Matt DiBenedetto hopes to continue upswing at Michigan, his ‘weakest’ track

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After his sixth-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, Matt DiBenedetto declared he was “fighting for my life, my career” in NASCAR, as speculation continues to swirl around where he’ll be racing in 2020.

The Leavine Family Racing driver left the road course with his fourth top 10 in seven races. Before this stretch, he hadn’t finished better than 12th in the first 15 races of the year.

Now DiBenedetto and the No. 95 team take their fight to Michigan International Speedway, which DiBenedetto viewed as his “weakest” track when the Cup Series last visited the 2-mile facility in June.

In that race, DiBenedetto started 29th and placed 21st. In nine starts there, it was his best finish and his first on the lead lap.

In his first year with LFR, Michigan is the third track after Daytona and Pocono that DiBenedetto has visited a second time.

“I think that we’ve had a bit more speed lately at tracks that were our weakness starting off the year, so I think this weekend going back to Michigan will be a good test for us since I feel that Michigan was our weakest track when we raced there a few months ago,” DiBenedetto said in a media release. “The challenges that we faced there in June were speed in general as well as the aero balance of the car. I held it wide-open, and unfortunately, we just didn’t have the speed to be able to catch up.”

With this year’s rules package, DiBenedetto said Michigan presents different challenges than the tracks he’s excelled at in the last seven races, which included two road courses, as well as Daytona and the flat 1-mile track in New Hampshire.

“In traffic at Michigan, it’s really hard to pass and that’s what makes it a tough track for us since I’m not controlling a lot in our Camry like I am at the tracks that we’ve run better at lately,” DiBenedetto explained. “This weekend we’ll be dependent on the speed of our car and our track position.

“I think that for the stability of the car, everything’s about aero, especially with high downforce since it’s super sensitive to that. Trying to get the aero balance of the car to feel right and make it feel stable is something that we’ve been working on learning and will be important this coming weekend.”

On DiBenedetto’s pit box will sit crew chief Mike Wheeler, who is in his first year with Leavine Family Racing after three full-time seasons with Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Appearing on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On-Track” Wednesday, Wheeler said there was “no switch” flipped in order for DiBenedetto to suddenly be running near the front.

It was just a matter of the No. 95 team finally getting its house in order after a massive offseason of change for the organization.

“I’ve heard some rumblings of, ‘Oh, you’re getting better this from (Toyota Racing Development)’ or ‘you’re getting better that from JGR,'” Wheeler said. “Honestly it just comes back to hard work. Beginning of the year, I wouldn’t say we were short-staffed, but we were definitely on the short-end of the stick as far as overcoming the package changes.

“We had to start from scratch in a lot of areas, but also changing over manufacturers (from Chevrolet to Toyota) and chassis suppliers. A lot of the ways they did things here at LFR have to start over. Measuring the car, setting up a car, parts and pieces, mileage systems, note taking. All that starts from scratch.”

Wheeler said having “some baseline events to run well, but not great” has benefitted his team over this recent stretch when it came to be prepared once they showed up to the track.

“(Cars get) built sooner than later and (we) get ahead of schedule so we can actually try to carry out some performance enhancements,” Wheeler said. “Next thing you know we started clicking off some top 10s and top fives.”

But Wheeler admits they don’t expect exponential improvement at Michigan.

“We haven’t learned enough yet to really correct everything that we want to at this point,” Wheeler said in a media release. “Hopefully with the gains we’ve made with the 550 (horsepower) spec package, we can perform better than we did in June, but keeping track position, qualifying well and executing all day will be the keys to finishing up front.

“The 750 spec package is quite a bit different than the 550 spec package, so a lot of our good runs with the 750 package don’t apply to tracks like Michigan. There’s no doubt that going to Pocono twice (where they finished 17th each time), we had learned more and performed better, but we still face some uphill challenges that we don’t have all the answers for yet.”

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Stewart-Haas Racing sweeps regular-season finale of eNASCAR Heat Pro League

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Stewart-Haas Racing swept both races in the eNASCAR Heat Pro League’s regular-season finale, held Wednesday night on a virtual Daytona International Speedway.

It was the first time one team has swept a round this season.

Jake Morris (SHG Slick 14x) won his third straight race, winning the XBox One event.

Brandyn Gritton (SHG_HotRod_14p) won for SHR in the PlayStation 4 event, earning his second win of the year.

Below are the final overall point standings – combing both consoles – heading into the four-round playoffs, which begin Sept. 11 on a virtual Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Eliminated from playoff contention are the teams for Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

You can watch both races in the below video.

 

 

Podcast: Life as a gay team member working in the NASCAR community

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As a racing fan growing up in rural Ohio, Ryan Hines heard the generalizations about intolerance in the testosterone-charged world of motorsports.

But his first-hand experience has been the opposite.

“I think NASCAR gets a generalized and stereotypical outlook that it’s homophobic and hypermasculine and there’s not any room for people who are gay to be in it,” Hines said during the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “From my experience, it’s really a great community. I’ve met nothing but love and respect from everyone I’ve come across in the sport.

“It’s crazy that growing up I never thought I could be gay and work in NASCAR. I feel a lot of people who may be gay and have aspirations probably have that same mindset that I had growing up. I think it’s important there are role models for those people. Being an example of this guy is gay and is working in NASCAR and able to be himself and do what he loves to do, people being able to see that and know they can do it, too, is a step in the right direction. Having that representation is important.”

Hines, 23, is a coordinator of Xfinity brand content at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he works primarily with handling Chase Briscoe’s schedule and also handles media requests, video content and the team’s podcast.

He entered the NASCAR industry a week after graduating from Ohio State in May 2018, starting at Hendrick Motorsports. The Pleasant Hill, Ohio, native has been around racing (also working at Eldora Speedway through high school and college) for longer than he began publicly talking about his sexuality.

Hines has been out as a gay man since his junior year of high school and initially was concerned about how that would be perceived by racing co-workers.

“You’re told the stereotype of what racing is, and that fans and people involved aren’t accepting,” he said. “You hear that it’s a ‘redneck’ sport, and you associate Southern redneck roots with homophobia, whether it’s true or not. Now that I’m working in the sport, I see past those stereotypes and generalizations and have come to realize that most people in the sport are average people. They don’t care. They want you to be you. If you are who are to them, they’ll respect you for that.”

Hines said his sexual orientation comes up in casual conversation with other team members and without “anyone reacting negatively to it.” In sharing his story on the podcast, Hines hopes to help make it easier for other gay members of the NASCAR community who are reticent about being comfortable enough to discuss it.

“People don’t realize how much effort it takes to hide,” he said. “It’s exhausting because you have to worry about what you do and say.”

NASCAR has launched many initiatives (most famously its Drive for Diversity) over the last 15 years aimed at increasing its fan base among minorities and women.

As Major League Baseball, the NBA and other pro sports leagues have held gay pride nights that help build audience inclusion, Hines would like to see the same in NASCAR but said it’s also trickier.

“You have to be careful with that because there’s the stereotype of what the fan base is,” he said. “You don’t want to seem opportunistic. Launching a clothing line or holding an initiative, you want it to be genuine. I think NASCAR definitely needs to show they are welcoming, but they are struggling with how they do that and don’t seem opportunistic.”

Hines isn’t the first to discuss being gay in the NASCAR industry, but there have been no high-profile members (such as drivers or crew chiefs). In auto racing, five-time Rolex 24 champion Hurley Haywood is likely the most famous driver to have come out (discussing it in a documentary this year that he talked about as a NASCAR on NBC Podcast guest in April).

Hines believes it would be difficult for a driver to come out, but “I think they could come forward and find a lot of acceptance. You’re always going to have people who will say negative things. You’ll have that in any aspect of life. I’d love to see a driver, crew chief or an engineer come forward and embrace who you are and being truthful and honest. You’ll find a lot more acceptance and respect than you’d ever think you could.

“By and large, most large companies in NASCAR sponsoring in some capacity, they wouldn’t bat an eye as long as you aren’t bringing negative publicity and being authentic to who you are. They won’t have an issue with it. As long as you’re performing and a good ambassador to the brand, I don’t think the sexuality really matters.”

Hines said it is a delicate issue to discuss because he doesn’t want to be viewed as “a huge agent of change.

“I don’t want to be this huge trailblazer and try to take on a huge campaign,” he said. “But it’s important to be open and honest about it. The more people who see it as everyday life, the easier it can be.”

To listen to the podcast, you can click on the embed above or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you download podcasts.

Kyle Larson sweeps midget, sprint car races at Placerville Speedway

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The Cup Series is taking the week off, but apparently Kyle Larson didn’t get the memo.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is still racing this week, albeit on dirt. Wednesday night Larson swept two dirt feature races he competed in at Placerville Speedway in Northern California.

He won in both a midget and a sprint car.

The midget win came in the Lucas Oil BCRA Midget Series and was his first win in his own midget car. The sprint car win was part of the King of the West-NARC Sprint Car Racing Series.

 

Weekend schedule for Xfinity at Road America, Truck in Canada

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If you like road course racing in NASCAR, then this is the weekend for you.

While the Cup Series is off before it visits Darlington Raceway next week, the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series are in action on two different road courses in two different countries.

The Xfinity Series is in Wisconsin to turn left and right at Road America, while the Truck Series heads up to Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada, to race at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

For the Xfinity race, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies with a high of 71 degrees and no chance of rain at the start time on Saturday.

At Bowmanville, the forecast is for sunny skies, a high of 71 degrees and no rain for the start time of the Truck race on Sunday.

Here is the weekend schedule for both series.

(All times are Eastern)

 

Road America

Friday, Aug. 23

10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

3:35 – 4:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

Saturday, Aug. 24

8 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

11:40 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; multi-car/two rounds (NBC Sports App live, NBCSN to air it at 1:30 p.m.)

1:35 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

2:30 p.m. – Driver introductions

3 p.m. – CTECH Manufacturing 180; 45 laps/182.16 miles (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Canadian Tire Motorsports Park

Saturday, Aug. 24

7 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Truck garage open

9:35 – 10:25 a.m. ET – Truck practice (No TV)

11:35 – 12:55 p.m. – Final Truck practice (No TV)

Sunday, Aug. 25 

8:30 a.m. – Truck garage opens

9:35 a.m – Truck qualifying; multi-truck/two rounds (FS2)

10:40 a.m.- Driver-crew chief meeting

2 p.m.- Driver introductions

2:30 p.m. – Chevrolet Silverado 250; 64 laps/157.37 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)