After being in stalking mode for more than 20 laps, Denny Hamlin finally got by Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to win Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I had plenty of time, and I just worked him over and worked him over,” Hamlin told NBCSN of his battle with DiBenedetto. “I didn’t want to show him the bottom until I knew I could make the pass. I ran the top and got in position on the bottom and finished it. We came back from a couple laps down and here we are.”
Hamlin, who started from the pole, earned his fourth win of the season and 35th victory of his Cup career, depriving DiBenedetto from earning his first career Cup win.
In earning his second career Cup win at Bristol (the other time was in 2012), Hamlin knew how much a win would mean to DiBenedetto in Saturday’s race. The first thing Hamlin said to NBCSN after climbing from his race car on the frontstretch was: “I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (crew chief) Mike Wheeler. I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I have to give 110% to FedEx and my whole team, and I’m just sorry.”
While obviously disappointed, DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish was a career-best showing in his 164 starts in the Cup Series.
“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, this team, for giving me this opportunity,” an emotional DiBenedetto told NBCSN. “I’m so thankful, but man, I’m sad. We got tight after that deal with (Ryan) Newman and came up into us, and all of a sudden it got real tight after that.
“Congrats to Denny; he raced hard. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, so racing door-to-door with him at Bristol and in front of a great group of fans, I’m trying not to get emotional but it’s been a rough week. I want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come.”
Playoff update: The battle to make the playoffs is now down to just two races remaining. Drivers above the cutline after Bristol are 15th-ranked Ryan Newman, 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Daniel Suarez. Even with his first top-10 finish in over a month, Clint Bowyer leaves Bristol below the cutline, being scored 17th in the playoff rankings (2 points behind Suarez). Jimmie Johnson slips to 18th (26 points behind Suarez), Paul Menard is 19th (71 points behind Suarez) and Chris Buescher is 20th (85 points behind Suarez).
Who else had a good day: In addition to DiBenedetto’s inspiring run, Brad Keselowski overcame in-race contact to finish third. Clint Bowyer also overcame his own type of adversity, spinning in the first half of the race, and then rallied back to finish seventh.
Who had a bad day: Shortly after leading 28 laps from Lap 164 to 191, Kevin Harvick dropped like a rock and was forced to the garage with a mechanical issue, finishing last (39th). …. Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon were involved in a Lap 80 incident (Denny Hamlin also suffered minor damage as he tried to avoid the cars) that put them into the wall. Dillon finished 34th, while Johnson climbed back up to finish 19th.
Notable: Matt DiBenedetto, who it was announced Thursday that his deal with Leavine Family Racing would not be renewed for next season, came out during prerace introductions as almost a precursor to how the race would wind up being a fight with Hamlin, wearing boxing gloves and a robe and to the theme from the movie “Rocky.”
Like grandfather, like father and now like son. Racing success is definitely a tradition in the Jones family.
Jagger Jones has followed in the shoes of his legendary grandfather Parnelli and father P.J., capturing the 2019 Sunoco K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, it was announced Wednesday.
“(Winning Rookie of the Year) and to win races, those were our two main goals,” the youngest Jones, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a statement. “I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings, which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”
Driving for Sunrise Ford and team owner Bob Bruncati, the 17-year-old Jones earned one win, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in the 14-race season. He also earned one pole, led 248 laps and had an average finish of 5.4. He finished second in the overall standings behind champion Derek Krause and three points ahead of third-ranked Hailie Deegan.
Brittney Zamora, driving for Bill McAnally Racing, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
“McAnally versus Sunrise was definitely the race in the West competition wise,” Jones said. “To get that and finish second in the points in my rookie season, I was pretty pleased with that.”
Jones becomes the sixth Sunrise Ford Racing driver in the last 13 years to win the top rookie honors, joining Jason Bowles (2007), Luis Martinez Jr. (2010), Austin Dyne (2012), Dylan Lupton (2013) and James Bickford (2014). Bill McAnally Racing won the top rookie award in each of the last three seasons: Todd Gilliland (2016), Derek Kraus (2017) and Hailie Deegan (2018).
Jagger Jones Earns 2019 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Honors
💬 "I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”
JR Motorsports’ revealed Wednesday that Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric will drive its No. 8 Chevrolet for the majority of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, in addition to one race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.
Hemric, who drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car in the Cup Series this season, is scheduled for 21 races.
Hemric returns to the Xfinity Series, where he competed for RCR from 2017-18. He made the Championship 4 in both seasons.
“I want to thank Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for believing in me,” Hemric said in a press release. “For a Kannapolis (N.C.) boy like me, driving for the Earnhardt family is pretty awesome.
“My goal here is simple — to go win races for JR Motorsports and to help their program any way that I can. I’ve raced against their cars before and I know how they’re capable of running. My focus is on finishing the Cup season out strong, but once the checkered flag flies at Homestead, we’ll set our sights on getting the No. 8 car to Victory Lane early and often next season.”
Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Daniel is a solid competitor with a great personality. He’ll be a quality addition to our lineup in 2020. We’re lucky to have him. I feel like he has grown as a driver from his time in the Cup Series. That will be valuable to him with this new opportunity to compete in the Xfinity series. He’s a local Kannapolis native with a lot of determination to succeed, and I’m excited to work with him.”
Burton, who has driven in six races for JRM this season, is set for 11 next year.
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For Truex, Busch and Harvick, they have a chance to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles. One of them would become the 16th Cup driver to win multiple championships.
For Hamlin, he could finally lose his title of the winningest active driver without a championship on his record.
This will be the last scheduled championship weekend in Miami after it has hosted the event since 2002. Next year it will move to ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:
FUN WITH NUMBERS
The Championship 4 is three against one on multiple levels.
As mentioned, it will feature three past champions going against Hamlin, who will try to win his first title in his 14th year of full-time Cup competition. In his only other Championship 4 appearance in 2014, Hamlin finished third.
Three Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing will be pitted against one Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 driven by Harvick.
“(We need to) beat three Gibbs cars. Go faster than them,” Harvick said. “We’re going to do everything just like we’ve done all year.”
Three drivers in their 30s – Busch (34 years old), Truex (39) and Hamlin (38) – are going against Harvick, whose 43.
Speaking of ages….
Like everyone else, Hamlin’s birthday falls on the same date every year – Nov. 18.
This year it falls on the day after Hamlin could claim his first title.
“Homestead is always my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said. “I want to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.”
Hamlin recalled the last time he came this close to a title.
“In 2010 I shut everyone out,” Hamlin said. “Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff. I didn’t hang out with anyone. I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that. But I’m not going to be that way I don’t think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.”
Should he win the championship by winning Sunday’s race, he’d earn his 38th Cup Series victory on his last day of being 38 years old.
Also, a win Sunday would be Hamlin’s seventh of the season. That would make him the winningest Daytona 500 winner in a season since Jeff Gordon had seven victories in 1999.
RACE WINNER = CHAMPION
This weekend marks the sixth edition of the Cup championship race under the elimination playoff format.
While the championship is simply awarded to the highest-finishing driver out of the Championship 4, each year the champion has won the race.
2014 – Kevin Harvick (led final eight laps)
2015 – Kyle Busch (led eight of final 10 laps)
2016 – Jimmie Johnson (only led final three laps as part of an overtime finish)
2017 – Martin Truex Jr. (led final 51 laps)
2018 – Joey Logano (led final 12 laps after passing Truex)
Should Busch win on Sunday, he would end a 21-race winless streak.
“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. … It’s what your whole season comes down to.”
ONE LAST MONSTER MASH
Sunday’s race will be the last that Monster Energy serves as the title sponsor for the Cup Series.
Starting in 2020, the Cup Series will movie to a tiered sponsor system with no title sponsor.
The Cup Series has had a title sponsor since 1971 when Winston entered the role it held until 2003.
Nextel owned the naming rights from 2004-07. Sprint then held the rights through 2016 with Monster taking over in 2017.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
Three drivers who won races in 2018 have a last shot to earn their first victory of this season.
Both have said they plan to continue racing but suggest it could be in other forms beyond Cup.
Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will make his 471st Cup start Sunday. While he did not have as much success as others, he’ll be remembered for his quiet demeanor, abstinence from social media and devoted fan base.
Ragan, who won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013, will make his 470th Cup start Sunday.
Both began running full-time in 2007 in a rookie class that included Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger. Montoya won rookie of the year honors.
Ragan said he’s looked at schedules for ARCA and some Late Model races across the country. He also said there are plans for him to drive the Next Gen car next year in some testing.
“Ford Motor Company has been a really good partner of mine and a supporter of my career since day one, and so I’m working with those guys on how I can help the big picture from Ford Performance and how we can work on next year and the Next Generation car as it rolls out,” Ragan said.
Ragan will be driving a throwback paint scheme on his No. 38 Ford. It will look like the car Ragan won with at Talladega with Front Row Motorsports.
This weekend will be the last for a handful of drivers in their current rides before they transition to a new team, while others are still without announced plans for beyond Sunday.
Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will replace Menard in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford.
Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell will succeed DiBenedetto in LFR’s No. 95 Toyota.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez has not announced his plans for next season. The 2016 Xfinity champion will end his third Cup season on Sunday.
JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing will be swapping drivers after the Miami race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. go from driving Roush’s No. 17 Ford to JTG Daugherty to replace Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Buescher will return to Roush after five years away to drive the No. 17.
All three national series will compete on a new tire set-up compared to what was used at this track last year.
This is the same combination of left and right-side tires each series ran at Chicagoland and those in the Cup and Xfinity Series ran at Darlington this season.
This left and right-side tire features construction updates to align with what is run at other speedways, while this right-side tire takes teams from a multi-zone tread tire to a single zone tire and will increase grip.
“The compounds we will be running provide plenty of grip, but also offer the endurance needed on Homestead’s track surface,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, in a press release. “These high wear tracks put on some of our best races, and the past several years at Homestead have proven that. Tire fall-off creates more ‘comers’ and ‘goers’ over the course of a long run, which means more passing and tire management being an important element of the race.”
TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE
The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.