Dale Jr. sees potential in part-timer Berry
July 31, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live
Editor's note: This week's JRM 360 video is on Josh Berry and why the folks at JR Motorsports are so emotional about this weekend. Watch it below at the end of this article.
Yet that's exactly what happened.
Berry, 23, is scheduled to make his Nationwide Series debut this weekend in the JR Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet when the series travels to Iowa Speedway for Saturday night's U.S. Cellular 250.
"There's a series, the Peak Antifreeze Series is what it's called now, it's the highest series on iRacing.com," Berry said of the sim-racing series. "That's where we raced together. We kind of developed a friendship through there, just talking about different things. The racing part of it was not so much. It was just kind of the bridge for us to meet."
Berry was competing in Legends cars for his family-owned team in Nashville, Tennessee, at the time, "and it was just me and my dad," he said. Although he "had aspirations to race Late Model or something like that, we just didn't have the financial means to make that possible."
JRM officials were looking for a driver to put in the organization's Late Model program, and eventually Earnhardt Jr. made the offer.
"I told him that I had a Late Model and I've give him a race if he wanted to come race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We'd test him first; if he tested well, then we'd race him, and if he raced well then we'd race him again … just one race after another.
"Then we ended up winning some races and won a (track) championship."
Regardless of how he does at Iowa, Berry said that initial opening has been "life-changing."
"It was kind of hard to believe how … it would work out," he said. "In talking to him, it just seemed so simple. 'Oh yeah, you just come over and meet with us; we'll go test,' like (it was) nothing. And … it was a life-changing moment for me, a pretty big deal. 'Holy cow, this is going down.' "
Berry has held up his end of the bargain, winning the first championship for the organization in 2012 at Motor Mile Speedway near Radford, Virginia. He already has five wins this season at Hickory Motor Speedway and leads the track's Late Model points standings.
"Every opportunity we give him, he's done well, won races," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He works really hard. … He's the guy working on the car. He's working on it, learning himself.
"I just think he can do it. I think he's really smooth. I think he understands what driving a car is all about, and hopefully we'll see what kind of potential he's got."
That he works on the car is a requirement, Earnhardt Jr. said. Berry started out working in the race shop for JRM, helping with post-race teardown and the assembly of the Nationwide cars during the week.
"And then we did the Late Model stuff at night," Berry said. "I'd say three quarters of the guys on the Nationwide team I've worked with here every day.
"For the past couple of years I've just been working on the Late Model team. We added a second team last year so pretty much my responsibilities are to maintain and service my Late Model and help take care of the second car."
Berry will join full-time JRM drivers Chase Elliott and Regan Smith at Iowa. Elliott, a three-time winner as a rookie this season, leads the points; Smith, who won the season-opening race at Daytona, is second.
The No. 5 team, overseen by crew chief Ernie Cope, has won three times this season as well -- twice with Sprint Cup drivers Kevin Harvick (at Richmond and Kentucky) and once with Kasey Kahne (at Daytona earlier this month). Austin Theriault made two starts, in the series' first stop at Iowa and again at New Hampshire. Earnhardt Jr. has made four starts, with the car re-branded as the No. 88, although Cope was only on the pit box for two of those.
The team's success isn't lost on Berry, but he said, "You'll always feel … pressure because for someone like me, this is going to be my only shot.
"Without major sponsorship behind you or anything like that it really comes down to one race. So yeah, you've got to put some pressure on yourself; really all you can do … is prepare yourself the best you can, which I feel like I've done."
For Iowa, Berry's No. 5 entry will feature Tackle Grab, a leading online subscription box service that provides products to the recreational fishing industry. Tackle Grab has also launched a month-long social media campaign called "Rods, Reels and Racing," with the grand prize being a trip to Homestead for the championship weekend to meet the Earnhardts. (Get details here)
The team still has openings for future races in 2014, Earnhardt Jr. said, "and if we can get some people excited, we'd love to continue. If he can run well and not do anything totally disastrous, we can think about running him some more.
"It's kind of like going back to that Late Model idea of 'we'll run you a race and see how you do, and if we can run you again, we'd love to do it.' He's part of our team and part of our team a long time. We're going to try to take good care of him and try to give him the best opportunity we can."