Long: Fans, family, foes help Matt DiBenedetto leave Bristol smiling

7 Comments

BRISTOL, Tenn. — After climbing from his car, Matt DiBenedetto celebrated his runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway by unzipping the top of his uniform to remove a bag of ice on this hot, sticky night and toss it to the ground.

DiBenedetto’s slumped shoulders, pursed lips and faraway glaze displayed the angst, frustration and disappointment that have been constant companions since he was told Tuesday that he would not return to Leavine Family Racing after this season, leaving him without a ride for 2020.

While this was the 28-year-old’s career-best result, DiBenedetto only felt pain immediately after the race. He led 93 consecutive laps in the final stage, but contact with Ryan Newman’s car with about 40 laps to go as Newman sought to stay on the lead lap damaged the left front of DiBenedetto’s car. His car’s handling suffered.

“When I was marching through the field, I was hoping that somebody would pass him so that I didn’t take the win away,” Hamlin said. “I knew I was going to get him. I was just thinking, there’s a lot of people at home and a lot of people in the stands that probably don’t want to see this happen but it’s going to happen.”

Hamlin passed DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go.

DiBenedetto was close enough to Hamlin that he could see the leader in the final laps — “I was screaming in the car,” DiBenedetto said — but far enough away that he could not get to Hamlin’s rear bumper even as his spotter repeatedly said on the radio “whatever it takes.”

Passion, persistence and even the hopes of many fans at Bristol were not enough to keep Hamlin from winning his fourth race of the season.

DiBenedetto suffered in silence as Hamlin celebrated.

“The pain was like being stabbed a hundred times in the chest,” DiBenedetto said.

Tony DiBenedetto tried to console his son with a hug. DiBenedetto looked down as his father spoke to him.

“I cannot believe you don’t have a ride (for 2020),” Tony DiBenedetto said he told his son. “I cannot believe you do not have a ride in a top race car. I don’t know what else you can do.”

Sandy DiBenedetto, who cried earlier this week after being told that her son was without a ride beyond this season, saw only success in the second-place finish. The proud mother yelled “Yay! as she hugged her son.

His look was not one of excitement.

“Wrong thing to say in the moment because he’s devastated,” she said.

DiBenedetto’s mood lightened as other drivers congratulated him. Chase Elliott was first. Then came Daniel Suarez. Ryan Blaney. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. And others.

“It was hard to hold it together with all these drivers coming up to you,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s amazing to have earned that respect from them.”

Denny Hamlin gives Matt DiBenedetto private encouragement after Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

DiBenedetto later went to victory lane to congratulate Hamlin and they embraced. Hamlin whispered encouragement.

What Hamlin said, he will keep to himself. As they separated, DiBenedetto told Hamlin: “Means more than you know.”

Hamlin later said he expects DiBenedetto to continue to race in Cup after this year.

“Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his résumé in front of everyone,” Hamlin said. “So he doesn’t need to type it out. He’s going out there and performing. He will land as good or better on his feet, I am certain of it, after this year.”

DiBenedetto’s humility, his roller-coaster journey and his underdog story is making him a fan favorite. The crowd gave its loudest roar of the night when his interview was played on the video board and PA system after the race. He responded by turning and raising his arm to the crowd. The fans yelled louder.

While all drivers experience racing’s highs and lows, DiBenedetto has been challenged as much as anyone in Cup. After his family moved from California to North Carolina to further his racing career when he was a teen, they eventually reached a point where they could not support his racing. He landed a ride in Joe Gibbs Racing’s development program but ran only seven Xfinity races in 2009-10 because of a lack of sponsorship.

He later drove start and parks in the Xfinity Series, feeling that it was better to be in even a low-budget ride than not being at the track.

His first season in Cup was in 2015 with BK Racing, a team that was sold in bankruptcy court last year. He decided to leave his ride with Go Fas Racing after last season even though he had no ride lined up at the time.

DiBenedetto landed with Leavine Family Racing for this season but there were questions even from the beginning of if he would last more than one season because of Toyota Racing Development’s backlog of drivers.

Once Joe Gibbs Racing completes an extension with Erik Jones, all four of the team’s drivers will be set for next season. But there still needs to be a place for Xfinity driver Christopher Bell in Cup. With Leavine Family Racing aligned with JGR, it only made sense that Bell could go there. No official announcement has been made but all indications are that Bell will be driving the No. 95 next year.

So DiBenedetto faces an uncertain future. Again.

“This journey has made me strong and I would not change it for the world,” he said. “It makes you appreciate being here 1,000 times more. This journey has beat me down on the ground more than I can possibly explain.

“It’s hard. It’s been really hard. I’m glad it’s been hard. I want to appreciate it the most that I can. I want it to make me fight and claw and dig as hard as I possibly can, and that’s what this journey has done.”

It was only fitting that with drivers picking the song to be played when they were introduced before the race that DiBenedetto selected the theme from “Rocky” to serenade his arrival.

DiBenedetto thrilled the crowd by wearing a silk robe with “Italian Stallion” on the back and boxing gloves. He threw a few punches at the air as he sauntered down the walkway.

Call him the people’s champ.

“It was what I was going to do it last year, but it was more fitting this week,” DiBenedetto said with a smile of his song and outfit. “It was a cool intro and fitting, I guess, for my story that fans have embraced so much.”

Each time DiBenedetto has been challenged, he’s come back in his career. Now that he’s with a ride that has had him racing closer to the front than any time in his career, the next chapter is finding a ride that can keep him in that spot. Or better.

He said Friday that he just wants to win in Cup. He came as close as he ever has Saturday night.

The pain on his face showed. But just as the ice in that bag he tossed after exiting his car melted, so did his disappointment.

And what could have been one of his most frustrating finishes ended with him smiling, and fans chanting his name as he walked out of the track and toward the next part of his journey.

Social Roundup: Reaction to Jimmie Johnson ending full-time career after 2020

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In a one-minute video posted on social media Wednesday Jimmie Johnson revealed he would end his full-time Cup career following the 2020 season.

Very quickly, the NASCAR community and Johnson’s fellow competitors took to social media to note Johnson’s news.

Here’s what they had to say:

 

Check back for more.

Jimmie Johnson announces that 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season

Leave a comment

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson announced Wednesday that the 2020 season will be his final full-time Cup season.

“I know what this team is capable of and I hope that 2020 is the best yet,” he said in a video on Twitter.

Johnson’s contract expires after the 2020 season. Sponsor Ally extended its sponsorship of the No. 48 car in October through 2023. That led to questions of if Johnson would continue beyond next season. 

Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series titles. Johnson has 83 career Cup wins, which is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time victory list, but Johnson has not won since Dover in June 2017. He will enter the 2020 season with a 95-race winless streak. The 2020 season will be his 19th full-time campaign in Cup.

The 2019 season marked Johnson’s first without crew chief Chad Knaus. Kevin Meendering started the year as Johnson’s crew chief but was replaced by engineer Cliff Daniels in July before the race at Watkins Glen.

In their 15 races Daniels and Johnson worked together, they had four top-10 finishes with a best of eighth in the Dover playoff race.

Johnson has two Daytona 500 wins, four Brickyard 400 victories, four Coca-Cola 600 triumphs and two Southern 500 wins.

Johnson will meet with the media Thursday afternoon to explain his decision.

While Johnson will not race a full schedule after 2020, he has said repeatedly that he plans to continue to race. He has expressed an interest in road racing and competing in an IndyCar race on a road course.

The timing of the announcement allows Johnson to celebrate one final season in Cup and gives Hendrick Motorsports time to find his successor with a move that could lead to significant driver movement for the 2021 season.

Tentative 2020 Daytona Speedweeks schedule released

Leave a comment

The 2019 NASCAR season has been over for just a few days, but already things are starting to shape up for the 2020 season.

NASCAR revealed the tentative 2020 Daytona Speedweeks schedule for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Gander RV and Outdoors Trucks and ARCA series. The 2020 Daytona 500 will be Feb. 16.

Here it is (subject to change):

(All times Eastern)

Thursday, February 6

7 a.m. – 6 p.m. – ARCA garage open

Friday, February 7

8 a.m. – 5 p.m. – ARCA garage open

1 – 5 p.m. – Cup garage open

1:30 – 2:30 p.m. – ARCA practice

3 – 4 p.m. – ARCA final practice

Saturday, February 8

7:30 a.m. – ARCA garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. – Final Cup practice for cars entered in the Clash

12:30 p.m. – ARCA qualifying (group qualifying)

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Cup practice for all cars

2:45 p.m. – ARCA driver/spotter meeting

3 – 3:50 p.m. – Cup practice for all cars

4:20 p.m. – ARCA driver introductions

4:45 p.m. – ARCA race (80 laps, 200 miles)

Sunday, February 9

8 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Cup garage open

10:30 a.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting

12:30 p.m. – Cup qualifying impound (single vehicle / one lap all positions)

2:30 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

3 p.m. – Cup Clash race (75 laps, 187.5 miles)

Monday, February 10

No on-track activities scheduled

Tuesday, February 11

No on-track activities scheduled

Wednesday, February 12

No on-track activities scheduled

Thursday, February 13

10 am – 8 p.m. – Truck garage open

3 – 11 p.m. – Cup garage open

4:05 – 4:55 p.m. – Truck practice

5:15 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting

5:30 – 5:55 p.m. – Truck practice

6:20 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

7 p.m. – Cup first qualifying race (60 laps, 150 miles)

8:45 p.m. – Cup second qualifying race (60 laps, 150 miles)

Friday, February 14

9:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

9:30 a.m. – Truck garage opens

11 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Cup garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice

3:10 p.m. – Truck qualifying impound (single vehicle / one lap all positions)

4:32 – 4:57 p.m. – Xfinity final practice

5:05 – 5:55 p.m. – Cup practice

6:05 p.m. – Truck driver/crew chief meeting

7 p.m. – Truck driver introductions

7:30 p.m. – Truck race (Stages 20/40/100 laps = 250 miles)

Saturday, February 15

9:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

11 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying impound (single vehicle / one lap all positions)

11 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

12:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice

2 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

2:30 p.m. – Xfinity race (Stages 30/30/120 laps = 300 miles)

Sunday, February 16

9 a.m. – Cup garage open

12:30 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting

1:45 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

2:30 p.m. – Daytona 500 (Stages 60/120/200 lap = 500 miles)

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Tyler Reddick, Star Trek and the baby name that could have been

Leave a comment

Tyler Reddick lets out a heavy sigh.

In that sigh, the two-time Xfinity Series champion weighs the pros and cons of one of the most important questions that’s plagued society.

As the great philosopher Weird Al Yankovic once put it, “Only question I ever thought was hard was ‘Do I like Kirk, or do I like Picard?'”

Reddick comes to his decision.

“It’s gotta be Picard,” Reddick declares to NBC Sports.

“He’s always smart, he’s one step ahead of the game most of the time. A lot of the captains, well, (William) Shatner set the brute force tone if you know what I mean. But Picard is different. He’s smart, he went about things differently and thought a different way. He’s a very, very good character. He’s my favorite for kind of those reasons.”

Why is Reddick – who is in the middle of a visit to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, as part of his championship tour –  putting forth his take on Star Trek’s James T. Kirk vs Jean-Luc Picard debate, which has been waged since Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired on TV in 1987?

It’s because of a baby name. Or the one that could have been.

When Reddick won Saturday’s Xfinity championship race in Miami, he also won a friendly bet with his girlfriend, Alexa De Leon.

With his championship, they would name their son, scheduled to be born Jan. 17, Beau.

But there was a different name, which Alexa found on the Internet and was sold on.

“Alexa really wanted our son’s name to be Ryker,” says Reddick, who at first “was all for it.”

William T. Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Why?

You can thank Commander William T. Riker,  first officer on the U.S.S. Enterprise – D.

“Every time I hear the name, I think of that character,” says Reddick.

Reddick’s fondness for Star Trek is tied to his racing career. Before he made it to NASCAR, he raced on dirt tracks. His downtime was spent on Netflix.

“I’ve been able to pretty much watch everything,” Reddick says. “That’s how I got caught up and watched it. I would travel on the road dirt racing or whatever. I would sit on Netflix and watch all of the series, kind of in the order they’re supposed to come out. There was about a year straight … that’s all I watched when I was at the house.”

Even with his love of Trek – he has a Star Fleet insignia Pop Socket on the back of his phone – he couldn’t bring himself to pull the phaser trigger on naming his son after the jazz-loving Commander Riker.

“I don’t know, I’m worried people are going to pick on me for naming my son after a Star Trek character,” Reddick admits. “As crazy as it sounds, it was one of the reasons I didn’t like the name Ryker, because I watched Star Trek so much.”

Ryker Reddick is a strong name. It’s not too late to make the change.

“I can’t now, because I’m just so headstrong,” Reddick says. “I just like the name Beau better.”

That said, Reddick isn’t just a fan of old Star Trek. He watches the series Star Trek: Discovery that debuted in 2017.

Oh, and he’ll get his Picard fix early next year. Patrick Stewart returns in the CBS All Access series Picard to play the character he last portrayed in the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis.

“(Alexa) made fun of me for being so excited about it,” Reddick says. “She said I was like, ‘fangirling.'”