This might be a bit of a deep cut to sim racing lore, and perhaps this story starts earlier than many current-day sim racing successes, but one particular Sim-to-Reality story just made the biggest of waves last Wednesday after Josh Berry was announced for a NASCAR Cup Series drive with Stewart-Haas Racing starting next season.
As NASCAR Champion Kevin Harvick’s career is set to conclude at the end of 2023, his ride will be occupied by Berry in 2024. Berry, a current top driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, will likely fight for both Rookie of the Year honors as well as the overall Cup Championship with the new gig next season.
Truly a driver that’s been working hard to even set foot in the NASCAR doors, things have been moving fast for him as of late. Now, after an eight-pack of relief Cup starts for Hendrick Motorsports, which have included impressive runs and finishes, Berry is set out on a new path in six months with a whole new team.
The story can truly be traced back to his online racing successes in the late 2000s and early 2010’s, and particularly within the iRacing community.
An OG of iRacing’s esports scene
Often referred from his Late Model successes over the last decade and a half, Berry’s start in racing can be traced through a handful of years at the top level of eNASCAR competition. From the inaugural season in 2010 through 2017, Berry competed successfully in what is known today as the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.
Over the course of his online racing career, Berry made 95 starts and won on three occasions, twice in the 2010 inaugural season at Darlington Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and once in the following 2011 season at Martinsville Speedway.
Through the online racing medium, Berry was introduced to Dale Earnhardt Jr, who you may have likely heard of before… a NASCAR Hall of Famer and recently a iRacing Executive. The friendship spurned between the two may in fact be one of the earliest catalysts for Berry’s new job next season.
“iRacing is something I’ve done for a long time and it really was what connected me with Dale (Earnhardt Jr),” said Berry in an article on the JR Motorsports website announcing a Late Model deal involving iRacing on the hood back in 2020.
This actually happened just before the shutdown of 2020 and the subsequent esports boom. More on that in a bit.
The two did compete against one another in that inaugural eNASCAR season in 2010, and even before then in other organized sim races. Earnhardt Jr won the very first eNASCAR race in history at Daytona, a race that Berry finished 21st in. A few months later when Berry scored his first win of the series, Earnhardt Jr had finished ninth.
Making a name on America’s Short Tracks
The same year as the inaugural season of eNASCAR, Berry, only 19 going on 20 at the time, started driving Late Models for JR Motorsports. As Berry began running more real-world racing, his online racing presence lessened, which led to more people learning of the Tennessee native through America’s Short Track scene.
There were a few NASCAR National Series level opportunities here and there which began in 2014, but didn’t materialize into anything more solid initially.
Iowa Speedway was his first start for JR Motorsports in 2014, where he finished 12th. For the rest of the 2010s, Berry’s National Series starts were scarce, running only a half-dozen more NXS races through 2017. He also picked up one single Truck Series race, but from 2018 to 2020, Berry wasn’t racing in one of the three top series.
A brief return to sim racing
2020 was a funny year for many reasons. With the move to digital racing due to the lockdown, Berry was back in the news racing against some of the top level real-world talents on the iRacing platform once again.
Even though he hadn’t been in the Coke Series for a few years, he was still a threat to win just about every Pro Invitational Series and Saturday Night Thunder event that NASCAR and iRacing was putting on.
The return to the sim was surely a good look for the former World Championship-level driver, but once the real-world racing resumed, he was back in his JR Motorsports Late Model. At the end of 2020, he would hoist his greatest title yet – the 2020 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Championship.
Business has picked up since
A more prominent opportunity appeared in 2021 with Earnhardt Jr’s Xfinity team. following the Weekly Series title Berry made the most of that part-time schedule, even adding on a few more races in relief of teammate Michael Annett. Berry won twice, at Martinsville and Las Vegas, and secured a full-time Xfinity seat with JRM in 2022.
In that full-time ride last season, his first full-time season in any Top 3 NASCAR National Series, Berry won three times and secured a spot in the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 where he would finish fourth in the final standings.
Early in 2023, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Chase Elliott was placed on an injury leave and Hendrick Motorsports needed a relief driver. Josh Berry was called upon for the role. He had never driven a NEXT Gen before, but did have two previous starts with Spire Motorsports in 2021 in the NASCAR Gen 6.
In Berry’s five relief starts in Elliott’s No. 9 Camaro, he managed two Top 10 finishes, including one runner-up performance at Richmond Raceway. Berry was called upon again a few weeks after Elliott returned to fill in for another Hendrick driver, this time the No. 48 of Alex Bowman, who had also sustained an injury.
In the three starts filling in for Bowman, Berry scored another Top 10 as the season went into All-Star week at North Wilkesboro. Bowman was not yet ready to return, so Berry took to it in the All-Star Open to try and race into the NASCAR All-Star. He did just that, winning the Open to advance to the main event.
A bright future
The 32-year-old will finally get his first crack with a major league contract as he’ll take over the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, a deal made public last Wednesday (21st June, 2023) where his new boss, NASCAR Champion Tony Stewart, had high praises, citing he was hired for his skill, not his wallet.
How he’ll fare in the ride next season remains to be seen, but in the few starts that he’s gotten through relief efforts in 2023 with Hendrick, all signs point towards a bright future. It’s insane, but also deserved for Berry who has worked incredibly hard for such an opportunity.
There have been a number of sim to reality success stories in the making the last few years in NASCAR. William Byron didn’t have the same online successes that Berry’s had, but he’s still referred as coming from a sim racing start.
So yes, his recent real-world success is the biggest factor for this huge promotion to the top racing series in North America, but for us in the sim racing sphere, it’s cool to look back and see some of how sim racing contributed to it. Berry is just the latest big win for aspiring sim racers around the world.