Paul Menard

Matt DiBenedetto: Second-place finish in Las Vegas ‘surreal’

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In only his second race as driver of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford, Matt DiBenedetto had a shot at his first Cup Series win.

Instead, DiBenedetto settled for a second-place finish Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a result of a last-lap crash that froze the field and prevented him from taking a shot at race winner Joey Logano.

DiBenedetto, along with Logano, were among the drivers who stayed out of the pits before the final restart with two laps to go. They finished the race with 50-lap-old tires.

DiBenedetto matched his career-best finish in last year’s Bristol night race and earned the Wood Brothers’ best result since Paul Menard placed fifth at Michigan in 2018.

“This is all just too surreal,” DiBenedetto told Fox. “Tough to be that close, but, hey, this is only the second race of the season. So it was the strength of this team. It’s so cool to have the backing of all the people that allow me to drive this thing. It took so many people, Motorcraft, Quick Lane.

“To be driving this iconic car is so cool, Menards and Paul, I know you’re watching at home and proud and I can’t thank everyone in that whole family for this opportunity for it.”

Had DiBenedetto gotten a chance to battle Logano for the lead on the last lap and won, it would have been the Wood Brothers’ 100th Cup win.

“This team is phenomenal,” DiBenedetto said. “There’s no doubt about that. I was a little worried about our car, though. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day. We had to make huge adjustments and our communication was great from me screaming really loose and us being off to start and then dialing it in little by little every pit stop, and then getting it there at the end where I was comfortable staying out because I knew the car had great speed.

“It was best on the long runs and we just needed a little track position because we were a little stuck in the dirty air.”

Friday 5: Daytona 500, Speedweeks prove costly to teams

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Crashes collected an alarmingly high number of cars in the Daytona 500 for a fourth consecutive year.

Thirty-two of the 40 cars — 80% of the field — in this year’s Daytona 500 were involved in a crash based on NASCAR’s race report and video review.

In the last four years, 81.3% of the cars in the season-opening Cup race were involved in an accident. 

Despite the number of cars damaged in Daytona 500 crashes, Ryan Newman is the only Cup driver taken to a hospital in the past four years. He was released from Halifax Medical Center on Wednesday but will not race this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ending his streak of 649 consecutive Cup starts that dates to his rookie season in 2002.

While there is an expectation of cars wrecking in the sport’s most prestigious race because of the tight racing, it hasn’t always been this extreme.

From 2013-16, the percentage of cars involved in an accident in the Daytona 500 was 42.6% — nearly half the percentage of cars damaged in crashes the past four years. 

Among the reasons for the dramatic increase is that more crashes begin toward the front of the field.

The 19-car crash in Monday’s Daytona 500 started when a shove from Joey Logano pushed Aric Almirola into Brad Keselowski’s car. Keselowski, running second, was turned into the outside wall in front of the field.

A nine-car crash in overtime started when Ross Chastain, running fourth, got out of shape after contact with Ryan Preece’s car and came up the track into Preece and Logano.

And Newman’s crash coming to the checkered flag happened while he led.

In 2019, 21 cars were involved in a crash with less than 10 laps left in the scheduled distance. It started when Matt DiBenedetto, running fifth, turned in front of the field after contact from behind by Paul Menard.

The 2018 race featured a 12-car crash that started when Kurt Busch, running third, got hit from behind and spun in front of the field, forcing the race to go to overtime.

In the 2017 race, 17 cars crashed after Jimmie Johnson, running third, was hit and spun in front of the field.

Blocking also has been cited for an increase in incidents. As to what is considered fair when blocking, Martin Truex Jr. said a few days before this year’s race: Well, I think lately anything is fair. It tends to cause a lot of crashes, too, but it seems like that’s par for the course in speedway racing these days is just block until you crash and go to the next one.”

All the cars crashed in this year’s Daytona 500 pushed the total number of vehicles in a wreck during Speedweeks to 102 for the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.

It’s the third time in the last eight years the number of damaged vehicles exceeded 100 for Speedweeks.

Included in that total were all 18 cars in the Busch Clash. Winner Erik Jones was listed in three crashes in that exhibition race.

2. Xfinity drivers get help

This season marks the first full season Xfinity drivers will be able to look at some data from competitors, much like Cup drivers do.

“I think it changes the game, especially for the rookies,” Chase Briscoe told NBC Sports.

Xfinity drivers could look at the data in the last two races of last season, Phoenix and Miami. Briscoe said the technology, which translates data to virtual effects via live tracking of cars, helped him at Phoenix.

“I’ve always told everybody that Phoenix is my worst racetrack,” Briscoe said. “For me to be able to have SMT (sports media technology) and see what guys do different (helps). We don’t have the SMT that the Cup guys have, we don’t have throttle, brake or steering. We only have GPS so we can literally only see what the car is doing line-wise and acceleration-wise. I can’t see what Kyle Busch is doing inside his race car, but I can see where his car is line-wise compared to mine and where he enters the corner.

“I know my crew chief is super excited about it. He wants me to sit down in the shop and watch two hours of the track we’re going to before we go that weekend. It’s definitely going to be a tool that we’re going to use a lot of.”

Briscoe says the technology looks like a video game, and he can change the camera angle to study another competitor.

Brandon Jones said a key is that the team can look at the data live, so his crew chief can help him change lines during a race. At Miami last year, Jones was told by his team he wasn’t driving deep enough in the corner based on the data they were looking at.

“That gave me a thought to say, hey, this is what we’ve got to do to get the car to able to do that, so it’s going to help me with adjustments,” Jones said.

3. On to Las Vegas

Among the key storylines this weekend for Cup teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the performance of the Chevrolet teams with the new Camaro.

Changes were made from last year’s car to improve the aerodynamics. Chevrolet teams won 11 of 72 races in 2018-19 — its fewest wins in a two-year period since the manufacturer scored four victories in 1981-82. A Chevrolet has not made the championship Cup race since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title.

“I feel like last year Chevy came, they just missed the ball,” car owner Richard Petty said. “You know what I mean? They thought they had something good. 

“This year they corrected a lot of these mistakes. We hope they corrected it enough that we’re going to be competitive everywhere we go. I think from that standpoint, Chevrolet and all the Chevrolet people are really looking forward to making up for what we did last year.”

Chevrolet did win two races on 1.5-mile tracks last year (tracks the same size as Las Vegas). Alex Bowman won at Chicagoland Speedway, and Kurt Busch won at Kentucky Speedway.

4. Leaner driver

Ty Dillon says he’s lost more than 30 pounds since focusing on a workout program. He weighed 167 pounds before the season.

“I thought naively as a driver who had raced his whole life, as a Cup driver I didn’t really need to work out and take my physical (role) seriously,” said Dillon, who has former driver Blake Koch as a trainer. “In the past few years I’ve taken it serious for the first time. It has made me a better driver.”

Dillon, who is beginning his fourth season in Cup, admits: “I didn’t think I was heavy. I didn’t think I needed to workout. I just relied purely on my skill.

“I just feel different (now). I’m stronger, mentally stronger, more confident. You look back at those pictures, and you just see you’re just naive and young. You mature and grow as a person, and I think you start realizing what is important.”

5. Phoenix adjustment

Phoenix Raceway will have the PJ1 traction compound again applied to the track for next month’s races. That event marks the debut of the short track package for Cup that is intended to tighten the racing.

The traction compound will be applied in the corners but will be applied more along the driving line. Last fall, the traction compound was applied close to the wall. It will not be as high this time in the turns.

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Today’s Duels at Daytona: Start time, lineup and more

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The 40-car starting field for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 will be set following tonight’s two Cup qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.

The finishing orders of both races will determine what positions drivers will start in the 500. Pole sitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and front row counterpart Alex Bowman are both locked in to the 500 based upon last Sunday’s pole qualifying runs.

Two other drivers, Brendan Gaughan and Justin Haley are also locked in for being fastest in Sunday’s qualifying of the seven teams entered for the 500 without NASCAR charters. However, Gaughan and Haley still have to compete tonight to determine their 500 starting positions.

There are 43 teams entered for the 500, but three will go home after tonight.

Here is the information for tonight’s races:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Duel No. 1 — The command to start engines will be given at 7:08 p.m. by Jorge de la Osa, Executive VP, Bluegreen Vacations. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 7:20 p.m. Duel No. 2 — The command to start engines will be given by Dan LaJoie, grandfather of NASCAR Cup driver Corey LaJoie, approximately 12 minutes after the conclusion of Duel No. 1. The green flag is scheduled to wave at approximately 24 minutes after the conclusion of Duel No. 1.

PRERACE: The Cup garage opens at 3 p.m. The driver/crew chief meeting will be at 5:15 p.m. Driver introductions for both Duels are at 6:35 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:01 p.m. by Pastor Sonny Gallman of the Central Baptist Church. The National Anthem will be performed at 7:02 p.m. by Melissa TenBroeck.

DISTANCE: Each race is 60 laps (150 miles) around the 2.5-mile oval.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the races at 7 p.m. Motor Racing Network’s broadcast will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 77 degrees and a 2% chance of rain when the green flag drops for Duel No. 1.

LAST TIME: Kevin Harvick won last year’s Duel No. 1 followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard. Joey Logano won Duel No. 2, followed by Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

STARTING LINEUP:

2020 Duel No. 1 starting lineup

2020 Duel No. 2 starting lineup

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Matt DiBenedetto: Joining Wood Brothers, Penske has been ‘hard to process’

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It has been a week of firsts for Matt DiBenedetto and his racing career.

Wednesday saw the 28-year-old Wood Brothers Racing driver became the first to pilot a Xfinity Series car on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, part of a test for the series’ inaugural race on the circuit on July 4 (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

It was also DiBenedetto’s first time in a car as a member of the Wood Brothers/Team Penske alliance, four months after the Wood Brothers chose him as the next driver of the No. 21 Ford at the urging of their previous driver, Paul Menard.

“Opportunities like this are things I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” DiBendetto said during a break in the test. “I’ll be able to say forever, ‘Hey, I got asked by Mr. (Roger) Penske himself, that whole team, by NASCAR, folks at IMS, everyone, to come and be the first ever to run the road course (in a Team Penske Xfinity car).”

Throw in DiBenedetto taking part in his first “Penske Games” (a series of humorous games pitting every Penske driver against each other) and it’s been downright eventful.

The day after the Indy test, DiBenedetto said moving from Leavine Family Racing over to Wood Brothers Racing has been “hard to process.”

“It’s crazy,” DiBenedetto said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “I was talking to Kyle Petty and he said it even better than I could. He said, ‘Matt, you will never driver for a better group of people the rest of your life. You will be part of that family for the rest of your entire life. You’ll be driving for them and a part of history.'”

Petty, an analyst for NBC Sports, drove for the Wood Brothers from 1985-88, winning his first two Cup races in that time.

“It was just amazing some of the things that he said and how amazing a family that they are,” DiBenedetto said. “The opportunity, as everyone knows, is unreal. It’s hard for me to put into words. My wife (Taylor) was crying endlessly when I got that opportunity. Her family has been huge fans of them for so many years. There’s so much history there.

“On top of that, what’s so amazing is if anyone hasn’t been to Stuart, (Virginia) and gone to the Wood Brothers Racing museum, they should. It’s worth the trip to go up there. What’s so cool to see is the amount of pride that they have. On top of all the history, them telling all the stories and how much pride they have for their race team and NASCAR is so unbelievable. Then to have a shot at going and chasing that 100th win this year is going to be such an honor.”

That 100th Cup win for the Wood Brothers would come with just one victory by DiBenedetto this season. It would also be his first Cup Series win.

Five of Wood Brothers Racing’s last seven wins, dating back to Petty at Richmond in 1986, have been via first-time winners in Cup: Dale Jarrett (Michigan, 1991), Elliott Sadler (Bristol, 2001), Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500) and Ryan Blaney (Pocono, 2017).

DiBenedetto will pursue that trip to victory lane with crew chief Greg Erwin.

Erwin worked on the No. 21 the last two seasons with Menard, but has been a crew chief with Team Penske since 2013 in the Xfinity Series.

“We’ve put a lot of time into … spending a ton of time together, me, Greg and then also going to lunch, splitting up into groups and going to lunch with all the different guys on our race team,” DiBenedetto. “These guys are your family. I’m going to spend more time with my race team on the road than I will with my own wife this season. These guys are your family and you’re going to go to war with each other 38 weekends a year. … I’ve put a lot of emphasis on that and getting to know Greg, which we’ve meshed really well together.”

DiBenedetto’s process includes diligently inputing questions into his phone to ask Erwin later.

“It’ll be nine at night and I’ll be sitting on the couch and … I’ll put in my notes, ‘Oh, I want to ask him about this or this situation or if we’re this far into a run or if there’s a big split decision pit call, how would we communicate something, me or my spotter Doug Campbell,” DiBenedetto told SiriusXM. “It’s just more so going through all those questions so that when you do go to the race track you’re as prepared as possible and ready for how I communicate and how he communicates so we can all mesh as quick as possible and get out of the gates strong and go compete for those wins.”

Even after Wednesday’s test, DiBenedetto is “a little overly eager” to get back to the track.

“(His wife) realizes I’m getting extremely bored,” DiBenedetto said. “She’s like ‘You need to go to the dang race track, good lord you’re getting on my nerves.'”

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Meet the NASCAR Cup rookie Class of 2020

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One of the most talented and promising rookie classes in recent NASCAR Cup history is ready to get its motor racing.

Six drivers have declared for their first full Cup season as well as being eligible for Rookie of the Year honors.

Highlighting the Class of 2020 are the so-called “Big 3,” Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick, who all reached the Xfinity Championship 4 round at Miami.

Also in the rookie class are Brennan Poole, John Hunter Nemechek and Quin Houff. Each of the six has an opportunity to become the first full-time rookie to win a Cup race since Chris Buescher did so in 2016.

Here’s a breakdown of each rookie class member (in alphabetical order):

Christopher Bell (Getty Images)

Christopher Bell
2020 team: Leavine Family Racing
2019 team: Joe Gibbs Racing (Xfinity Series)
Number of Cup starts to date: 0
Career Xfinity/Trucks wins: 16/7
What’s ahead: Bell makes the long-anticipated move to the Cup Series in 2020. Because his former Xfinity Series team, Joe Gibbs Racing, had a full driver roster in the Cup Series, Bell has been farmed out to Leavine Family Racing in a partnership/technical alliance with JGR, similar to when JGR placed Erik Jones with Furniture Row Racing in 2017 (which was also the year Bell won the Truck Series championship). Bell will be sponsored by Rheem and Procore and his crew chief from the Xfinity Series, Jason Ratcliff, follows him as his Cup crew chief. Bell replaces Matt DiBenedetto, who has moved on to take the place of Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing, who has stepped away from Cup racing

Cole Custer (Getty Images)

Cole Custer
2020 team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2019 team: Stewart-Haas Racing (Xfinity Series)
Number of Cup starts to date: 3 (all in 2018; best finish was 25th at Las Vegas)
Career Xfinity/Trucks wins: 9/2
What’s ahead: Like Bell and Reddick, it’s time for Custer to make the big jump from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series. Custer will drive the No. 41 Ford, replacing Daniel Suarez, whose racing plans for 2020 are still unclear. Custer had a breakthrough season in the Xfinity Series in 2019, earning a career-best seven wins, 17 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes. He also finished second in the Xfinity Series for the second straight season. He’ll bring his Xfinity crew chief Mike Shiplett to the same role in Cup. … Is the son of SHR general manager Joe Custer.

Quin Houff (Getty Images)

Quin Houff
2020 team: StarCom Racing
2019 team: Split Cup season between 13 starts for Spire Motorsports and four starts for Premium Motorsports)
Number of Cup starts to date: 17, all in 2019 (best finish 28th in Coca-Cola 600)
Career Xfinity/Trucks wins: 0
What’s ahead: The 22-year-old Houff replaces Landon Cassill in the No. 00 Chevrolet. Houff’s contract covers both the 2020 and 2021 seasons. … Houff competed in 17 Cup races last season but remains eligible for Rookie of the Year honors in 2020. … No crew chief has been named for the team yet; Joe Williams was crew chief for Cassill last season but was released from the team after the season-ending race at Miami. … Houff’s racing resume includes not only his 17 Cup starts last year, but also 10 career Xfinity starts, one ARCA Menards West start, five ARCA Menards Series starts and 19 CARS Super Late Model Tour starts.

John Hunter Nemechek (Getty Images)

John Hunter Nemechek
2020 team: Front Row Motorsports
2019 team: GMS Racing (Xfinity Series)
Number of Cup starts to date: 3 (all in 2019, best finish 21st in fall Texas race)
Career Xfinity/Trucks wins: 1/6
What’s ahead: The son of veteran NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek moves to Front Row Motorsports to drive the No. 38 Ford Mustang in 2020 after 1 ½ seasons of racing in the Xfinity Series. He earned one career Xfinity win (2018 at Kansas), but reached victory lane six times while driving a Truck (2013-2019). … Barely missed making the Xfinity Championship 4 round at Miami; finished seventh in the season standings. … Takes over the No. 38 from David Ragan, who has retired from active full-time racing in the Cup Series. Ragan’s former crew chief, Seth Barbour, remains in that role with Nemechek

Brennan Poole (Getty Images)

Brennan Poole
2020 team: Premium Motorsports
2019 team: On Point Motorsports (Truck Series)
Number of Cup starts to date: 0
Career Xfinity/Trucks wins: 0/0
What’s ahead: Poole is slated to compete in his first full season since the 2017 Xfinity campaign. He was supposed to run a full slate in 2019 in the Truck Series, but On Point Motorsports was forced to scale back plans due to sponsorship issues. Still, he managed to score one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 13 starts for the underfunded team. … Poole has never driven in a Cup race before, but he has 83 starts in the Xfinity Series, including eight top five and 36 top-10 finishes. … Crew chief is NASCAR veteran Pat Tryson.

Tyler Reddick (Getty Images)

Tyler Reddick
2020 team: Richard Childress Racing
2019 team: Richard Childress Racing (Xfinity Series)
Number of Cup starts to date: 2 (both in 2019, best finish of ninth at Kansas 1)
Career Xfinity/Trucks wins: 9/3
What’s ahead: After winning consecutive Xfinity Series championships, Reddick moves up to the Cup Series in the No. 8 Chevrolet, replacing Daniel Hemric. It’s notable that Reddick won the 2018 Xfinity championship with JR Motorsports, and then won the 2019 title with RCR. … Caterpillar will once again sponsor the car. … Randall Burnett will be Reddick’s crew chief.

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