Ryan: Paul Menard gives NASCAR a happy (and predictably quiet) ending

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The feel-good stunner of Silly Season naturally would involve the most taciturn and tight-lipped of NASCAR drivers pulling the primary levers.

In what can be described only as a Peak Paul Menard power move, Wood Brothers Racing shocked the NASCAR world Tuesday morning with the unexpected announcement that Menard will exit the No. 21 Ford after the 2019 season and hand the keys to Matt DiBenedetto.

Menard essentially ended his full-time career and hand-picked his successor with hardly anyone being that much the wiser ahead of time.

Not that Menard (who had said a few months ago that he planned to return in 2020) even noticed he had kept the biggest secret in NASCAR since Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement (and even that leaked a half-day ahead).

SUNDAY: NASCAR opens playoffs at Las Vegas

“It wasn’t my goal to keep it a huge secret,” Menard said. “It’s just something that I spoke to the people that needed to know.  (Wood Brothers Racing co-owners) Eddie, Len (Wood). The folks at Penske. It is what it is.”

We would expect nothing less from the famously reserved Menard, who was never one to trumpet his personal or professional life during 13 seasons in Cup of mostly remaining private about anything beyond racing.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, he demurred when facing questions about several topics — notably the timeline of his decision and the ages of the young daughter and son whom he cited as the primary reason for his retirement from the rigors of full-time Cup racing.

“Watching them grow and missing out on a couple things they’ve been doing, it’s hard as a father, as a parent,” said Menard, who turned 39 last month and began racing at 8. “This sport takes so much dedication to run at the top level. I want what’s best for the 21 team. I want what’s best for my family.”

Though there are signs he could remain at Team Penske in some sort of executive capacity (his family’s company also sponsors this year’s winning Indianapolis 500 car of Simon Pagenaud and his father, John, is a longtime friend of Roger Penske), Menard declined to get into specifics.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I guess that’s in the future.”

And though he indicated he will continue to race (“it’s not going just to 38 weeks a year, I can tell you that.”), Menard also provided few hints of whether it’ll be in NASCAR.         

“Ice racing,” the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native deadpanned. “I haven’t done that in a few years. We might build a bad-ass ice racing car.”

The answer is revelatory because it’s what often is missed about the quiet scion to a multibillion-dollar home improvement warehouse fortune. Racing never has been about fame or money but his passion for motorsports.

Menard’s father has been a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 40 years and instilled that love of auto racing in Paul, which is why Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Eddie Wood asked for his input on a replacement.

“Racers know racers,” Wood said. “I value Paul’s opinion. The only answer that came out of his mouth was Matt.  It did come together really, really quickly.  Matt was pretty much ready to go.  Just the way it all unfolded, it was like it was meant to be.”

It would be hard to find someone worthier than DiBenedetto, who is being cut loose by Leavine Family Racing as a team business decision casualty during the best season of his career. After “betting on himself” by walking away from Go Fas Racing with nothing lined up, DiBenedetto’s gamble was punctuated by a runner-up finish last month at Bristol Motor Speedway that is the Cinderella story of 2019.

He has three top five finishes in the past 11 races and is delivering better results under immense pressure than any previous driver at LFR … but it wasn’t enough.

LFR’s No. 95 Camry reportedly will be filled next year by Christopher Bell, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ensures that LFR will be more closely aligned with the Toyota powerhouse than ever before.

Yet DiBenedetto’s move to Wood Brothers Racing, which is just as tightly affiliated with Team Penske, ensures that he will inherit an opportunity that is just as good.

Since forming the alliance with Penske three years ago, Wood Brothers Racing has risen to the fringe of the Cup elite. Ryan Blaney won at Pocono Raceway and took the storied franchise to the third round of the playoffs in 2017. Though Menard missed the playoffs the past two seasons, he has been trending in the direction of speed and performance lately (another reason Tuesday’s news was such a bombshell).

At best, it seemed a lateral or regressive move awaited DiBenedetto if he wanted to stay in Cup.

Instead, he gets the best break of his NASCAR career.

“This is the most incredible opportunity in my whole life,” DiBenedetto said of his one-year deal for 2020. “Not only from a performance standpoint, but from just being able to drive for such a legendary team, a family I’ve had so much respect for (and) has always treated me like gold.”

It’s a neat and unexpected twist that delighted NASCAR Twitter and should please a NASCAR Nation of fans who increasingly have decried drivers who get rides because they bring money instead of merit.

In this case, it’s the guy who broke into NASCAR largely through his sponsor connections choosing the guy who has desperately searched for jobs because of his lack of sponsor connections.

With the support of his family’s successful company, Menard’s racing future rarely has been in doubt, and some detractors have charged that nepotism kept him in Cup for longer than it would have for many drivers.

The criticism isn’t entirely fair to Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 and consistently has finished between 17th and 23rd in points for eight of the past nine seasons (between Wood Brothers Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, which followed earlier stints at Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.).

Yes, his surname undoubtedly has buoyed his career, but his results also have been serviceable and comparable to many journeyman drivers who lasted nearly as long at NASCAR’s premier level.

But while Menard proved worthy of posting workingman’s results in Cup, he also has enjoyed job security and little fear or pressure of losing his ride.

It’s been the opposite for DiBenedetto, who has been forced to openly campaign for employment while “racing for his life” this summer. He still was surprised when the call came from Penske a few days after Bristol.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” DiBenedetto said. “But one thing I’ve always said is a priority of mine has been always gaining respect of other drivers and veterans like Paul because they can be your best allies and huge influence on your entire career.  This is a perfect example.

“Paul is not only making a big decision for his life and career, but he’s impacting my entire life, family, everything I’ve worked for my whole life. A ‘thank you’ for stuff like that can never be enough.”

And it’s even more impactful when it comes just as out of the blue for the rest of the world.

It’s kind of nice this was the Silly Season rumor that no one knew about ahead of time.

As Paul Menard will tell you, silence can be golden.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.