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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Saturday NASCAR schedule at Talladega Superspeedway

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Both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series will race Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Cup cars will start the day’s action by qualifying for Sunday’s playoff race, followed by the Truck playoff race and then the Xfinity playoff race.

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday, Oct. 1

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.