THE UNLIKELY UNDERDOG
He’s employed by NASCAR’s foremost superstar. He competes for the most prominent team in Late Model racing. His racecar is branded with sponsorship from big-time motorsports mainstays Speedco and Lucas Oil.
The only thing Josh Berry doesn’t have? The spotlight.
He’s the best kept secret at Motor Mile Speedway. Don’t judge a book by its cover—underneath the iconic JR Motorsports nameplate and the flamboyant paint scheme sits an unpretentious young racer.
Non-confrontational. Calculating. Fast. In only his second full season behind the wheel of the JR Motorsports no. 88, Berry is the frontrunner for the Bull & Bones Late Model Stock Car championship as the 2012 season flashes past its midway point.
Yet, despite the credentials, most still consider Berry the underdog in the Late Model title race.
…Which is fine with Berry. He seems to have a knack for quietly beating the odds.
A Virtual Reality
In 2011, an IPSOS Public Affairs poll found that one-third of parents in the US feel there are still no tangible benefits associated with playing video games.
Obviously, they haven’t heard Josh Berry’s story.
Berry’s background in racing is typical. A successful karting career that began at age eight preceded a debut in INEX Legends cars in 2006. But after three seasons in the Legends ranks, Berry’s progress had plateaued with only a bulging trophy case to show for his efforts. He needed a break.
“Really, that’s about all I had going for me,” Berry says of his stint in Legends. “I did iRacing a little more back then, because we were going broke. It was a cheaper way to race, and I had fun.”
With his future in limbo, Berry ventured into the virtual motorsports world of iRacing.com.
Touted as the best online racing simulation destination in the world, iRacing.com is an all-encompassing motorsports gaming service. Praised for its technical accuracy, iRacing has received acclaim for its ability to be a training tool, aside from its entertainment value.
Online, Berry thrived. He quickly progressed into the Pro Series, the elite level of iRacing.
“Then I met Dale Jr. on there,” Berry recalls.
Berry could go toe-to-toe with Earnhardt on iRacing.com. Occasional on-track battles spawned post-race chat sessions where the discussion gradually escalated beyond reminiscing about the racing.
Perhaps more important than the resume Berry had built -in reality- on the track was the relationship he was building online. And ironically, the video game proved to be the vehicle through which opportunities were presented.
Berry credits iRacing.com in part for the subsequent invitation he received from Earnhardt to wheel a JR Motorsports Late Model.
“I’m not the best on that game…nothing spectacular. If you’re going off iRacing, then there’s better candidates than me,” admits Berry. “I didn’t get hired because of it, but it was a bridge.
“That’s how I got the opportunity to test this car.”
In 2010, Berry was tapped to co-pilot the No. 72 R& B Transport Refinishing Chevrolet alongside mentor Richard Boswell.
A native of Hendersonville, TN, Berry didn’t know Motor Mile Speedway existed. Furthermore, he had no experience piloting stock cars—a real one, that is.
Yet, in eight outings that season, Berry posted three top ten finishes. A sixth place effort in the season finale left him on the cusp of a top five finish—and the start of a full-time Late Model ride with JR Motorsports.
Berry rocketed into Late Model legitimacy at Motor Mile Speedway as a rookie in his first full season in 2011. He placed fourth in the track standings at season’s end on the strength of one win supplemented by nine top fives and 16 top tens.
The statistics would be satisfactory for almost any racer—just not for the 21 year-old with the JR Motorsports logo emblazoned on his firesuit. After two years in NASCAR, Berry found his success lacking.
“I’d say I’m probably a little bit behind where I thought [I’d be]. I think I probably did underestimate how competitive this stuff is,” Berry notes. “We’ve really had to work hard at improving. I was a rookie, and we weren’t where we needed to be with the car. I think I’ve gotten better. We’ve got the car better, and now we’re running better, obviously.”
The fusion of inherent confidence and an elevated experience level placed Berry on the brink of a breakthrough year entering the 2012 season. And again, opportunity would meet capability at a crossroads.
After 16 wins, a slew of track records and an unprecedented track championship in 2011, defending titlist Lee Pulliam would be serving a suspension for the opening three races of the season. His absence opened the door for an heir to emerge atop the Late Model standings.
Most assumed 2004 track champion Frank Deiny, Jr. would inherit frontrunner status. Some pointed to Kris Bowen, the 2011 championship runner-up, to bid for the title again in 2012. Few bet on Berry.
Racing under the radar, Berry began the season notching three consecutive third place finishes. His third straight podium appearance on April 28th garnered him the lead in the
point standings. He hasn’t relinquished it.
And in the very next event, Berry visited victory lane in a climactic finish with Pulliam in his 2012 debut.
In the weeks since, Berry’s advantage in the standings has swelled to 48 points. Somehow unnoticed, he’s becoming the undeniable favorite for the title.
But Berry isn’t paying attention, either. Team no. 88 remains focused on a longstanding singular objective: relevance.
“Obviously we’re leading the points and running good. But overall, the goal is to remain competitive— to keep getting better. As long as I’m improving and we’re having fun, that’s the main thing,” says Berry. “I try not to points race, and I try not to think about it, because you take one race at a time.”
A First Time for Everyone
Berry is competing for his first ever Late Model championship. But believe it or not, Berry boasts more titles than his race team.
You see, JR Motorsports is still competing for their first ever championship.
From Late Models to their Nationwide Series program, JR Motorsports is searching for that elusive pinnacle achievement as an organization. And the significance of becoming the driver to deliver that maiden crown to Earnhardt and JR Motorsports isn’t lost on Berry.
“When I think about stuff like that…obviously that means a lot to me and I want to be that person. That would be big. It would be big for our Late Model team, and it would definitely be big for me as a racecar driver,” states Berry.
At Motor Mile Speedway, JR Motorsports has historically struggled to maintain the perception of the powerhouse program the namesake projects.
JR Motorsports notched its first victory in Late Model racing at Motor Mile Speedway with TJ Majors in 2004. Over the next few seasons the cockpit became a revolving door and the success came in modest drabs. It wasn’t until 2008 that JR Motorsports became a contender for not only wins, but championships at MMS.
By 2008, JR Motorsports had ballooned into a five-car juggernaut, and its flagship driver was Davin Scites. Scites, a proven wheelman at MMS, catapulted JR Motorsports into championship contention, amassing three wins and placing the no. 06 Champion Chevrolet third in the standings.
It was statistically the best team the organization had ever fielded at the .416-mile oval…until now.
JR Motorsports has enjoyed a resurgence at Motor Mile Speedway with Berry behind the wheel. His tenure atop the Motor Mile Speedway point standings is unparalleled compared to his predecessors.
And while critics point to the copious sponsorship and mainstream motorsports ties as to the origins of success, Berry reveals that the reality of racing out of the JR Motorsports stable is far different from what is often presumed.
Although the resources afforded by JR Motorsports may contrast to other competitors, it does not mean Berry drives on easy street.
“It’s not what everybody thinks. Bottom line is Dale Jr. had to work for everything he has, and I get held to the same standard. If I wreck this thing, I fix it. And that’s on top of the fact that I work on Nationwide cars during the week, too,” Berry states. “I have a full time job. We all have responsibilities, and we don’t get to just spend money willy-nilly. We don’t come test every Friday. We’ve gotten to do more, but it’s not an unlimited budget.
“We’re told to work hard and be prepared. Do the best we can. At the same time, we have to be smart.”
Berry’s progression in racing has been improbable; a career forged by transforming fantasy into reality. For Berry, the role of underdog is fitting. After all, not too long ago it was doubtful whether or not he would catch a break.
Now, the only doubt that remains is if any other driver can catch him.
Still think he’s a longshot?
“I don’t know. Part of me feels like I am looked at as the underdog. And I don’t really mind that, but at the same time, I’m driving for JR Motorsports,” Berry concedes. “I think a lot of people underestimate us. I think a lot of people overlook us. But I’m fine with that.
“I don’t worry about other people; all we can do is come out here and do the best we can. And if it works out, it works out.”