‘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.”