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,” Denny 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.

Long: No fans mutes Indy soundtrack, but Chase Briscoe still relishes win

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mimicking what his hero Tony Stewart twice did at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chase Briscoe climbed the fence after winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the road course.

But unlike Stewart, who looked out to a sea of fans bathing him in cheers, Briscoe saw only empty gray bleachers and heard only the shouts of his crew members who joined him on the ascent.

The culmination of a historic doubleheader with the NTT IndyCar Series and the Xfinity Series also meant the end of a day — and a July 4 at that — unlike any other at the famed speedway.

No fans at NASCAR races have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sight — and lack of sound — at Indy was stark.

Sunday’s Cup race will not have fans. It also will not have seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who announced Friday he and his wife have contracted the coronavirus.

Johnson says he is asymptomatic but admits he has more questions than answers about how he and his wife got the virus and when he’ll be able to return to racing. Sunday was to have been his final Cup start in a race he’s won four times.

Johnson will be missed. So will be the fans. Just as they were Saturday.

The fans provide a soundtrack to any event, even a race where engine noise dominates. There was no roar from the crowd when the command to start engines was made. No cheers for the winner when he emerged from his car in victory lane. No oohs and ahhs when the top four cars in the Xfinity race sailed down the long front straightaway into a sharp right-hand turn with two laps left, dueling for the win.

The only sound came from the engines echoing off the canyon of empty seats.

Even in the smallest settings, interactions were missed. When Scott Dixon won the IndyCar race earlier in the day, his crew, unable to be in victory lane because of protocols, stood on a stairwell 20 feet above him and clapped.

When Briscoe won, there was no family to greet him. Two years ago his father had tears seeing Briscoe drive at Indy. One could only imagine what his reaction would have been Saturday.

My family is probably crying at home,” said Briscoe, an Indiana native. “I was thinking about that the last couple of laps. That is tough. I wish they could have been here to experience it. It is something that may not ever happen again. It is definitely bittersweet to win without them here.”

If he wins again at Indy, good chance it could be with Stewart-Haas Racing. Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director, served as Briscoe’s interim crew chief because Richard Boswell was serving the final race of a four-race suspension and voiced his support for Briscoe.

“I think he is still young and has a lot to learn, but I am very, very impressed with how quick he is learning how to race these stock cars,” Zipadelli said. “I hope he is a part of Stewart-Haas for a long period of time.”

What makes Briscoe — only the second driver to win five of the first 13 races of a season in the Xfinity Series — stand out?

“He is able to dig deep,” Zipadelli said. “There are some people that when it is time to close, I see that a lot in him, he finds a little bit extra. He has a lot of confidence but isn’t getting cocky, which I love. Most of all he is just a good race car driver.”

While IndyCar had run on this course, this was new for Xfinity Series. Briscoe had prepared since February for this race, spending time weekly on the Ford simulator driving the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course. The training came through as Briscoe battled AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley for the lead late. 

Even though Haley finished second to Briscoe, he still enjoyed the afternoon.

“I have zero complaints about the Indy road course,” Haley said. “I thought it was an amazing day

“When the fans are back, I think it’s going to be better.”

Briscoe said he can’t wait for fans to be back at this track and elsewhere.

“They are the reason you celebrate and the last couple of times I didn’t really celebrate because without the fans I don’t get hyped up,” he said. “Here I was obviously excited. I wish there were fans here.”

Even so, Briscoe would still have a celebration.

A former dirt track racer, Briscoe planned to visit a dirt track Saturday night within an hour’s drive of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My little sister has decided she wants to try to drive a race car,” Briscoe said. “At the end of the night she is going to drive a mini-sprint around there for 20 or 30 laps. I am going to head there and see a lot of my friends I don’t get to see anymore and hang out with my dad and family.”

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Justin Allgaier ready for starring role as Jimmie Johnson’s understudy

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If Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was a Broadway play, Justin Allgaier would be the understudy stepping in to fill in for the star, namely, Jimmie Johnson.

And while it may be looked at as only a fill-in role for Allgaier driving Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet due to Johnson having tested positive Friday for COVID-19, a strong run in Sunday’s race (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) could put Allgaier’s name on the list of potential replacements for Johnson, who is retiring at the end of this season.

“I would say the list for the 48 car of potential drivers is extremely long and I don’t know where I fit on that list,” Allgaier said after finishing sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “For me, 100% is what I can give. I think it’s gonna be important to go out there and just do what I can do.

“And if an opportunity were to come out of that and to go somewhere, obviously I would love for that opportunity. But on the other side of that point, I have a great relationship with my team at JR Motorsports. … That’s gonna be the most important part is, just going it 100% (Sunday) and whatever happens after that happens.”

Johnson filling in for Johnson isn’t exactly a surprise. Allgaier has been Johnson’s designated backup since NASCAR resumed racing in May following a nearly three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have had our own basically secondary line-up and that includes anyone from driver to crew chief all the way through the crew members that travel to the race track,” Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, said. “There really was no extra thought that we had to put into it. This lineup was already set.

“We had all the plans in place just out of the abundance of caution that we wanted to take. And again, even before going back racing in Darlington, this has been in place. There were no extra decisions to be made. Justin has been on stand-by this whole time and has been aware that this could happen.”

For now, Allgaier is slated to replace Johnson for Sunday’s Brickyard 400. There’s also the possibility he could stay in the No. 48 for next weekend’s race at Kentucky.

Johnson must have two negative COVID-19 tests in no less than a 24-hour period and also be given clearance by his doctor before he can return behind the wheel.

By missing the Brickyard 400, which he’s won four times, Johnson also snaps a streak of 663 consecutive starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie campaign in 2002. It’s the longest streak of any active driver in the Cup Series.

“I didn’t expect this opportunity would come to fruition,” Allgaier said. “I couldn’t ask for a better team, the 48 team, I’ve worked with a lot of guys on that team closely. I’m excited in one aspect, but the other part of this is we’re thinking about Jimmie and his whole family. Their safety is of utmost importance.

“No matter what happens tomorrow, we want to see Jimmie get healthy and (Johnson’s wife) Chandra get healthy.  … I texted Jimmie last night and said I want to see him get healthy quick so he can get back because I want to see him back in victory lane a lot more before the end of the season.”

While Allgaier is known most for his 319 Xfinity Series starts, 11 wins and 182 top-10 finishes, the 34-year-old native of Riverton, Illinois, also has 76 starts in the Cup Series on his resume, with a career-best finish of eighth at Bristol in spring 2015.

Given his prior Cup experience, as well as working hand-in-hand with Hendrick Motorsports in various capacities such as testing over the years – team owner Rick Hendrick is also a part-owner of JR Motorsports – Allgaier is both comfortable as well as somewhat nervous of becoming the first driver to ever fill in for Johnson during Johnson’s Cup career.

“That really resonates with me as a driver when you’re already on pins and needles when you’re filling in for somebody else,” Allgaier said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything right and give them the best finish that you can give them.

“When you’re able to do that and be comfortable, that makes a big difference, and I think that’s what’s been the best part about all of this for me.”

Allgaier considers racing in Johnson’s shoes one of the most humbling experiences of his career.

“I can’t even begin to describe it to you, to be honest with you,” Allgaier said. “The cars at HMS, any of the four cars, it’s definitely an honor to drive and to be part of that program.

“The 48, being the iconic number it is, Jimmie winning seven championships and here (at Indianapolis) four times, the guy Jimmie is and the respect he has in the sport, you top that off with the fact he’s the only driver to drive the 48 since he started his career there.”

While Johnson and Hendrick aren’t putting any undue pressure on Allgaier, he understands the gravity of the position he’s been placed in.

“If you have the opportunity to drive for Mr. Hendrick, you take it, no questions asked and try to run with that ball,” Allgaier said.

But at the same time, Allgaier isn’t going to try and drive over his head or beyond his ability just because he has such a great opportunity.

“Opportunity or not does not supersede to go out there and do the job at hand,” Allgaier said. “100% is what I have to offer. That’s what I’m going to give them tomorrow.

“101 or 110 (percent) or trying to be a hero, there’s no place for that. This isn’t what this role is about. My plan is to go out and give the 48 car the best opportunity to run at its max potential.

“In my mind, I believe that max potential is to go out and win the race tomorrow. So I’ve gotta do a really good job. … I need to make sure that I don’t put myself in bad positions, I don’t do things Jimmie wouldn’t do and being somebody different in the car, everybody in the field is going to know that.

“There are going to be some that respect that and others who are probably going to take advantage of that. You just have to know who you’re racing against and put yourself in the best position you can.

“I just have to make sure when the checkered flag falls tomorrow, I’ve given it 100% and whatever the results are, that’s just what they’re going to be.”

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Cup start time at Indianapolis: TV, stream, lineup, forecast and more for Sunday

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The Cup Series looks to start a new tradition by racing on the Fourth of July weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick looks to continue his strong run this season and win at this historic track for the third time in his career and second year in a row.

The Cup race is scheduled to start at 4:24 p.m. ET (Watch on NBC or the NBC Sports app).

Denny Hamlin, who beat Harvick a day after Harvick beat him at Pocono, will look to win at the Brickyard for the first time after coming close before.

Justin Allgaier drives the No. 48 car today after Jimmie Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

Here is the Cup start time at Indianapolis and other info for Sunday’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records President & CEO, will give the command to start engines at 4:13 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 8 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4:05 p.m by Pastor Mark Schuitema of College Park Church in Indianapolis. The national anthem will be performed at 4:06 p.m. by Valory Music Company recording artist Abbey Cone. Two A-10 Warthogs from the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will perform the flyover.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 12.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with the NASCAR America Pre-Race Show on NBCSN. Countdown to Green follows at 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN before coverage moves to NBC for the race. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network’s coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

LIVE STREAM: You can watch the race on NBCSports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy conditions with a high of 91 degrees and a 24% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Denny Hamlin won at Pocono. Kevin Harvick placed second. Erik Jones was third.

LAST RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS: Kevin Harvick won last September’s race. Joey Logano was second. Bubba Wallace placed third.

TO THE REAR: Justin Allgaier (replaces Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48)

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Jimmie Johnson uncertain how he got COVID-19

Jimmie Johnson tests positive for COVID-19

First 15 Cup races have been “eye-opening” for Christopher Bell

Indy says no need to alter barrier Brad Keselowski struck in 2019 race

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis 

Face masks among precautions for Bristol All-Star Race

Indy provides a treasure trove of memories for Cup drivers 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

 

 

Results, standings after Indianapolis Xfinity race

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After being pushed out of the lead, Chase Briscoe roared right back in the closing laps to win Saturday’s inaugural NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Briscoe’s fifth win of the season. He predicted in the preseason that he would win eight races in 2020. He’s now just three wins away from that goal.

Justin Haley finished second, followed by Noah Gragson, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric.

Click here for results

Ranked No. 1, Briscoe opened his lead on Noah Gragson to 21 points in the driver standings and a 55-point edge over third-ranked Ross Chastain.

Updated Xfinity driver points after Indy

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