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.’’

Entry lists for Talladega playoff weekend

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NASCAR’s playoffs continue this weekend on its largest oval track, Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be competing on the 2.66-mile track.

More: Las Vegas winners and losers

Here are the preliminary entry lists for Talladega:

Cup – YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Brendan Gaughan is entered in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 Chevrolet for his final start of the year and his NASCAR career.

Ryan Blaney has won the last two Cup races at Talladega.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity – Ag-Pro 300 (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-five cars are entered.

AJ Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

No driver is listed on SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

Justin Haley won at Talladega in June over Ross Chastain and Jeb Burton.

Tyler Reddick won this race last year over Gray Gaulding and Christopher Bell.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Trucks – Chevrolet Silverado 250 (1 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-nine trucks are entered.

Natalie Decker is on the entry list after she missed Friday’s Las Vegas race due to not being medically cleared.

Trevor Bayne is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 45 truck for the fourth time this season.

Spencer Boyd won this race last year over Todd Gilliland and Riley Herbst.

Click here for the entry list.

Las Vegas Winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kurt Busch Winless in 21 previous attempts at Las Vegas, Busch scored an emotional win at his hometown track. Busch took advantage of a strategy call by crew chief Matt McCall and a timely debris caution to take the point and led the final 26 laps. He earned his first win of the season. “This is 20 years of agony and defeat and now today with triumph,” Busch said after the race.

Matt DiBenedettoStill seeks his first career Cup win and the 100th series victory for Wood Brothers Racing, but DiBenedetto finished second in both Las Vegas races this season.

Alex BowmanHe finished fifth but scored more points (43) than any driver except Denny Hamlin, who had 53 points. Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round.

Chris Buescher — His ninth-place finish is his second consecutive top 10 and third top 10 in the last five races.

Chase Briscoe Had a dominant car and scored the win in the playoff opener for the Xfinity Series at Las Vegas.

LOSERS

Austin DillonHis race was going well — he scored 10 stage points — until overheating problems sent him to pit road. He lost nine laps as his crew made repairs and went on to finish 32nd. That drops him to last among the playoff drivers with two races left in this round.

Chase ElliottWas 10th on the overtime restart but got shuffled back and finished 22nd.

Caution comes at wrong time for Denny Hamlin at Las Vegas

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Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.

A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.

The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.

Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.

“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”

Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.

“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because (where) we were at.”

Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”

Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.

But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.

“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race) and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of  it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.

Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.

“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”

At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.

At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.

Kyle Busch still below playoff cutline after ‘pretty dismal’ Las Vegas race

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Though he finished sixth Sunday night in the Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch described his experience in the Round of 12 opener as “pretty dismal.”

The defending Cup champion now goes into the second race of the round, at Talladega Superspeedway, outside the transfer position to the next round. He trails Alex Bowman, who holds the final transfer spot, by nine points.

“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”

Busch’s issues began at the start of Stage 2 after he earned the lead by getting off pit road first. As he raced Joey Logano for the lead on the Lap 87 restart, he was on the inside of Logano as they drove toward Turn 3.

That’s when Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, dove to Busch’s inside to make it three wide and then take the lead.

But as Hamlin pulled even with Busch, Busch lurched to the right and made contact with Logano. The Team Penske driver would pit to repair a tire rub while Busch continued.

“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”

Logano said on the radio to his spotter he didn’t realize he was three-wide until it was too late.

Later, Busch pit from fourth on Lap 118 and fell to 28th when his front tire changer’s pit gun broke, resulting in a 22.5-second stop.

“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”

Busch heads to Talladega. He has one win in 30 Cup starts there. He has just one top 10 there in the last six races.

How does Busch plan to navigate the race as he faces his nine-point deficit to the playoff cutoff?

“I’ll just do what I’m told,” Busch said.