Saturday’s Icebreaker at Florence Motor Speedway will serve as the final Late Model Stock race for long-time veteran Josh Berry before he embarks on a part-time NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule in 2021.
Having established himself as one of the greatest Late Model drivers in the United States during the 2010s, Berry is looking forward to proving himself in the Xfinity Series, but he is currently focused on bringing home one last Late Model victory for JR Motorsports.
“For me, Saturday is about going down [to Florence] and getting back in the motions,” Berry said. “I want to knock some of this rust off after a couple of months away, but I also want to spend some time with the Late Model guys before I go off and do this Xfinity deal for the next couple of months. We just want to race and support Florence.”
When Berry was just beginning his auto racing career by competing in Legends cars around Tennessee, he took up an interest in iRacing and was consistent enough to qualify for the inaugural season of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series back in 2010.
Another driver that took part in events during the first iRacing Series season was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who Berry was able to establish a friendship with. Following several conversations, Earnhardt agreed to have Berry test one of his Late Models, which eventually turned into a full-time opportunity in the #88 Speedco Chevrolet.
Berry knew that Late Model racing on the East Coast would be a difficult environment to get accustomed to with drivers like Lee Pulliam, Philip Morris and Peyton Sellers all still winning races each weekend, but he said that his first years competing for JR Motorsports were about putting equal emphasis on performing well and making smart decisions.
“I felt like I was held to a pretty high standard when it came to taking care of his equipment,” Berry said. “I knew I needed to work hard and be involved with everything. I learned a lot of lessons in my life throughout those years, but it’s been a great experience from the start.”
It would take Berry a couple of years before he finally got comfortable with JR Motorsports as he frequently came up short against the elite drivers that had long been comfortable at Hickory Motor Speedway, Southern National Motorsports Park and other facilities, with Berry signaling out Pulliam as the toughest driver he had competed against during his career.
“Lee Pulliam set the standard for excellence in a Late Model,” Berry said. “I’m thankful I was able to get a few from him here and there, but he has by far been the best driver the last 10 or 12 years.”
As the years progressed, Berry fully developed his driving style and began to hold his own with Pulliam and other local frontrunners. By the mid-2010s, Berry had cemented himself as a favorite to win any race that he entered, which opened the door for him to make starts in the Xfinity Series in an attempt to move through through the developmental ladder.
Brandon Pierce, who has been a part of Pulliam’s Late Model program since 2019, had to fight his way around Berry to earn his lone CARS LMSC Tour victory at Southern National in 2019, but he said that Berry’s presence at the short tracks is enough to motivate other programs to put in the extra time and effort to improve their on-track performance.
“[Josh] has raised the level for sure,” Pierce said. “He is like a Lee Pulliam or a Philip Morris. Those guys are elite and you have to be on your game and run a perfect race to compete with them. At the same time, it drives someone like me to be better and work harder, and I’m fortunate enough to drive for Pulliam where we put forth the best effort we can to be the best car at the track. Competition is a lot harder now then it ever has been and Josh and his success are a huge part of that.”
While Berry fought to earn his place in NASCAR’s top divisions, he maintained his winning ways in Late Models by taking home checkered flags in big races like the Fall Brawl, Bobby Isaac Memorial and Myrtle Beach 400, yet was unable to score a victory in the prestigious ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway in his first eight starts.
Fortunes would finally change for Berry in the 2019 edition of the race when he won the race after leading every single lap from the pole over former winners in Pulliam and Timothy Peters, and considers that victory in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 to be the most cherished accomplishment of his career over his CARS LMSC Tour and NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series titles.
“I really feel like that Martinsville win is at the top,” Berry said. “Everyone knows how important and prestigious that race is, and I didn’t really have a lot of success there until about 2018. I could never really get any good finishes there, so I was kind of snake bit there. Being able to finally check that race off the list was such a big deal for me.”
Despite all of his success in Late Models, the opportunities for Berry to have a full-time NASCAR career dwindled with every passing year, and he eventually resigned himself to sticking with JR Motorsports’ Late Model program to win races in the CARS LMSC Tour and help out their development drivers that have included Christian Eckes, Anthony Alfredo and Sam Mayer.
As Berry was putting the finishing touches on his first NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series, he was informed by Earnhardt during an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he would moving back up to the Xfinity Series once again for a part-time effort in 2021, where he would spilt the #8 with his boss, Mayer and Miguel Paludo.
Berry was stunned when Earnhardt revealed the news to him, but he believes that he is more prepared to handle driving duties in the Xfinity Series now than he was in his first start back in 2014, and is confident that he can make most the most out of his 12-race schedule that starts at Daytona International Speedway next weekend.
“I feel really good going into this opportunity,” Berry said. “I’ve worked really hard over the past few months by changing the way I approach racing and just doing everything a little differently than I’m used to. I’m happy with where I’m at as a driver and what I’ve been able to accomplish the last few years and I think I’m definitely ready for this opportunity.”
Now that Berry has regular commitments to the Xfinity Series, he will step away from active Late Model competition for the first time in over a decade outside of a couple CARS LMSC Tour appearances and assisting William Cox III, who is the newest development driver inside JR Motorsports’ stable.
As with Berry at the start of the decade, Cox knows that high expectations are being placed upon him by Earnhardt and everyone else at JR Motorsports as he prepares to chase a championship in the CARS LMSC Tour, but he admitted that Berry’s guidance has helped him feel more prepared and confident in his ability to contend for wins from the very first race.
[Josh] has really helped me get up to speed,” Cox said. “He’s told me what I need to do right out on track so I don’t develop any bad habits. I’ve asked him for advice numerous times and he’s gone out of his way to make sure that I’m doing everything correct.”
While Cox would have loved to race alongside Berry in 2021, he knows that a driver of his caliber deserves an opportunity to utilize his talents in one of the top three divisions of NASCAR, adding that Berry’s impact on the Late Model industry will remain prevalent regardless if he’s racing at Daytona or Hickory Motor Speedway.
“Josh has a lot of great wins, but he’s just a fantastic driver,” Cox said. “He is someone who will treat fellow racers right and still be aggressive out on track. Being able to learn from a legend in the sport has been amazing, and I’m excited to see him race in [the Xfinity Series] this year.”
As Berry prepares for what he hopes will be a great season in the Xfinity Series, he can not help but reflect on all of the great memories he has made on the short tracks of the East Coast during the 2010s, and expressed his gratitude to Earnhardt and everyone at JR Motorsports for having confidence in him transforming the organization into a Late Model powerhouse.
“When I first came in, it seemed like Late Model teams had a pretty quick turnover of drivers,” Berry said. “You hardly saw a driver make it past a year or two, so it was obviously a goal for me to stick around, but what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past few years has been amazing. We’ve checked off a lot of big things like Martinsville and the national title, which has been awesome.”
Berry narrowly missed out on a win in his last trip to Florence in November when he lost to Ty Majeski in an intense battle for the South Carolina 400, but he feels that his team has the #88 iRacing Chevrolet right where it needs to be to showcase one last display of dominance before Berry tackles Daytona on Feb. 13.
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