In an abnormal season from the start, Josh Berry and his JR Motorsports late model team started the year racing at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, a big shift brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
It was sometime around the middle of the summer, after the team had picked up a few wins, Berry decided to try to run for a NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national championship.
But, not everyone was on board with Berry’s idea, especially his crew chief, Ryan Vasconcellos.
"We picked up a couple wins at Hickory one weekend," Vasconcellos said. "After that race Josh was like, ‘I think I want to run for a national title.’ And I was like, ‘You better find a new crew, cause that’s too much for us.’
"Now here we are four or five months later."
– JR Motorsports (@JRMotorsports) December 4, 2020
Months later, after some convincing, Vasconcellos is a national champion crew chief with Berry. The team had 24 victories at four different tracks, and won the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Division I title by 28 points.
Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. also won the Lincoln Electric Car Owner of the Year Award.
Even though Berry and Vasconcellos won all but 13 of their 2020 races, the championship was anything but easy for the team. After starting the year focusing on Hickory, once the decision was made to go for a title they started traveling wherever they could to race.
"Everybody was on board when we said we were going to try to chase a national title. Everybody except me, I think," Vasconcellos said. "They said let’s do it and I couldn’t let them down so we just traveled around and won some races."
Splitting up the two cars in JRM meant that with one staying tour racing and Berry running NASCAR late model events, they were forced to split personnel. Vasconcellos said there were many races when it was just him, Berry, a spotter, and tire guy.
The split also meant having to divide tools, supplies, shocks, springs, and even spare parts and motors in case they ran into issues.
The traveling was especially tough given Berry was the only one on the team who worked full-time with JRM. The other three had full-time jobs outside of racing.
"It was definitely more work for sure," Vasconcellos said.
They never missed a beat, though. Once the decision to run NASCAR weekly seres full time was made they started to dial in. There was one weekend in August Berry won two races at Hickory on Saturday and two more at Southern National Motorsports Park in North Carolina on Sunday.
The team was winning, but Vasconcellos said they were racing so much they didn’t have time to sit back and relax. The best way he could describe the season was a grind from start to finish.
"If we ran at Hickory Saturday night it was like, ‘All right, is Southern National running? Where can we go? Can we go to (Myrtle) Beach? The Beach rained out on Saturday. O.K., let’s shoot down to Myrtle Beach and try to pick up a win there.’ There really wasn’t a lot of time to sit down and celebrate or anything like that," Vasconcellos said.
"It was totally like we couldn’t even think about what was happening. In the moment you always think about what’s the next race you’re going to, what we’re going to have to change, and what motors we’re going to have to have to compete with the local guys, the guys that run there weekly."
Berry and Vasconcellos have been working together since Berry joined JRM in 2010. Vasconcellos started with the team in 2008.
The two have built a close bond over the last decade.
"We’ve been to a lot of races together and lost a ton of races," Vasconcellos said. "And it makes you appreciate all the wins that we had this year."
The two and their team have traveled a lot together in that time. They used to go and up and down the road to Radford, Virginia taking on former national champions like Lee Pulliam and Philip Morris at Motor Mile Speedway.
"Trying to think about how we can beat them every week," Vasconcellos said of those early years. "It definitely shows me how hard those guys work for all the national titles that they’ve got. It’s definitely impressive because one thing we learned this year is it’s not easy, that’s for sure."
Vasconcellos said he considers Berry one of his best friends, and their tire guy, Justin, is an equally good friend to the two. The whole team hangs out on weekends, with the conversations usually revolving around racing.
"We eat, sleep, live racing," Vasconcellos said. "We think about it all the time. We work together, try to make smart decisions. Really just a team. We work together. Some people are better in other areas and that’s where the team comes into place."
Even though Berry is the driver, Vasconcellos said he does just as much work on the car as any of them.
"He does a lot during the week setting the cars up," he said of Berry. "He’s probably one of the smartest drivers when it comes to the racecar and what’s going on in the race and on pit road week-to-week.
"That’s probably the biggest thing is he’s grown from being a legends car racer out in Tennessee to an iRacer to being a next level racer now, which I think he’s proven going on to being an Xfinity racer next year. I think that’ll be pretty cool to watch."
The team – with JRM manager Bryan Shaffer, John West, David West, and Jay Hitchcock – has been working together for a long time, but their success has grown over the last three years. It goes back to the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway in 2018 that Vasconcellos said they felt slipped away from them.
They went back in 2019 with something to prove, and they did just that, winning in dominant fashion, leading every lap.
"It’s a clean sweep for Josh Berry"
– NASCAR Roots (@NASCARRoots) October 6, 2019
The Martinsville win gave the team momentum Vasconcellos said they carried into this season. To him, it seemed like everywhere they went they had speed.
"It seems like everywhere we go this year it was like we unloaded and we couldn’t do the wrong thing for a while," he said.
"Just trying to learn from all of our mistakes from the past decade of working together and putting more pieces of the puzzle together, and really and truly that is what made us so good the year."
Berry will move on to run a partial schedule in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JRM next season, and Vasconcellos said going for a national championship was too much wear and tear to try for again.
They’ll take the rest of the year to relax with family for the holidays, and enjoy the rewards of their hard work in 2020.
"It still doesn’t feel real. It hasn’t sank in," Vasconcellos said. "After winning the national title and winning a couple big races we took a big breath of fresh air there and then we went right back at it and tried to win a couple more.
"It’s just been an unbelievable season. Thanks JR Motorsports and All Things Automotive and iRacing and Dale Jr. and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) and LW Miller and TDS Decal Services and all the guys that have helped us throughout this year."