Paul Menard to retire from NASCAR; Matt DiBenedetto will drive No. 21 in 2020

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Wood Brothers Racing announced Tuesday that Paul Menard will retire from full-time NASCAR competition after 2019 and Matt DiBenedetto will take over the historic No. 21 Ford next season.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will retire after 13 full-time seasons in the Cup Series. The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be his 471st start.

This year was his second season driving for Wood Brothers Racing. Menard, 39, joins David Ragan in being the second long-term veteran to announce their retirement from full-time racing after this season.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment of my career racing in the NASCAR Cup Series and I’m so thankful for all the great memories and friendships I’ve made through this sport,” Menard said in a press release. “But I’m looking forward to spending more time at home with my wife Jennifer and our two young children while moving forward with the next chapter of my life.

“I want to thank everyone at Wood Brothers Racing, along with Team Penske, and our partners at Menards, Motorcraft, Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers and Ford. It’s been a privilege to work with them and some of the true legends of our sport, including Andy Petree, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robert Yates, Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Glen and Leonard Wood. I’m excited for what the future holds and I’m looking forward to sharing the plans for 2020 and beyond in the coming weeks.”

Said DiBenedetto in a statement: “I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020. The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”

The news about DiBenedetto’s new ride comes after he was informed by Leavine Family Racing last month he wouldn’t return to the No. 95 Toyota next season.

DiBenedetto, 28, is in his fifth season of Cup competition. Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was his 166th start. He has six top-10 finishes, including three top fives this season. All of those have come in the last 11 races. One of his top fives was a runner-up finish in the Bristol night race, where he led a race-high 93 laps but lost to Denny Hamlin.

DiBenedetto will be a guest on NASCAR America MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.

“We want to thank Paul Menard for his dedication to the team over the last two seasons,” said team President and co-owner Eddie Wood in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a strong finish to 2019 and we wish him nothing but the best for the future. All of us at Wood Brothers Racing are excited to welcome Matt DiBenedetto to the team beginning next season. Matt has shown a lot of promise on track and everyone has seen it in his results this season, especially over the past several months. We want to continue to build on that success together as we gear up for 2020 and the future of Wood Brothers Racing.”

Later in a press conference, Menard said he expected Menards to remain as a full sponsor on the No. 21 and Ryan Blaney‘s No. 12 car.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1, Kyle Busch drops to 10th

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Even though Martin Truex Jr. passed Kevin Harvick to win the NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas, Harvick remains No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Harvick was the top pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers for the second straight week. Meanwhile, Truex and Brad Keselowski made the biggest jumps in this week’s rankings, both going from unranked last week to tied for No. 2 this week.

The biggest drop in the rankings came from Kyle Busch, who fell from third to 10th this week and Clint Bowyer, who dropped out after being fourth last week. Busch has fallen from first to 10th in the last three polls.

Here is how this week’s rankings look:

1. Kevin Harvick (39 points): Although he fell one point short of unanimous selection, “Happy” is certainly in a very happy place heading to Richmond. Last week: First.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (33 points): Never question this team’s playoff readiness. The way he won at Las Vegas could be an indicator of even greater success in the remaining nine playoff races, potentially culminating with a second Cup championship in three years. Last week: Unranked.

2. Brad Keselowski (33 points): Rebounded from poor start to, in his words, nearly “steal” a win. Third-place finish is his fourth top five in the last five races. Last week: Unranked.

4. Kyle Larson (28 points): Overlooked rebound for eighth-place finish with a top-three car after pit penalty. Is peaking at the right time: Vegas marked his sixth top 10 in the last seven races. Last week: Seventh.

5. Chase Elliott (26 points): Scores back-to-back fourth-place finishes. Since his Watkins Glen win, he has only one finish outside the top 10. Last week: Eighth.

6. Joey Logano (13 points): Decent top 10 but made some moves he probably wants back. Still, ninth-place finish marks back-to-back top 10s for the first time since July. Last week: Fifth.

7. Ryan Blaney (12 points): Earned his first top five in five races, but his sixth top 10 in last eight races. Last week: Sixth.

8. Denny Hamlin (11 points): Car woes late at Las Vegas left him wondering what went wrong after 15th-place finish. No panic yet but a strong hometown Richmond run would help. Last week: Second.

9. William Byron (8 points): The playoff rookie was cool under fire at Las Vegas. Nice recovery from spin to finish seventh in first Cup playoff race. Last week: Unranked.

10. Kyle Busch (7 points): Hit wall, lost two laps, got back on the lead lap, ran into the back of a slower car, complained about drivers not on the lead lap. Yes, think that’s about how his playoff opener went. Oh well, he does have all those playoff points as the regular-season champ to fall back on. Last week: Third.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Newman (5 points), Chris Buescher (3 points), Alex Bowman (2 points).

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.

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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