Matt DiBenedetto eyes bigger prize after making playoffs

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In a little more than 10 weeks, Matt DiBenedetto could be a Cup champion.

While the notion that a driver who has never won a Cup race becoming the series champion seems implausible, so is DiBenedetto’s path to his first playoff appearance.

His career includes start-and-park rides, lack of sponsorship, leaving a team in 2018 without the security of another ride at the time and questions a year ago of if he would remain in Cup and if that ride would be competitive.

So, yes, while Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will be the title favorites— and some might not even have DiBendettto advancing past the first round — DiBenedetto has a chance. That’s all he wants.

I knew at the start of the season that we had work to do as a team and this year, 2020, is crazy,” DiBenedetto said after securing the final playoff spot with a 12th-place finish Saturday at Daytona.

“We kept getting better and better. Through the mid-part of the (season), I feel like we hit our stride as a team and were running up front weekly. We hit a few tracks that were a struggle but overall we are as ready as ever to contend for a championship, especially when we are at our best, working together as a team.

“It is perfect timing for us. That is why it was so important for us to make the playoffs because we knew that if we made them that we deserved every bit to be in them as a team. We can really compete and make a heck of a splash and contend down the end. Especially since everyone knows there are a lot of short tracks and 750 horsepower (package) tracks which are right up our alley and this team performs really well at.”

Before he could think about the playoffs, he had to hold off William Byron and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the two remaining spots.

Byron earned a playof spot with his first career Cup win. DiBenedetto beat Johnson by six points to secure the final playoff spot. But the difference came down to an 11-car crash that set up the overtime finish.

Johnson’s car suffered significant damage, ruining his playoff hopes. DiBendetto’s car narrowly missed a similar fate as Johnson’s car.

“Man, that was a close call,” DiBenedetto said. “Really, it was kind of a hope-and-pray type situation. (Joey Logano) had trouble and I ran into him and had to make an evasive maneuver to get around him and you kind of go with your instinct.

“I thought I could get around him on the outside. You don’t have time to look in your mirror and see if you are clear high so I went up around him and prayed that we could sneak through him. It was really tight and close and we got bounced around a little but thank goodness we got through that and ultimately that is what allowed us to make the playoffs.”

When the checkered flag waved, DiBenedetto was bound for the playoffs with his Wood Brothers Racing team.

That was so stressful,” DiBenedetto said. “Man, it is just so much appreciation to a level that it is hard to describe. … I appreciate it so much. When you are driving for the Wood Brothers and having all these great people around you it just means so much to be able to do it here with this team.

“I just got off FaceTime with my wife and she was crying non-stop. She couldn’t stop crying because of the excitement obviously and knowing how much this means to us and not only making the playoffs, but knowing we can really contend as a team.”

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Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.