Ryan: Where could Matt DiBenedetto be heading next season in Cup?

8 Comments

BRISTOL, Tenn. – The audition essentially is over for Matt DiBenedetto, who again proved Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway that he is worthy of keeping a ride in NASCAR’s premier series.

Do withering auditions now begin for scads of other drivers whom DiBenedetto has outperformed for two months (his runner-up finish after leading a race-high 93 laps is his third top five and fifth top 10 in nine races)?

As NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said during the NBCSN broadcast (and has said before), “I can give you a list of drivers who should be scared to death of Matty D. because he deserves their seats.”

There could be team owners feeling some heat, too, by remaining complacent. Bristol winner Denny Hamlin said on the NBCSN postrace interview in victory lane, “all you car owners are idiots” if DiBenedetto didn’t land a Cup ride in 2020.

“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said later in his media center interview. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”

Hamiln said numerous times that there is “no doubt in my mind” that DiBenedetto will land “better even than he is right now.”

The question is where, and the chattering classes of NASCAR were in overdrive this past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, trying to chart how the annual parade of driver movement will unfold (after it began in earnest last week later than normal).

A few important parameters:

–While contracts are important, they can vary as to how ironclad they are because of results clauses and options. DiBenedetto originally was announced as having a two-year deal last October with Leavine Family Racing, but the team actually had to approve his renewal. A driver can be “set” for next season and still be removed.

–The possibility always exists that a team with fewer than four drivers could add a car for DiBenedetto, but the reality is highly unlikely anyone would.

–Before being informed Aug 13 that he wouldn’t be returning to LFR, DiBenedetto said he hadn’t talked to any other teams about 2020.

Here’s everything we seem to know about the status of major rides next year, in a team-by-team analysis:

–Chip Ganassi Racing: Kyle Larson is under contract through next season. Kurt Busch, who has had Monster sponsorship the past five seasons, said Friday at Bristol that he still isn’t set for next year. That could open a slot in the No. 1, but Ross Chastain is believed to remain under contract with Ganassi and probably would be the first option if Busch were to leave.

Front Row Motorsports: The full-time retirement of David Ragan opens a ride here that Front Row intends to fill, but Ross Chastain would be high on this team’s list for the No. 38 Ford, and Corey LaJoie also has been mentioned as a possibility. Michael McDowell and Matt Tifft are believed to be returning to the team.

–GoFas Racing: LaJoie is putting up solid numbers while emerging as a breakout personality, and that could draw attention and opportunities from other teams. DiBenedetto remains friendly with many on this team from his 2017-18 stint.

–Hendrick Motorsports: Jimmie Johnson (contract through 2020), Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman (pending sponsorship finalization) all are solid for next year

–Joe Gibbs Racing: Clearly no room here with all four drivers seemingly set for next season.

JTG Daugherty Racing: Ryan Preece said Friday his deal with the team is beyond 2019. Chris Buescher was announced in August 2017 as having signed a multiyear deal. The team has ended its deals before the end of a term before, though, with A.J. Allmendinger leaving after last season despite two years remaining on an extension he signed in 2015.

Leavine Family Racing: This isn’t an option for next year with the expected arrival of Christopher Bell.

But thanks to the trigger-happy Twitter thumbs of team owner Bob Leavine, it’s known that a scenario has been discussed in which DiBenedetto could spend a season in Xfinity before returning to Cup in 2021 (when the Gen 7 car is expected to make its debut). DiBenedetto has been careful to avoid burning any bridges (he immediately thanked LFR and its team members in postrace interviews).

-Richard Childress Racing: Daniel Hemric’s contract with the team is through 2020, but he has sent signals he isn’t certain of being kept (Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick will need a Cup ride to stay at RCR). Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, is set.

Richard Petty Motorsports: Bubba Wallace was signed to a multiyear deal last year and has indicated he will return in 2020.

Roush Fenway Racing: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. recently reaffirmed that he has a contract through 2021, and the team would seem very happy with Ryan Newman taking the No. 6 to the playoffs in his first season.

Stewart-Haas Racing: Kevin Harvick is set beyond this season (and probably as long as he wants to drive the No. 4). Aric Almirola came with sponsor Smithfield to SHR last year and is good through 2020. Clint Bowyer is in a contract year and while indications have been positive about his return, sponsorship on his No. 14 has been difficult, and an extension likely would include a pay cut similar to many other veterans in his class. Daniel Suarez is in his first season at SHR and said last Friday that he and the team both have options for remaining together in 2020 “but everything is looking pretty good” for remaining in the No. 41.

Team Penske: Its trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney is firm.

–Wood Brothers Racing: Paul Menard recently said he expects to be back in the No. 21 Ford next year.


In taking on Bell as its No. 95 driver next year, LFR will function much more like a de-facto fifth Joe Gibbs Racing car in a stronger alliance resembling what Furniture Row Racing had with JGR.

LFR switched to Toyota this season but was running a 2018 chassis Saturday, according to crew chief Mike Wheeler, who also said as “JGR learns stuff, we get upgrades.” Based on how well DiBenedetto ran at Bristol, where he led final Cup practice, qualified seventh and finished second, there was some speculation that the team might have received a full-fledged JGR-prepared Camry at Bristol.

“There’s a misconception out there about it being a JGR primary car,” Wheeler said. “It is a generation behind, but it’s good. If you put a good setup and good driver in it, it can go fast, and you saw that tonight.”


As difficult as Saturday night’s finish was for Denny Hamlin and Matt DiBenedetto, it was just as gutting for Mike Wheeler, who had to watch as his current driver got beat by the driver whom he guided as the No. 11 crew chief from 2016-18 before being transferred to LFR by JGR.

Though it isn’t expected that Wheeler will remain as the No. 95 crew chief next year (Bell has spoken highly of his Xfinity crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, who previously won with Matt Kenseth in Cup), Gibbs said Wheeler was under long-term contract to the team. “We all love Wheels,” Gibbs said. “He’s been a very key part to our organization. Then when he moved over to the 95, he’s just done an outstanding job over there.”

Wheeler told reporters he “definitely needed a moment to compose myself” after Saturday’s finish (as captured in this photo by Dustin Long).

“If you told us we’d ran second before we got here, but to lead the whole last stint and come up short, that was disappointing,” he said. “It’s like gosh. I don’t know why things happen to me like that. But it makes you a better person I guess in the future.”


In making the switch to 18-inch tires with the Gen 7 car, NASCAR also is considering the use of a single lug nut to secure wheels. That would be another step toward bringing NASCAR in line with IndyCar, whose common chassis by Dallara has been pushed by team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi (whose teams compete in both series) as a model for the Gen 7 on cost-savings components.

The move to a single lugnut (from the current five-lugnut wheel) could be viewed as a safety enhancement by greatly reducing the possibility of loose wheels, but it also would overhaul the dynamics of pit stops and likely de-emphasize the importance of tire changers.


Brad Keselowski long has been sensitive to how private aviation in NASCAR is perceived by a fan base that formed its bonds with stars through workingman’s roots. The Team Penske driver once banned news media that traveled with him from taking photos or video aboard his plane.

In the wake of the crash involving Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane last week, Keselowski made another impassioned and well-reasoned defense of flying in NASCAR – particularly in the case of Bristol, which is about a three-hour drive from the Charlotte area homes of many drivers.

“It’s work-life balance,” said Keselowski, who flew into the same airport Friday morning where Earnhardt’s plane crashed the previous afternoon. “That’s the reality of it. We’re trying to be dads and be husbands. And try to leverage the privileges we have to do just that. That’s probably the easiest way I can answer it.

“My staying home (Thursday) night, I got to have dinner with my daughter. Her grandparents got to come over. That’s a big deal. I don’t get many nights like that. Michigan week, I wasn’t home at all and didn’t spend any time with my family. I look through the pictures of my daughter when she’s growing up, and it’s, ‘Oh my God, how did my daughter turn 4 years old?’ It happened like that, and it happened while I was at races in Michigan and gone all week And when I have a week like this where we can make the most of it, we’re going to try like hell to make the most of it. We were able to do that because of private aviation.

“I understand that most people might not get that concept, but most people aren’t in the situation we’re in as race car drivers that travel every week. We don’t get to skip a week. We’re not like LeBron James where we get to sit on the bench or stay home for a week or whatever it is from other sports. This is 38 weeks, and they will run the race without you. And your ass will get fired if you don’t show up. So that’s really hard to explain to people. And it’s very hard to explain to your wife and daughter when you miss something that’s really special to them. Private aviation is a great way to try to fill those gaps. And we might get a black eye because of that, but it’s something that I’m really passionate about and very thankful for.”


Facing the likelihood that he will miss the Cup playoffs for the first time in 16 years, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that failing to qualify for championship eligibility would change his goal from grinding out points to advance through rounds to focusing exclusively on getting a win with new crew chief Cliff Daniels.

The seven-time champion also would need to begin considering whether the 2020 season would be his last. In the instances of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., that decision was made months (or in Stewart’s case, more than a year) ahead of the final race. Despite his current slump, Johnson seems inclined to keep racing because “our team is getting so good, so strong” but also recognizes foresight on exit strategy is necessary.

“I know for the team, sponsor and for (team owner) Rick (Hendrick), following some sort of timeline would be best for them,” said Johnson, who turns 44 next month. “Like Jeff did and some just decide to walk away, some want a year, others want half a year. I fortunately have not put any thought into that. My commitment is still the team. I’m sure I’ll be pressed for a decision at some point, but I’m not really ready to make that decision. I love what I’m doing being on the track. If I had to pick right now, I’d sign on for more years.”

Johnson added that new primary sponsor Ally seems more focused on branding and name recognition than on-track results.


Besides some unfortunate mainstream publicity, the controversy over the removal of Slayer as the sponsor of a Rick Ware Racing car again underscored the mixed messages that the entangling alliances of sponsorship often tend to breed in NASCAR. RWR released a statement that the band’s “brand image and beliefs” did not align with the team and its longtime partners – though it probably would be more than welcome in many other corners of stock-car racing.

Slayer is one of the progenitors of death metal, a genre that is popular among the ranks of up and coming youth in NASCAR. Longtime Megadeth fan Tyler Reddick had the band on his Xfinity car at New Hampshire last month. Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney have noodled around as a death metal duo in social media clips and have posted videos from concerts.

The mainstream headlines last week, though (driven in part by the team’s 11th-hour cancellation), were “NASCAR says no to death metal band,” which doesn’t really help a series desperately trying to be as inclusive and universally appealing as possible in order to build audience. Sponsorship choices are made individually by teams, tracks and the sanctioning body, but their negative ramifications often can be felt across the board.


There’s another Cup alliance being considered in the Ford camp. Stewart-Haas Racing has discussed the possibility of offloading many of its cars to GoFas Racing in anticipation of its four-car fleet having a lot of extra inventory next season as it moves to the Gen 7car. It’s uncertain if the arrangement also might include technical support.

Racing chassis that are a few years old, Corey LaJoie is 29th in points with the No. 32, a spot higher than it was ranked with Matt DiBenedetto through 24 races last year.


Saturday night’s crowd at Bristol undoubtedly was better than April, but there’s been some debate over how much of the grandstands filled in after there were significant pockets at the green flag (which seemed to mostly disappear in photos of a gorgeous dusk at the track).

There is a simple way to resolve this, of course: If more auto racing tracks would release attendance, like virtually any other professional sport. The longtime excuse is that Cup tracks owned by publicly held companies don’t provide crowd numbers because they don’t want to provide “earnings guidance.”

With ISC and SMI on the cusp of being taken private and no longer required to report earnings, it would be a welcome end to the policy so that officially provided attendance figures could be used to comparatively demonstrate when a NASCAR crowd is truly a success story.

Dustin Long contributed to this report

Ward Burton gets ‘nailed’ — and has the blood to show for it

Ward Burton Twitter page
Leave a comment

Former NASCAR Cup driver Ward Burton has always had a kind of tough guy aura about him – in a good way. It takes a lot to slow him down or to make him feel pain.

What happened Thursday to the older brother of NBC NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton is a perfect example of Ward’s toughness.

First, let’s start out with the pre-story: Thursday morning the 2002 Daytona 500 winner took to Twitter to allude to a day of chores to do:

 

But a few hours later, the 57-year-old Burton had a completely different look on his face – and not of his own doing.

He apparently had a mishap with a nail and board and – well, we’ll let the following tweet tell the story. And once again, it shows how tough Burton can be. Apparently before he even got the wound treated, Burton decided to take a photo and post it online.

“Part of getting projects done,” Burton tweeted.

Now that’s tough.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NASCAR America’s MotorSports Hour 5 p.m. ET; IndyCar championship preview

NBC Sports
Leave a comment

This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents the MotorSports Hour airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Krista Voda and AJ Allmendinger. And joining them from our IndyCar on NBC broadcast team will be race announcer Leigh Diffey and analyst Paul Tracy.

The show will cover multiple racing disciplines, including previewing this Sunday’s IndyCar championship-deciding race at Laguna Seca.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

If history is any indication, Martin Truex Jr. is just getting warmed up

Leave a comment

With his playoff-opening win in Las Vegas, Martin Truex Jr. could easily coast in the next two Cup races, knowing he’s assured of a spot when the Round of 12 begins next month at Dover International Speedway.

But neither Truex nor crew chief Cole Pearn have ever been the cruising type. Even though they’re locked into the next round, there’s still plenty of motivation for the remainder of the opening round of the playoffs this weekend at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and next week on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

There are still valuable stage points for Truex and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team to earn in the playoffs. 

These next two races are all about scoring more playoff points for us,” Truex said in a media release. “It’s great for us knowing that we’re already locked in, but we want to try to pad our advantage to start out that next round.”

With his win at Las Vegas, the Mayetta, New Jersey native has won three of the last four playoff-opening races (also first at Chicago in 2017 and 2016). And he comes into Richmond with a decent career record there: 27 starts, one win, four top 5s, 10 top 10s, one pole and has led 909 laps.

Richmond has been a great track for us the past few years,” Truex said in a media release. “Obviously getting the win in the spring was huge because it was our first with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and kind of got us going for the rest of the season.”

In addition, JGR has 15 Cup wins at Richmond, including the last three there.

Richmond is not only where Truex earned his first of what five wins for JGR this season, but also was the site of his first Cup career short track victory. He’s also led the most laps in the last four races there (and five of the last six). But it isn’t the only track that been good to Truex of late.

Truex has dominated recently at the next three venues on the Cup playoff schedule:

* Won at Richmond in April.

* Won on Charlotte’s oval in May.

* Was one turn away from winning last fall on Charlotte’s Roval before a spinning Jimmie Johnson contacted Truex and ended his chances of winning. Also, in the last six road course races, Truex has three wins and two runner-up finishes.

* Won at Dover in May.

Richmond offers additional incentive for Truex, as well. If he can go back-to-back to victory lane there, he would reach a milestone 25th career Cup series win.

What’s more, he comes into a race for the first time this season atop the NASCAR Cup point standings, with a series-high five wins, as well as 11 top-five and 16 top-10 showings through the first 27 races of the season.

Truex, the 2017 champion, is trying to earn his second Cup title in the last three seasons. And to top things off, Truex’s seven Cup playoff wins since 2016 are the most in the series during that time.  Busch is second with five wins, followed by Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with four wins each.

Add it all up and there most certainly won’t be any coasting from the No. 19.

We just need to keep it up and do all that we can to give ourselves the best chance possible for the rest of the playoffs and not just take it easy,” Truex said.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ryan Sieg, Shane Wilson ready for opportunity races in Xfinity playoffs

Ryan Sieg Racing
Leave a comment

When Shane Wilson answered his phone Tuesday he was in the process of leaving a UPS store, a weekly destination that’s part of his many crew chief duties at Ryan Sieg Racing.

This week the team had to: prepare three cars for Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond – including a car for Hermie Sadler, who is making his first Xfinity start since 2016 and the first ever for RSR, as well as repair a wrecked No. 93 car from Las Vegas and get Ryan Sieg’s No. 39 Chevrolet ready for a playoff run.

“Shoooo, we’re busy,” Wilson tells NBC Sports. “But, you know, good busy.”

That’s all been done with seven crew members at the team’s shop located just outside of Atlanta.

“We can go with seven-and-a-half to make sure I don’t leave anybody out,” jokes Wilson.

At the UPS store he had mailed a shock destined for Vermont. Its recipient would be Steve Hibberd, the team’s shock guy.

Hibberd is a former employee of Orleans Racing, the Truck Series effort for Brendan Gaughan in the early 2000s that Wilson led. He’s one of Wilson’s two “secret weapons.”

The other is another Orleans team member and former Dodge employee, Ryan Isabel, who provides engineering support for the team in identifying trends via a database of car setups.

This small, spread out operation helped Sieg produce the best season in his six years of full-time Xfinity competition and his second playoff berth, following his 2016 campaign.

He enters Richmond with two top fives and nine top 10s (matching his top 10s from the rest of his Xfinity career). His previous best total for top 10s was three in 2016, the first time he went to the playoffs.

But Wilson, a former long-time employee at Richard Childress Racing who crew chiefed for Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, doesn’t seem too stressed about the playoffs before him or his limited resources. In fact, he’s having his most fun in NASCAR in “a long time.”

For a former electrician apprentice from Vermont, he could be doing worse.

“Whenever I have a bad day in racing I think about running pipe in December in Vermont along the Connecticut River,” Wilson says with a chuckle.

Ryan Sieg has made the Xfinity playoffs for the second time in his career. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sieg and Wilson don’t want to hype up a potential Cinderella story for the Xfinity Series playoffs, even if it does have a few ingredients for that.

Sieg and his small team will start their playoff run at the track he had his best non-superspeedway performance earlier this year.

The April 12th race at Richmond saw Sieg start 13th, finish Stage 2 in fifth and then finish the race in fifth for his second top five of the year.

That leads into the Sept. 28 race on the Charlotte Roval. The opening round then closes out at Dover International Speedway.

Wilson sees the first round as three “opportunity races.”

“They’re not cookie cutter mile-and-a-halves, like Vegas,” Wilson says. “I really feel like we can go there and do well.

“I like road racing, Ryan doesn’t necessarily like road racing. I’m trying to get him in the state of mind and that’s a good opportunity race.”

But….

There are a few of those.

They make Wilson a “realist” about their situation, especially when it comes to facing the juggernauts of Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and the other Cup-affiliated teams.

First, there’s the cars.

Those Cup-affiliated teams will likely be bringing new or updated cars to the track as the playoffs open.

Meanwhile, Sieg’s team will be using the same three cars they’ve been rotating through all year. Luckily for Wilson, they’re relatively new chassis the team purchased from Richard Childress Racing before this season, so he’s familiar with them.

“Here we will be running the same cars as we have been because that’s what we have,” Wilson says. “But I don’t think I’d ever switch that anyway, you gotta kind of ride the horse that got you there and try not to out trick yourself or race something that’s a little bit better cause you really need to bring something you know and that you’ve raced all year then see where you land.”

Then there’s the playoff points.

Sieg enters Richmond 11th in the standings with 2,001 points after the standings were reset. That one playoff point is a result of Sieg winning Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway in March.

“Looking at it, those top three cars (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) have such a big advantage, you almost have to pencil them into Homestead,” Sieg says. “To make it through the first (round), that’s what we want to do and need to do. But if we don’t, be consistent over the seven races and get top 10 in points, I think we got eliminated in the first round in 2016, but we still finished ninth in the standings. So it’s always nice to be top 10 in points. … Anything can happen.”

However, with all that, there’s one additional tool in the No. 39 team’s utility belt they didn’t have in April.

They return to Richmond with a Cup pit crew, which they began using in May at Charlotte.

Why is that notable?

Shane Wilson, right, has been a NASCAR crew chief since the early 2000s in Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

“We lost I think 30 spots on pit road that first race and still finished top five,” Sieg says.

Well, maybe it felt like 30.

“It wasn’t quite 30, but it was like 17 though,” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. “Which is still a lot.”

Even with a more experienced pit crew, Sieg’s philosophy on what happens on pit road has been drilled into him.

“We don’t want to gain spots on pit road, we don’t want to lose any either,” Sieg says. “We just want to maintain. I bet you in my career if you counted the number of times I’ve come off pit road I’ve probably lost more positions than I want to count. That’s part of being a small team. If we come in eighth and Brandon Jones is ninth, he’s got a Joe Gibbs pit crew. If they beat us by two seconds, you’re going to lose that spot. I’ve kind of dealt with that a lot in my career. I’m not complaining, cause it’s part of what it is. So I just want to come in 10th and go out 10th. Yeah, it would be great to come out fourth, but that’s less realistic.”

And what if that Cup pit crew had been in place at Richmond six months ago?

“We might of won,” Wilson says. “Or we would have finished second. Because we passed two guys who finished in front of us about three different times. The only one we never passed was (winner Cole Custer).”

While advancing to the next round would be huge for Sieg’s team, Wilson’s goal for the next three races is straightforward: “finish ahead of four of those guys every week” and “accumulate enough points to make them have to race us at Dover.”