Matt DiBenedetto celebrates his sixth-place finish Sunday with his family (Photo by Dustin Long)

Long: Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place run, a finish worth celebrating

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — They gathered on pit road. While Carl Edwards celebrated his victory Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto, his family and team savored the best sixth-place finish this sport has seen in some time.

DiBenedetto’s mother wanted to hug everyone and did. DiBenedetto’s father smiled with pride. DiBenedetto’s older brother, Austin, who is in the U.S. Air Force, was awestruck.

DiBenedetto?

He cried after finishing a career-high sixth — also the best finish for BK Racing (and only its second top 10 since the team entered Cup in 2012).

This isn’t just a small team besting some of the sport’s big teams. It’s more personal.

Twelve years ago, Tony and Sandy DiBenedetto left behind three grown children when they moved from Northern California to Hickory, North Carolina, to further Matt’s racing career. Matt was 13 years old.

They considered moving to Charlotte, but it was too big. They looked at Asheville, North Carolina, but it was too far from the race shops. One day, Tony DiBenedetto spread a map of North Carolina on a table, closed his eyes and picked Hickory. It was just right, and that was before they found out the city had a track where some NASCAR stars raced.

As DiBenedetto had more success in the lower ranks, NASCAR’s top teams paid attention. Joe Gibbs Racing signed him to a development deal in 2009. DiBenedetto was 17.

He ran seven Xfinity races for JGR in 2009-10, but the deal ended when sponsorship went away. DiBenedetto was left searching for a ride — one of many young drivers victimized by the recession.

He competed in the K&N Pro Series East in 2011 and was back in the Xfinity Series in 2012 — but he was starting and parking in races. He never ran more than 10 laps in any of his seven starts that season. In 2013, DiBenedetto ran six races but never more than 67 laps in a race.

A career that once seemed promising was headed toward a forgettable ending.

“I thought my career was over countless times,’’ DiBenedetto said as Denny Hamlin walked by and congratulated him.

“I got down, but I kept on digging deep. I said, ‘If I don’t give this everything I have, I’ll regret this the rest of my life.’ I don’t ever want to think back and say, ‘I wonder if I could have been racing with those guys.’ ’’

Every time DiBenedetto thought his career could be over, “something little would just pop up … then we’d do something or have a good run or surprise some folks and get another opportunity. When I thought that was done, then something else would pop up.

“It’s like winning the lottery seven times in a row.’’

But it wasn’t just luck. DiBenedetto admitted as he looked for rides, he called anybody and everybody, hoping one call would lead to some ride.

Still, he was starting and parking in the Xfinity Series at times. Eventually, he got to run more than a few laps and then the full race. It helped land a ride last year at BK Racing and return this season.

But after the race, the moment was still too fresh to truly realize. He admitted it likely wouldn’t sink in what he had done until after he had driven home with his wife and brother and could contemplate that “Wow, we passed like Kevin Harvick and guys I looked up to since I was a kid and wore their T-shirts and hats. I was the biggest fans in the stands. Tony Stewart was like my idol. To be racing with these guys and seeing them and be around them, I still feel a little bit of a fan. I maybe need to get over that, but I don’t know if I ever will.’’

He had fans on his side before the race during introductions. Bristol has made it a tradition that drivers come out to a song they select. DiBenedetto’s song was ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.’’  He walked on the stage donned with a long beard and a guitar. It’s the same thing his father did at DiBenedetto’s wedding when each member of the family had their own intro song. His dad still had the beard and the guitar, so DiBenedetto took it for what was the most entertaining driver introduction.

But others are noticing DiBenedetto. The drivers are becoming fans.

Tony DiBenedetto said it meant a lot to him when Edwards congratulated his son earlier this season on placing 20th at Phoenix, which was two spots off his career best at the time.

Asked about it Sunday, Edwards didn’t realize that DiBenedetto finished sixth.

“That’s probably tougher than what we did,’’ Edwards said. “That’s a real testament to them. He seems like a really great guy. I haven’t spent a lot of time with him, but he seems like a really good dude, seems like a neat family. That’s neat.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted that he was proud of DiBenedetto and said: “Like seeing good things happen to good people.’’

John Hunter Nemechek joins Front Row Motorsports’ 2020 driver lineup

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John Hunter Nemechek will join Michael McDowell as a full-time driver at Front Row Motorsports for the 2020 Cup season, the team announced Thursday, confirming it will retract to two cars.

Nemechek will drive the No. 38 Ford, taking over the seat held by David Ragan before his retirement. He will work with crew chief Seth Barbour.

McDowell will continue to drive the No. 34 Ford.

Nemechek competed in the final three Cup races of 2019, substituting for Matt Tifft in the No. 36 Ford following his seizure at Martinsville Speedway in October. Tifft parted ways with the team in order to focus on his health.

Nemechek, the son of Joe Nemechek, joins a rookie class that includes Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Brennan Poole.

“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to drive for Bob Jenkins and Front Row Motorsports,” Nemechek said in a press release. “Having driven the last three races with this team in 2019, I feel like we already have a foundation to start the 2020 season. I’m looking forward to continuing to build FRM.”

Nemechek, 22, competed full-time in the Xfinity Series in 2019 driving for GMS Racing. He finished seventh in the standings after earning six top fives and 19 top-10 finishes. He has six Truck Series wins in 99 starts since 2013.

McDowell returns for his third full-time season with Front Row.

“As an organization, we have made a lot of strides with the help of all our partners of our program,” McDowell said in the press release. “I’m ready to build on that momentum with (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer). and the rest of our team. We’ve always had steady growth and I think we’re going to continue to see that next season.”

Said team owner Bob Jenkins: “We are looking to the future with a young talent like John Hunter Nemechek. John Hunter impressed us at the end of last season, he comes from a racing family, and he’s a winning driver. We believe that we can grow with him in the years to come.”

 

Nashville Fairgrounds in negotiations with new race promoter

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While the city of Nashville reviews a new proposal from Speedway Motorsports, Inc, the Nashville Fairgrounds have entered negotiations with a potential track promoter for Fairground Speedway’s 2020 season, The Tennessean reported Wednesday.

The newspaper reported that the Fairgrounds is negotiating with Track Enterprises to promote at least three races at short track.

The development comes a month after the Fair Board voted to terminate its contract with Formosa Productions over outstanding debt.

Fairgrounds spokesperson Holly McCall told The Tennessean that it was approached by Track Enterprises’ Bob Sargent about being involved in races on the short track next year.

Sargent has a history with the track, having promoted ARCA races there for roughly five years, according to The Tennessean.

Speedway Motorsports, which had previously struck a deal with Formosa Productions looking to bring NASCAR racing back to the track, had announced a $60 million renovation proposal in May.

A spokesperson for Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who was elected in September, told The Tennessean it was reviewing a new proposal from SMI.

McCall told The Tennessean the Fairgrounds had not yet received a new plan from SMI.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor Cooper during NASCAR’s Champion’s Week in Nashville. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

 

Martin Truex Jr. on Cole Pearn’s departure, what he seeks in next crew chief

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. got a phone call from Cole Pearn on Sunday and Truex quickly had a very bad feeling about it.

“When he started talking it was in the back of my mind that, ‘This is not good. I feel like something big is about to come,'” Truex recalled. “Sure enough, it was surprising.”

Pearn had called to tell Truex what everyone else would learn the next day: after five years together, he was resigning as his crew chief and leaving NASCAR.

Truex discussed the end of Pearn’s tenure and what he wants from his next crew chief during a break from giving out Christmas toys to patients at Levine Children’s Hospital.

“Thought I could get a couple more years out of him, to be honest,” Truex said before admitting he completely understood Pearn’s reasons for getting out of NASCAR while seemingly at the top of his game: a long season that keeps him from seeing his family.

“I understand the grind, I understand just how hard he has to work to produce a level of competition that he does,” Truex said. “I’ve seen it first hand, his hours and what’s he’s willing to do. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the garage willing to put as much work into racing as he did.”

He continued: “It’s time for him to move into doing something else. His kids are growing up too fast and he doesn’t get to see them that much. It was big decision for him and I know … he feels somewhat like he let all us down. I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family, we all understand and all our guys will understand, we’ll go on and try to the best with someone else filling his role.'”

When it comes to figuring who will take over as crew chief on the No. 19 Toyota, Truex said, “We’ve got a few guys in mind. I feel like we’re narrowing it down. We should know something in the next couple of days for sure.”

Whoever takes over will follow in the wake of a crew chief who worked with Truex to produce 24 wins in five seasons, four appearances in the Championship 4 and the 2017 Cup title.

How did half a decade of success with Pearn change what Truex wants from a crew chief?

“Honestly, that’s a good question,” Truex said. “Obviously, I need to find somebody that has his demeanor, a guy that approaches racing the way he does, because it’s kind of what works for me. I feel like we approach racing the same way, Cole and I did. Our attitudes and just the way we thought about things was so similar. We could almost finish each other’s sentences.

“It’s so weird, we’re so different people outside of racing. In racing, that’s just the way we grew up. Our dads racing and racing go-karts and moving up through the ranks ourselves. We just did things a lot the same and we had similar beliefs in the way we did things. Just kind of the same thought process.”

Truex believes he and Pearn “approached a lot of things together more so than me being a rookie and him being a veteran like it was when I first started.

“No question, he was really good at getting the most out of me and I’ll need somebody to do that,” Truex said. “I’m not the most outspoken guy and so I need sometimes somebody to pull that information out of me, especially when it comes to the cars and building the cars. When they’re not good enough, how do you make them better? He was really good at that. I feel good about the guys we’re talking to and we’ve got a few options there and hopefully it’ll work out.”

Kyle Busch Motorsports announces 2020 driver, crew chief lineup

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced its driver-crew chief roster for the 2020 Gander Outdoors Truck Series season on Wednesday. It includes the addition of veteran Danny Stockman.

Stockman will be in charge of the No. 51 Toyota, which will be driven by Kyle Busch, Chandler Smith and more drivers to be announced at a later date.

Stockman was a long-time crew chief at Richard Childress Racing, most recently working with Austin Dillon in the Cup Series this season. He was Dillon’s crew chief when he won his titles in the Truck Series (2011) and Xfinity Series (2013).

Ryan “Rudy” Fugle will be paired with Christian Eckes on the No. 18 Toyota. Fugle worked on the No. 51 this year as it won six races, including all of Busch’s five wins and Greg Biffle‘s victory. Fugle has led KBM teams to five owner titles (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019) and two driver titles (2015 and 2017).

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Raphael Lessard‘s rookie season in the No. 4 Toyota. Hillman has two Truck Series titles, including Toyota’s first in 2006 with Todd Bodine.