Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes Xfinity win leads to bigger things for Josh Berry
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. can see all the suggestions online about drivers he should put in his cars.
But JR Motorsports isn’t a charity. It either finds sponsorship for its drivers, or it takes drivers it likes with funding.
To commit to a dozen Xfinity Series races for Josh Berry in 2021 without the sponsorship he normally would require wasn’t something Earnhardt did lightly. But Berry won NASCAR’s 2020 national weekly series championship, which honors the top local drivers by awarding points based on finishes at their local tracks.
At 30 years old, Berry is known throughout the Carolinas as a strong racer. But he had never gotten a shot in the Xfinity Series running consistently over weeks — let alone months.
But with Sam Mayer joining the team after he turns 18 in late June, Earnhardt saw a prime opportunity to give Berry a chance on the ovals that the Xfinity Series runs in the first half of the season. To Earnhardt, this was a move that symbolized the opportunity for the local racer – the thousands who have the talent but never get that chance.
"We have a financial budget and plan that will succeed this year, but we had to sacrifice and do some things that we probably typically weren’t comfortable doing in the past," Earnhardt said.
Berry’s season had been a roller coaster until Sunday (some might remember him flipping off another driver last month), when he captured his first career Xfinity Series victory with a dominant triumph at Martinsville Speedway.
The driver seemed thrilled. The legendary team owner, who didn’t watch many of the final 25 laps until the last one, when it appeared Berry would win, seemed emotionally spent.
"I never cried like I cried today over racing, over anything I ever did or anything my dad did," said Earnhardt, a member of the upcoming NASCAR Hall of Fame induction class and son of the seven-time Cup champion.
"I don’t know why that brought the emotion out of me because I never experienced that before. I just wanted this so bad for Josh."
Earnhardt would love to think the win will produce something for Berry. But he knows the reality in racing, and one win might not cut it, at least not for a long-term partner.
The biggest fear is that in a few weeks, this win will be forgotten. And while Berry has talent and seems personable, a company might hesitate on a 30-year-old driver when most of the stars are in their 20s (and many in their early- or mid-20s.).
"I don’t know what a win means to the world anymore in terms of creating opportunities and partners," Earnhardt said. "I’m optimistic. I’m always going to try to stay optimistic.
"We were able to put together a half a year for Josh, and this gives us an opportunity to piece together more people to maybe get a full-time deal going. We just have to hope and be optimistic in that becoming a reality."
But even in the bigger picture, what kind of opportunities will this create for Berry? If a truck team that is OK but not great comes with an offer, does he take it? Does he go to an Xfinity team lacking the depth of JR Motorsports if he can run full-time?
Or does he continue to race the big, short-track local events in the Carolinas and run the JR Motorsports program that fields drivers in those events? It’s not a bad life, but it’s not the Cup life that Earnhardt believes Berry is good enough to earn.
"I’m 30. I can’t wait around for much if opportunities do present themselves," Berry said. "We’re just going to celebrate this and see what happens.
"I would sure hope this would open up some opportunities, but you never know in these times."
Berry wishes this would give him an opportunity to make the Xfinity playoffs, but getting a waiver to miss races – drivers must attempt every race to be eligible for the playoffs — because of a lack of sponsorship is unlikely. As much as Earnhardt would want Berry to be in the playoffs for Berry’s sake, Earnhardt isn’t a huge fan of the waiver system.
He is mainly focused on Berry getting a full-time ride.
"That’s all I worry about," Earnhardt said in regard to the full-time ride. "The opportunity to compete for a championship or anything like that is not even in the back of my mind.
"I just want him at the race track and running."
Sometimes when an owner says that, it is easy to be skeptical. Of course a team owner wants the best opportunity for his drivers.
But with Earnhardt, this comes from the heart.
And the wallet.
"We sacrificed as a company to do this with Josh this year, and this moment today by far made that sacrifice well worth it, without question," Earnhardt said. "I will never regret the burden financially that we might have created for ourselves, and we’ll work our way through it."
Thinking out loud
Some will say NASCAR wasted a lot of time drying the track Saturday to get in 42 laps of the NASCAR Cup Series race that night at Martinsville, only to have rains force the remaining 458 laps to be run Sunday.
But for fans who came to the track and couldn’t return Sunday, at least they saw something. Sure, it was unlikely NASCAR could get the race in, but NASCAR has seen weather systems unexpectedly dissipate and races run at least the distance to an official race.
This is one of those situations where something seems better than nothing.
Stat of the day
Martin Truex Jr. has won five of the past 11 short track races after starting his career with no wins in his first 80 short track races.
They said it
"That's the most nervous that I get in the race is when two of our guys are up front like that. The whole time I'm praying: Just don't wreck each other. I got to admit that." – Joe Gibbs on watching Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin battle for the win
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!