that was somebody that they followed, and they knew this 10-year history and then all of a sudden got this opportunity, which people were ecstatic about. And then to put it in victory lane just kind of solidified that whole process.”

BACK TO THE PAPERCLIP

Heading into Martinsville this weekend, Berry sits fifth in Xfinity points with three top fives and four top 10s through seven races. 

It’s been a strong start for the No. 8 team, but Berry is still trying to wrap his head around where his career has taken him.

“Really amazing when I sit and think about it, just how much changed,” Berry said. “And obviously the win, I’ve described it as life-changing, I think that’s the best way to put it. That led to the opportunity to have this year full-time at JRM, but just along the way, not only that, but so many other opportunities come down.

“I was able to make a couple of Cup starts at Spire Motorsports, Truck races, more Xfinity races. It’s just been amazing just how much that really changed. 

“I mean, it was just such a huge day.”

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.