Championship Close-Up: Josh Berry – JW Martin
Mark McFarland never did it. Neither did Aric Almirola.
Not even newly minted Sprint Cup Series titlist Brad Keselowski could do it.
In the end, it wasn’t won by an established driver or a top-ranked recruit. It wasn’t won at a marquee venue on a national stage.
It took an unheralded upstart piloting a Late Model Stock Car at a .416-mile bullring in Virginia’s New River Valley to deliver the pinnacle achievement eluding JR Motorsports since its inception in 2004: A championship.
On September 15th, Josh Berry was crowned the 2012 Bull & Bones Late Model Stock Car track champion at Motor Mile Speedway. The coronation was the capstone of an exceptional season that few predicted at the outset of 2012. Most still find it hard to fathom that JR Motorsports’ maiden title belongs to the second-year driver from Hendersonville, Tenn.
…Including Berry, himself.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of crazy. It’s tough to believe that. There are a lot of great drivers that have come through,” Berry says. “It’s like [Dale Earnhardt, Jr.] told me— I don’t think anyone really expected Josh Berry to win a championship like that.”
It was perhaps one of the more underrated performances in all of Late Model Stock Car racing in 2012.
Berry captured the Motor Mile Speedway championship on the strength of one win supplemented by a division-high fifteen top tens. His record at MMS was unrivaled by even the best in Late Model racing.
Frank Deiny, Jr. fell 32 markers shy of Berry’s 666-point championship total. Deiny, a Late Model stalwart, boasts track championships at five different venues, including Motor Mile Speedway. Lee Pulliam finished third in the track standings. Pulliam’s 10-win season at MMS earned him the coveted 2012 NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series national championship.
How did the No. 88 Speedco/Lucas Oil team fair nationally? Nineteenth. By comparison, it was arguably as impressive as the record produced by Pulliam.
The NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series points system is structured to collect a driver’s best 18 races, and points are awarded in correlation to the finishing position of those races. A driver can make an unlimited amount of starts at an unlimited amount of race tracks in an effort to amass a more favorable 18-race points total.
Berry finished inside the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series Top 20 despite competing in only 18 races—half the total compiled by Pulliam. In fact, Berry’s 18-race total tied for the fewest starts among Top 20 finishers.
Furthermore, Berry was one of just four Top 20 finishers to compete at only one race track in 2012.
For Berry, there were no mulligans. There were no dropped races. Every race counted toward his season total.
The majority of the competitors earned their standing in the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series Top 20 based on starts. Berry’s standing was among the few earned solely by finishes.
Which ushers in the most intriguing aspect of Berry’s 2012 campaign: a championship was not the ultimate goal.
The longstanding mission statement of JR Motorsports’ Late Model program has been driver development. In this sense, the Late Model is a teaching tool; the race track, a classroom. The mindset, therefore, is disparate from most other equally capable drivers with quality equipment.
“The Late Model program isn’t designed and functioning to go beat Philip Morris or Lee Pulliam. It’s built to race and run good. But most of all, it’s built to teach people like me how to work on race cars and deal with people and race,” explains Berry. “With that being said, the goal isn’t to be a champion at the most competitive track. If we finished fifth the week before, the goal is to finish fourth this week.”
That Berry far exceeded expectations with the 2012 track title vindicates the JR Motorsports model. While the ultimate aim may have been less lofty, the ultimate measure of success in racing is still a championship.
“Looking back on it, our goal was to have fun and try to win some races. To win a championship in my second year…I think that’s pretty big,” says Berry. “It’s like what Dale Jr. told me, that when we did this deal, the ultimate success is winning a championship.
“It’s something that, no matter what happens in my racing career, I’ll be able to look back on it and be very proud of it.”
Many notable drivers have competed for JR Motorsports. Where does Berry rank? In the position befitting a champion: First.
The Trackside Transcript – Josh Berry
First, what were your expectations this season?
We were hoping to win a couple more races than what we did. Overall, we were just looking to be more competitive, which we were. We won once in 2011, and we won once in 2012—but we ran much more competitively, and that was our goal.
The season-ending twinbill finale. Close points race, and you’re missing key members of your team. How nervous were you; what were those emotions like?
I was pretty nervous about it, I guess. I felt good about what we had going into it; I knew how prepared we were. But in those kind of races, you never know what can happen. I’ve seen it happen to people in the past. I was basically focused on doing what we had to do, which was staying out of trouble and having a good car for the second race.
What does it mean to you, having had time to reflect, to add your name to a list of Motor Mile Speedway champions that includes names like Jeff Agnew and Philip Morris?
It’s a big deal. When I moved here three years ago and started driving for JR Motorsports, it wasn’t something that was in my mind. I was just a 19 year-old kid getting a shot to race a Late Model. I learned fairly quickly how competitive Motor Mile is. And how hard it is to win races…championships. To be able to add my name to that list, it really means a lot to me.
Looking back on it, our goal was to have fun and try to win some races. To win a championship in my second year…I think that’s pretty big.
JR Motorsports has been competing at Motor Mile Speedway since 2004. The team has been in the Nationwide Series since 2005. So many quality drivers…how did you become the guy to deliver them their first title?
I don’t know. It’s kind of crazy. It’s tough to believe that. There are a lot of great drivers that have come through. I was just fortunate enough to put the season together up there to win.
It’s hard to compare a lot of it— from Nationwide to Pro Cup to Late Model. But the bottom line is, it comes down to whatever series you’re running in, to be a champion you have to put up the most points. For me to do that, I think it means a lot. It’s something that, no matter what happens in my racing career, I’ll be able to look back on it and be very proud of it.
What was the defining moment for this race team this season?
There’s two that really stick out to me. Obviously, the first is when Lee Pulliam came back, and we beat him. Regardless of the circumstances behind it, that was a big deal for us. We don’t have that many wins as a team, so to get one, that’s always big.
But to me, I think the most defining moment was when Mike Looney and I got together and wrecked on like the second or third lap of one of the 150-lap races. I was trying to drive the car to the pits, and it wouldn’t even roll. We got towed off the race track, and the whole team just thrashed. We were welding the thing back together. Putting parts on it. Changing tires. I think we only ended up finishing 40 laps down.
If we would have retired out of that race, I don’t think it would have been the difference maker, but the points would have been a heckuva lot closer. In those situations you can really lose points. I think a lot of people would have put it on the trailer, but that was a moment when I became really proud of my team; I knew we had a really good group of guys that could really pull through. We got the car back out there, and that’s the difference in winning a championship and not, a lot of times.
It was the most competitive season at Motor Mile Speedway since 2009— the division featured seven different winners. What does it say about how hard it is to win a championship?
I think it’s extremely hard. With it being so competitive… it’s the hardest track championship to win in Late Model Stock Car racing, for sure, in my opinion. And all those winners just prove it’s hard. I mean, it’s hard to finish in the top five on a consistent basis. And staying out of trouble—when it’s that competitive, racing accidents are prone to happen.
It’s a testament to consistency. You can win ‘em through consistency, too. You don’t have to win 16 races.
What’s been the most memorable moment for you, post-season, in the wake of this championship?
It’s all been pretty memorable. I’ve gotten a lot of support from the people at JR Motorsports. We did a luncheon, and that was pretty cool to have that done for us.
It’s like what Dale Jr. told me, that when we did this deal, the ultimate success is winning a championship. But that’s not the goal. The Late Model program isn’t designed and functioning to go beat Philip Morris or Lee Pulliam. It’s built to race and run good. But most of all, it’s built to teach people like me how to work on race cars and deal with people and race.
With that being said, the goal isn’t to be a champion at the most competitive track. If we finished fifth the week before, the goal is to finish fourth this week.
It’s like he told me— I don’t think anyone really expected Josh Berry to win a championship like that. When the guy that gave me my opportunity – which is Dale Jr. – tells me that that was the ultimate success….that’s pretty cool.
Nineteenth in the national standings and fifth in the Virginia state standings…despite only competing at one race track. What does that say about your race team to have that caliber of success while running a much more limited schedule than your competition?
I think that’s pretty impressive. It takes your best 18 races—and we competed in 18 races. So every race that I ran this year counted. Half of me says: man that’s an impressive record. The other half says: I wish we would have ran more races. We could have been right up there in the top ten. Really, what it shows -with us counting every race- it shows how consistent we really were.
Last question: What will be your role at JRM next season, considering the addition of a second Late Model team? And what goals have been established?
I’ll be running a Late Model next year. We’re working on some other things to keep me progressing. But we don’t really have anything yet. We’re working on that. And we’re adding a second car. I assume the plan is to run Motor Mile full time again, but I can’t say that for certain. We’re gonna start out with the goal to win races. We’re gonna go wide open, try to compete with Lee, and win races.
Learn more about Josh Berry’s ascension in Late Model racing. Read “The Unlikely Underdog”
Season in a Snap Shot