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.

Sammy Smith to run full Xfinity season for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023

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Sammy Smith will run the full Xfinity schedule in the No. 18 car, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Monday.

The 18-year-old Smith, a Toyota development driver, won the ARCA Menards Series East title for a second consecutive year in 2022 and also made nine Xfinity starts with JGR.

Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation and Allstate Peterbilt will be sponsors on Smith’s car throughout the 2023 season. Jeff Meendering will be Smith’s crew chief.

“This is an opportunity I have been working towards,” Smith said in a statement from the team. “I can’t wait to get behind the wheel full-time and am looking forward to a great season. I learned a lot in 2022 that will really help me to be competitive and run up front in the Xfinity Series. Thank you to Pilot Flying J, TMC Transportation, Allstate Peterbilt Group, and Toyota Racing Development for supporting me in my racing career. I am excited for next year and appreciate the opportunity.”

Said Steve DeSouza, JGR executive vice president of Xfinity Series and driver development, in a statement: “Sammy is a fantastic addition to our 2023 Xfinity lineup. He proved to have the passion and the talent to necessary to compete for wins in the races he ran for us in 2022,” .“We are excited to get him in the No. 18 full time and know he will be competitive from the jump.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Racing through the numbers

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Some drivers carry one car number throughout their racing careers. The most famous racers in NASCAR’s 75-year history typically are associated with one number, although some have raced under several.

Victories, championships and driver personalities give life to something as generally mundane as a number. And the most popular produce even bigger numbers, as in sales of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.

Here’s a look at 10 of the most iconic NASCAR numbers:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 43 — Since Richard Petty’s emergence as a superstar in the 1960s, the number 43 has been NASCAR’s most iconic. Although Lee Petty, Richard’s father, usually drove No. 42, he actually scored the first win by the 43, in 1959. The Petty blue No. 43 carried Richard to a string of championships. He scored 192 of his 200 race wins with the number. It rolls on today with Erik Jones, who took the 43 to the Southern 500 victory lane this season.

2. 3 — The fiercely facing forward No. 3 became ultra-famous while driven by seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt (although Earnhardt won his first title driving the No. 2). Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet carried the number to new heights, but Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Buddy Baker and Ricky Rudd, among others, also won in the car.

MORE: Where are they now? Buddy Parrott

3. 21 — The list of drivers who have raced Wood Brothers Racing’s famous No. 21, with the familiar gold foil numbers, reads like a history of NASCAR. David Pearson brought the most fame to the number, but Tim Flock, Curtis Turner, team owner Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Dale Jarrett also have driven the 21.

4. 11 — This number is responsible for more race wins — 228 — than any other. It also has scored eight championships — three each by Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and two by Ned Jarrett. Other stars in the 11 over the years: Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and Denny Hamlin. And some guy named Mario Andretti.

5. 48 — This number was largely ignored until the arrival of Jimmie Johnson, who carried it to seven championships, including five in a row.

6. 24 — The number 24 was a lonely number until 1994 when a kid named Jeff Gordon drove it to its first win, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The brightly colored 24 became a regular visitor to victory lane from that point forward, carrying Gordon to four championships and becoming one of NASCAR’s most decorated numbers.

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7. 18 — Although Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte won in the 18, Kyle Busch, draped in the bright colors of sponsor M&Ms, took it into new territory.

8. 22 — NASCAR’s first Cup champion (Red Byron) and its most recent (Joey Logano) rode with the 22. The number has produced 87 wins over the years, including victories by Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Ward Burton, Kurt Busch, Byron and Logano.

9. 2 — Although the 2 carried Dale Earnhardt (1980) and Brad Keselowski (2012) to Cup championships, it is perhaps most identified with Rusty Wallace, whose menacing black No. 2 was powerful at Team Penske. Also successful in the 2: Bill Blair, Kurt Busch and Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

10. 9 — The 9 was basically nondescript until Bill Elliott roared out of the north Georgia mountains to turn it into a big winner in the mid-1980s. His son, Chase, continues the trend.

 

 

Truck Series: Rajah Caruth joins GMS Racing

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Rajah Caruth will drive the No. 24 truck full-time for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023, the team announced Tuesday.

The 20-year-old Caruth ran a full season in the ARCA Menards Series last year, placing third in points. He also made seven Xfinity starts and four Truck starts last year. 

“I am extremely honored, and really excited to join GMS Racing and be in the fold of a professional race team with so much history,” Caruth said in a statement from the team. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this throughout my whole career, and I’m going to do the best in my power to make the most of it.

“First and foremost, I can’t thank everybody at GMS enough for believing in me and believing that I have what it takes to drive one of their trucks. Same goes for everybody at Chevrolet for their support, we truly wouldn’t be able to make this happen without them. 

Caruth joins Grant Enfinger and Daniel Dye as GMS Racing’s full-time Craftsman Truck Series drivers. Chad Walter will be Caruth’s crew chief. Jeff Hensley will be Enfinger’s crew chief. Travis Sharpe will be Dye’s crew chief. 

The primary partner on Caruth’s truck will be the Wendell Scott Foundation. The foundation, named for the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, seeks to provide resources and services to underprivileged Black youth communities near Scott’s hometown of Danville, Virginia. Since the foundation’s formation in 2011, more than 25 students have been awarded more than $50,000 from the Wendell Scott Legacy Scholarship programs.

“We are excited for Rajah to compete full-time with GMS Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2023,” said Dayne Pierantoni, GM Racing Program Manager for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Through Chevrolet’s partnership with Rev Racing, we have been impressed with Rajah’s talent both on and off the track. He has proven his ability to compete at the NASCAR national level, and we look forward to seeing his continued success with a series championship winning team.”

The Truck season begins Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. 

In other Truck Series news:

Dean Thompson will drive the No. 5 for TRICON Garage this coming season. The 21-year-old was a rookie in the series this past season. He had a season-best finish of 11th at Las Vegas.

“I am thrilled to start the next chapter of my career with TRICON Garage and Toyota Racing Development,” Thompson said in a statement from the team. “The team and manufacturer have quickly made a statement in the Truck Series as striving to be the best of the best. I’m ready to take on the challenge and live up to the expectations of being a driver for TRICON.”

McAnally Hilgemann Racing announced Tuesday that Christian Eckes and Jake Garcia will drive full-time in the Truck series for the team next season.

Eckes, who will drive the No. 19 truck, moves over from ThorSport Racing. Garcia will drive the No. 35 truck in pursuit of the series Rookie of the Year award.

NAPA AutoCare will continue as a team sponsor.

Garcia is 17 and is scheduled to make his first start March 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Because of NASCAR’s age restrictions, he will miss the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. The team’s Daytona driver has not been announced.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.