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

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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.

Goodyear tire info for Richmond race weekend

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If Goodyear tires at Richmond Raceway look familiar this weekend, there’s a good reason.

Teams competing in Friday’s Xfinity and Saturday’s Cup races will have the same Goodyear tire compounds as they raced upon in the spring at the 3/4-mile bullring in April.

Richmond is simply one of the more high-wear tracks on the NASCAR circuit,” Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said in a media release. “What we’ve seen this year with this higher downforce package, with the cars more ‘in the track’ and with less lateral slip, wear is down a bit compared to 2018.

Saying that, tires are still very important at Richmond. The tread compounds we bring do a good job rubbering in the track, creating multiple racing grooves throughout the race.”

As a result, tire management is a significant element for this weekend’s races, “meaning a good amount of passing throughout the field as a run progresses,” according to the Goodyear media release. “Richmond has traditionally lined up with a couple other tracks of similar length – New Hampshire and Phoenix – but its ‘racy’ configuration requires more stagger (difference in height between the shorter left-side tire and the taller right-side tire) be built into the tire set-up.”

NOTES: This is the only track at which Cup or Xfinity teams will run either of these two Goodyear tire codes. … As on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, teams will not run liners in their tires at Richmond.

Here is the information for this weekend’s tires at Richmond:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Intermediate Radials

Set limits: Cup: Three sets for practice, one set for qualifying and 10 sets for the race (nine race sets plus one set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: Six sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4874; Right-side — D-4876

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,214 mm (87.17 in.); Right-side — 2,244 mm (88.35 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 12 psi; Left Rear – 12 psi; Right Front — 30 psi; Right Rear — 27 psi

Daniel Hemric not returning to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car next year

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Daniel Hemric will not return to drive Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet in 2020, the team announced Tuesday. The team said in a statement it had exercised its option and would release Hemric following this season.

Hemric is in his rookie Cup season and has been with RCR for three years. He competed for the team in the Xfinity Series from 2017-18 before moving to Cup. Hemric has competed in five full-time seasons across Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series and has yet to visit victory lane.

More: NASCAR schedule, video and more

Through 27 races this year, Hemric has two top-10 finishes – a fifth at Talladega and a seventh at Pocono in July – and an average finish of 22.7.

The move by RCR to release Hemric creates a potential open seat for RCR’s Xfinity series driver Tyler Reddick, who is the defending Xfinity champion. Owner Richard Childress said in July the only way he could keep Reddick was if he moved Reddick up to Cup.

Reddick has five wins this season, including last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Reddick enters the postseason as the regular-season champion. The postseason begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Statements from RCR and Hemric are below.

Joey Gase joins Garrett Smithley to defend self from Kyle Busch criticism

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Joey Gase on Tuesday joined Garrett Smithley to basically tell Kyle Busch to double-check his facts before pointing fingers.

Busch criticized Smithley and Gase for their driving – having made contact with Smithley and was impeded by Gase – late in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas, leaving Busch with an eventual 19th-place finish.

Busch said in an interview on NBCSN: “We’re the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys that have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic, they don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Gase stood up for himself in an extended tweet Tuesday.

Here’s a transcript of that post:

Well someone implied (Sunday) night that I have never won a late model race before. As you can see in the pics below I have won a few in my day and just wanted to share my story a little bit and thank the people who have helped me get to where I am today.

My dad raced before I did at the local short track level and that’s how I fell in love with racing. When I was 4 years old my dad got me my first yard kart and would turn hundreds of laps on the driveway everyday. When I turned 14 my dad retired from racing and I started to race his old open wheel modified and won that year up in Oktoberfest in Lacrosse, WI which anyone in the Midwest knows how big of a weekend that is.

When I was 16 I was the youngest ever to win the track championship in the Late Model division at Hawkeye Downs Speedway racing against some of the best in the Midwest like Johnny Spaw, Tim Plummer, Griffen McGrath, Doughly Fleck, Brad Osborn and the list goes on and this is when my career took off.

This was only made possible because a family friend believed in me and bought my first two late models and the motors to go with it. Our crew consisted of my dad, my uncle, grandpa, and I. My parents were not rich, my dad worked in a coal power plant for 20 plus years and my mom was a hair stylist. It took the effort of my whole family and a lot of people who believed in me to get to where I am today and I can’t thank them enough.

We have accomplished a lot of cool things over the years, my top memories being winning my first race back after my mom’s passing, finishing fifth with Jimmy Means Racing at Talladega after almost missing the race and making my first start in the Daytona 500 and being the highest finishing rookie (23rd).

I have to give HUGE thanks to Jimmy Means for giving me a big chance and making it possible for myself to get established in NASCAR with nearly no funding when we first started and Carl Long for picking me back up after my big sponsor from last year did not stand by their commitments and letting me know in the middle of December.

We have to work for every sponsor we get and I am proud to say I have 30 different sponsors this year and would not be here without them. Also have to thank all of my fans for always standing by me.”

Gase’s tweet follows Smithley’s rebuke of Busch late Monday afternoon, giving his side of the contact with the former Cup champ.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan discussed if Busch was wrong in his criticism.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Preliminary entry lists for Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend at Richmond Raceway for two of the national series.

The Cup Series holds the second race of its opening round while the Xfinity Series kicks off its postseason.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race.

Cup – Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Quin Houff is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in RWR’s No. 52 Ford and Spencer Boyd is in the team’s No. 53 Chevrolet.

Martin Truex Jr. won the spring race at Richmond over Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch won this race last year over Kevin Harvick and Truex.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Go Bowing 250 (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the fourth time this season.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Hermie Sadler is entered in Ryan Sieg Racing’s No. 38 Chevrolet. It will be his first Xfinity start since this race in 2016.

Joe Graf Jr. is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

There is no driver attached to Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won at Richmond in the spring over Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier. Christopher Bell won this race last year over Ross Chastain and Daniel Hemric.

Click here for the entry list.

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