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.’’

Roger Penske was ready for his close-up in popular commercial

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MONTEREY, California – Roger Penske is the only team owner in auto racing history who has 18 “Baby Borg” Trophies in his possession for his team’s record 18 wins in the Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps his next trophy should be an Emmy.

Penske took part in a commercial along with 103rd Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and one of his NASCAR Cup drivers, Ryan Blaney. The commercial was shot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 7 while NASCAR was in town for the Brickyard 400.

The premise of the commercials is a takeoff on the 2006 comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Blaney playing the Ricky Bobby role and Pagenaud playing the Jean Girard role.

The commercial was shot by NBC to promote its coverage of the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and concludes with Penske stepping in between the two drivers, demanding them to, “Go out there and win races.”

Penske delivered the line perfectly and in just three takes.

“It took me about five minutes,” Penske told NBCSports.com. “They made it very easy for me. We let the guys do all of the hard work. It was fun for me to do. I saw it, and I didn’t make a fool out of myself.

“I’m ready for the next commercial.”

Penske’s ability to deliver his lines perfectly impressed NBC Sports Group President of Programing Jon Miller.

“I assume he’s got his SAG card,” Miller told NBCSports.com. “He has certainly been in front of the camera enough, and he’s quite an ambassador for the sport, so we were not at all surprised by that.”

NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood was also highly impressed with Penske’s ability to turn into an actor in front of the camera.

“We were thrilled that he agreed to do it,” Flood told NBC Sports.com. “It’s one of those special things and the kind of guy he is to jump on board and make it even bigger because we had a ‘Plan B’ if Roger couldn’t do it, and when we got the confirmation, we knew we had something special that was going to happen.

“Roger Penske did the ad with two of his drivers that we shot at the Brickyard last week that got out there. A lot of fun, a lot of great response to it, and that’s things we couldn’t have done in the past. I think that’s part of us leaning in as NBC in trying to grow all of motorsports, and it’s important that every form of racing gets attention, and that’s what we’re pushing, as you know all too well.”

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who will take a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix, also was complimentary of his team owner.

“Wow, I was impressed,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “First of all, how did they get him to do a cameo? That was cool. And he nailed it.

“The pressure on Simon and Blaney to nail it, after Roger does it in only three takes? Wow, the pressure was really on them to deliver their lines.”

Pagenaud thought Penske’s first take was the best.

“It didn’t take long for Roger to deliver his line, he was on top of it,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “NBCSN was very excited about the idea. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles made sure we were able to get into Gasoline Alley early that day. It was the Saturday of the Brickyard 400 and it was early, but Roger was probably up since 2 a.m. I’m sure, so it wasn’t early for him.

“It was good, the script was fun and well done. I forced my French and Blaney being the perfect American NASCAR driver and Roger just being himself was just perfect. It shows personality between NASCAR and INDYCAR. NBC is doing such a great job showing both fans on both sides what is going in and it helps everybody get interested in both sports.”

Penske was asked if that is how he normally talks to his drivers in a prerace situation to fire them up.

“That’s not the normal, daily message, but that’s how it helped those two guys get going,” Penske said. “I think NBC has done a great job in all cases on IndyCar. The continuity of having the same partner has made a huge difference. The talent knows the drivers. They know the situation. Guys like Paul Tracy and the experience of Leigh Diffey and the whole group has done a great job.

“It’s about good racing. We have good teams. Lots of competition, new drivers and date equity. And it’s attracting young people.”

Penske believes the addition of NBC Sports to the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, including the season’s final race on the NBC, has been a big boost to the series.

“Any time you are on network is great,” Penske said. “It’s great for the sponsors, the notoriety for the team and the drivers is very important for all of us as we finish up the season. It’s going to be a great weekend, and I hope we can continue the movement we’ve had and the momentum we’ve had coming up to the last weekend.”

Richmond winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — It was a 1-2-3-4 finish until Erik Jones’ car failed inspection. Still the team scored a 1-2-3 finish and claimed its fourth consecutive win on a short track with Martin Truex Jr.’s triumph. Don’t forget, the organization also won Friday’s Xfinity race with Christopher Bell.

Ryan Newman His fifth-place finish tied his best result of the year and was his third consecutive top-10 showing. He was encouraged by the team running toward the front and noted: “You take away those four Gibbs cars, we were racing for the win. I know it doesn’t work that way, but if they would have had one bad meeting (incident) we would’ve been in the hunt.” Still, Newman moved into a transfer spot heading into this coming weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Brad KeselowskiHe finished fourth and was the only driver outside of Joe Gibbs Racing to lead Saturday’s race.

Bubba Wallace His 12th-place finish was his third top-15 result in the last five races. He had one top-15 finish in the first 23 races of the season.

Front Row Motorsports — All three of its cars placed 21st or better, the first time the team has accomplished that feat this season. David Ragan was 19th, rookie Matt Tifft placed 20th and Michael McDowell was 21st.

LOSERS

Erik Jones He was feeling good about his fourth-place finish that put him within three points of the final transfer spot to the next round only to later find out that his car was disqualified for failing inspection after the race. Now he’s 45 points out of the final transfer spot and is essentially in a must-win situation. He faces being eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for a second year in a row.

William Byron Got lapped in the final circuits before the end of each stage and also had a pit road speeding penalty. That led to a season-worst 25th-place finish. He holds the final transfer spot to the second round by two points on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman heading to the Roval.

Brad Keselowski bumped up to fourth, but JGR domination still ‘not good news’

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Brad Keselowski ended Saturday’s NASCAR Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway with what he thought was a fifth-place finish.

About an hour later though, Keselowski was moved up one position to fourth place after original fourth-place finisher Erik Jones was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection.

Still, gaining one extra finishing position didn’t make the 2012 NASCAR Cup champion happy because of Joe Gibbs Racing’s domination in the second race of the playoffs – even with Jones’ DQ.

(How JGR finished is) definitely not good news,” Keselowski said. “We’ve got work to do. (JGR is) really strong and we’re not where we need to be to be able to beat them heads-up, but we threw everything we had at them.

We put down a great qualifying lap, got the first pit stall, had great pit stops and got to the lead, but just didn’t have the raw speed to keep it.”

MORE: Martin Truex Jr. completes Richmond sweep with playoff win

MORE: Results, points after 2nd race of Cup playoffs at Richmond

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ car for failing inspection

Keselowski tweeted a few hours after the race that he didn’t “take no pleasure & seek no treasure from another man’s loss,” referring to Jones’ DQ.


Even so, Keselowski took some consolation from his overall performance.

We led 80-some laps, so it’s not a bad day but just not nearly fast enough to dominate the race and win,” he said.

Keselowski mistakenly said in a post-race interview that he had joined Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in advancing to the Round of 12 two weeks from now due to his points in the standings.

Yeah, we’re locked into the next round,” Keselowski said. “That feels good. I’m proud of that effort.”

Actually, Keselowski left Richmond two points shy of being locked into the next playoff round. That will have to come next Sunday at Charlotte’s Roval.

There’s still work to do not only for Keselowski’s car, but also those of his teammates — Joey Logano finished 11th and Ryan Blaney 17th — to counter JGR’s domination.

But what exactly has to be done is a question mark, Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t know,” Keselowski said. “They’ve got all the secrets so we need to find some more secrets.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Kyle Busch sees progress in runner-up finish at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — After his fiery comments last week led some to be critical of his attitude toward slower drivers, Kyle Busch was calmer after his runner-up performance to Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Busch led a race-high 202 of 400 laps but lost the lead to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate with 26 laps to go and had to settle for second place.

“We put up a valiant effort,” Busch said.

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ fourth-place finishing car

While his winless drought starched to 14 races, Busch noted that the performance was a step forward for the No. 18 Toyota team.

“I know we’re capable of it, the team is capable of it,” said Busch, who clinched a spot in the second round with his 54-point night. “Just stupid things have been biting us this year and we put it all together tonight. I didn’t speed on pit road, pit crew did a good job, our car was fast and we made the most of our effort.”

Whether it was Busch hitting the wall (or another car) at Las Vegas, an engine failure at Indianapolis, the pit crew losing the lead at Darlington or a speeding penalty at Watkins Glen (and hitting cars), Busch and the team have been off in recent races despite often having the speed to challenge for wins. In the process, Busch has lost the chance to collect many more playoff points.

He was strong enough Saturday night to win the second stage, giving him his third stage win in the last seven races.

But Busch didn’t have enough at the end to keep Truex behind him.

“We ran OK,” Busch said. “(Truex) could follow closer than I could, and he was better on the long run than I was. Why? Maybe I pushed my tires too hard there at the last stint at the beginning trying to stay ahead of (Denny Hamlin), which gave (Truex) the opportunity to kind of save his stuff and roll around and attack later.”