Ryan Blaney

Hendrick Motorsports

Retro Rundown 2019: Paint schemes for Southern 500

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We’re now under two weeks from the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (Sept. 1 on NBCSN), which will mark the fifth year of NASCAR’s official Throwback Weekend.

Here’s your guide to the retro paint schemes that have been announced so far for the weekend, including schemes for the Aug. 31 Xfinity Series race.

Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford – The Team Penske driver will race Rusty Wallace’s 1996 Cup Series scheme.

Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet – Dillon will boast a paint scheme that was driven by his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress in the late 1970s.

Ryan Newman, No. 6 Ford – With Oscar Mayer taking the place of Valvoline, Newman’s car will take its cue from the scheme Mark Martin raced in 1993, when he earned Roush Fenway Racing’s first Southern 500 victory.

Via Roush Fenway Racing

Daniel Hemric, No. 8 Chevrolet – Hemric will drive a car inspired by the design of CAT equipment and the logo used on them from its launch in 1925 until 1931.

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet – Elliott will boast the scheme his father, Bill Elliott, claimed his first Cup pole with in 1981 at Darlington.

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota – Hamlin’s car will evoke Darrell Waltrip’s Western Auto paint scheme from the 1990s.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Ford – The Team Penske driver will have a scheme inspired by Michael Waltrip’s Pennzoil car from 1991-95.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota – Busch will pilot a Snickers-sponsored car based on Bobby Hillin’s 1990 No. 8 Snickers scheme.

Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Toyota – The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will throwback to himself with the Bass Pro Shops paint scheme he drove during his 2004 Xfinity Series championship campaign. That year he drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Chance 2 Motorsports.

Erik Jones, No. 20 Toyota – To mark his 100th Cup Series start, Jones will boast a scheme based on his rookie late model car.

Paul Menard, No. 21 Ford – Wood Brothers Racing will pay tribute to late team founder Glen Wood with the paint scheme Wood drove himself in 1957, including in his only appearance as a driver at Darlington.

William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet – Byron will drive one of Cole Trickle’s paint schemes from the 1990 Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder.”

Corey LaJoie, No. 32 Ford – GoFas Racing’s car will be based on Dale Jarrett’s 1990-91 Nestle Crunch sponsored Xfinity car.

Michael McDowell, No. 34 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will have a paint scheme that pays homage to the career of long-time owner and driver Jimmy Means, who was once partnered with FRM owner Bob Jenkins.

Front Row Motorsports

David Ragan, No. 38 Ford – The Front Row Motorsports driver will drive a scheme inspired by David Pearson’s 1969 championship car.

Screenshot

Bubba Wallace, No. 43 Chevrolet – Wallace’s car will be a tribute to the late Adam Petty and his 1998 ARCA win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Richard Petty Motorsports

Ryan Preece, No. 47 Chevrolet – Preece will have a tribute to modified racing legend Ron Bouchard. The scheme is based on the No. 47 Majik Market/Hawaiian Punch car Bouchard drove at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in 1984.

Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet – The car is inspired by one that Burt Reynolds’ character raced in the movie “Stroker Ace.”

Alex Bowman, No. 88 Chevrolet – Bowman’s Axalta-sponsored car is inspired by Tim Richmond‘s Folger’s Coffee scheme from 1986-87.

Stewart-Haas Racing – In celebration of co-owner Tony Stewart’s election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, three SHR drivers will have paint schemes based on the cars Stewart raced to his three Cup Series titles. Aric Almirola‘s No. 10 Ford will be based on Stewart’s 2002 car, Daniel Suarez‘s No. 41 Ford will be based on the 2005 season and Clint Bowyer‘s No. 14 Ford will look like the car Stewart drove to his 2011 title.

Xfinity Series

Cole Custer, No. 00 Ford – The Stewart-Haas Racing driver will have a throwback to Buckshot Jones’ 1997 Xfinity Series car.

Michael Annett, No. 1 Chevrolet – The JR Motorsports driver will channel Jeff Gordon circa the 1992 Xfinity Series season with Gordon’s Baby Ruth paint scheme when he drove for Bill Davis Racing.

Via JR Motorsports

BJ McLeod, No. 4 Chevrolet – McLeod’s car is designed after the No. 44 Slim Jim car Bobby Labonte drove in the Xfinity Series in 1992.

Justin Allgaier, No. 7 Chevrolet – Allgaier’s scheme will be based on the No. 90 Truxmore Chevrolet Ricky Rudd drove in the 1979 season.

JR Motorsports

Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet – Earnhardt will pilot the scheme his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., drove in his first Cup start in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Justin Haley, No. 11 Chevrolet – Kaulig Racing will boast Jeff Burton’s 1994 rookie Cup paint scheme with matching sponsorship from brake parts company Raybestos. It also serves as a tribute to team owner Matt Kaulig’s father and team chief financial officer, Bob Kaulig, who served as a vice president of Raybestos from 1985-2008.

Via Kaulig Racing

Denny Hamlin, No. 18 Toyota – Hamlin will have a scheme based on Bill Elliott’s No. 11 Budweiser car.

Joey Gase, No. 35 Toyota – Gase’s throwback is based on the 1997 Tabasco paint scheme raced by Todd Bodine.

Jeremy Clements, No. 51 Chevrolet – Like William Byron, Clements will pilot a “Days of Thunder” paint scheme. He’ll be using Rowdy Burns’ No. 51 Exxon scheme.

Brandon Brown, No. 86 Chevrolet – Brown’s scheme is inspired by Terry Labonte’s 1993 Kellogg’s Cornflakes scheme.

Chase Briscoe, No. 98 Ford – Briscoe will pilot a scheme based on the No. 98 Ford Parnelli Jones won the 1963 Indianapolis 500 with.

Stewart-Haas Racing

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Mario Andretti named honorary pace car driver for Roval Cup race

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Racing legend Mario Andretti has been announced as the honorary pace car driver for the Cup Series race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sept. 29.

The Indy 500 and Daytona 500 champion will pilot a Toyota Camry XSE pace car around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile road course and lead the field to the green flag for the second Cup race on the circuit.

Andretti was part of the development of the track before its debut last year.

He visited Charlotte Motor Speedway in March 2017 for a test drive around the Roval.

“When (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus Smith was creating the Roval, he invited me to check out the improvements to the infield road course,” Andretti said in a press release. “It was such a fun course to drive and the more I drove it the more I got into a rhythm, but I knew it would be challenging to the NASCAR competitors with the elevation change and transition from road course to oval.

“After last year’s successful playoff debut for the course, I’m honored that Marcus would ask me to return to lead the field to green for this year’s Bank of America Roval 400.”

After the test, Andretti suggested adding chicanes on the frontstretch and backstretch to slow the cars down and create additional passing zones.

“I liked the higher speeds so I was hesitant, but after hearing it from someone of his caliber and expertise, it made even more sense to create chicanes on our straightaways,” Smith said in a press release. “Mario’s forward thinking and his unparalleled vision for creating a spectacle contributed to the incredible finish we had last year with Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.”

Andretti made one start at Charlotte in his racing career, competing in the fall 1967 race on the 1.5-mile oval. He finished 27th.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin No. 1 for fifth straight week

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By winning Saturday night at Bristol, Denny Hamlin maintained his stranglehold on the NBC NASCAR Power Rankings.

For the fifth consecutive week, Hamlin is No. 1 in the rankings – and by unanimous selection. But he’s not the only big story: Matt DiBenedetto, who finished second in Saturday’s race, made the biggest jump in this week’s rankings, going from unranked to No. 2.

Conversely, taking the biggest falls are Kevin Harvick (second last week to seventh) and Martin Truex Jr. (third to eighth).

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings shape up:

1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): Doing everything right. Could this finally be the year he earns that elusive first Cup championship? Last week: 1st.

2. Matt DiBenedetto (29 points): Starting to come on at the right time. Runner-up run at Bristol gives him four top 10s in the last five races. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 3. Chase Elliott (27 points): After struggling to find consistency at times, he has three consecutive top-10 finishes heading into the off-weekend. Last week: 6th.

(tie) 3. Kyle Busch (27 points): Finished fourth for his fifth top 10 in the last six races but lamented after the race to NBCSN that “we’re flat out getting our ass kicked by our teammates so we’ve got to get better.” Last week: 5th.

5. Kyle Larson (26 points): Sixth-place finish marked his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. This team is cutting down on the mistakes that plagued it earlier in the year. Last week: 4th.

6. Brad Keselowski (23 points): As well as he’s run in Bristol over a long while. Earned first top five in 10 starts on the track. Last week: 9th.

7. Kevin Harvick (16 points): Freak mechanical failure ruins a very good weekend but look for him to bounce back big-time at Darlington in two weeks. Last week: 2nd.

8. Martin Truex Jr. (11 points): Flat tire caused his streak of four consecutive top 10s to come to an end with a 13th-place performance at Bristol. Last week: 3rd.

9. Daniel Suarez (9 points): Team and driver are showing a lot of fight. Don’t be surprised if Suarez is the next first-time Cup winner. Last week: 7th.

10. Clint Bowyer (4 points): He may have fallen below the playoff cutline, but you have to admire the way he bounced back from adversity to finish seventh at Bristol. With the pressure on him in the last two races to make the playoffs, Bowyer will have to have two of his best efforts of the year at Darlington and Indianapolis. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Blaney (3 points), Ryan Newman (2 points), Kurt Busch (2 points), Tyler Reddick (1 point).

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

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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

Long: Fans, family, foes help Matt DiBenedetto leave Bristol smiling

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — After climbing from his car, Matt DiBenedetto celebrated his runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway by unzipping the top of his uniform to remove a bag of ice on this hot, sticky night and toss it to the ground.

DiBenedetto’s slumped shoulders, pursed lips and faraway glaze displayed the angst, frustration and disappointment that have been constant companions since he was told Tuesday that he would not return to Leavine Family Racing after this season, leaving him without a ride for 2020.

While this was the 28-year-old’s career-best result, DiBenedetto only felt pain immediately after the race. He led 93 consecutive laps in the final stage, but contact with Ryan Newman’s car with about 40 laps to go as Newman sought to stay on the lead lap damaged the left front of DiBenedetto’s car. His car’s handling suffered.

“When I was marching through the field, I was hoping that somebody would pass him so that I didn’t take the win away,” Hamlin said. “I knew I was going to get him. I was just thinking, there’s a lot of people at home and a lot of people in the stands that probably don’t want to see this happen but it’s going to happen.”

Hamlin passed DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go.

DiBenedetto was close enough to Hamlin that he could see the leader in the final laps — “I was screaming in the car,” DiBenedetto said — but far enough away that he could not get to Hamlin’s rear bumper even as his spotter repeatedly said on the radio “whatever it takes.”

Passion, persistence and even the hopes of many fans at Bristol were not enough to keep Hamlin from winning his fourth race of the season.

DiBenedetto suffered in silence as Hamlin celebrated.

“The pain was like being stabbed a hundred times in the chest,” DiBenedetto said.

Tony DiBenedetto tried to console his son with a hug. DiBenedetto looked down as his father spoke to him.

“I cannot believe you don’t have a ride (for 2020),” Tony DiBenedetto said he told his son. “I cannot believe you do not have a ride in a top race car. I don’t know what else you can do.”

Sandy DiBenedetto, who cried earlier this week after being told that her son was without a ride beyond this season, saw only success in the second-place finish. The proud mother yelled “Yay! as she hugged her son.

His look was not one of excitement.

“Wrong thing to say in the moment because he’s devastated,” she said.

DiBenedetto’s mood lightened as other drivers congratulated him. Chase Elliott was first. Then came Daniel Suarez. Ryan Blaney. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. And others.

“It was hard to hold it together with all these drivers coming up to you,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s amazing to have earned that respect from them.”

Denny Hamlin gives Matt DiBenedetto private encouragement after Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

DiBenedetto later went to victory lane to congratulate Hamlin and they embraced. Hamlin whispered encouragement.

What Hamlin said, he will keep to himself. As they separated, DiBenedetto told Hamlin: “Means more than you know.”

Hamlin later said he expects DiBenedetto to continue to race in Cup after this year.

“Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his résumé in front of everyone,” Hamlin said. “So he doesn’t need to type it out. He’s going out there and performing. He will land as good or better on his feet, I am certain of it, after this year.”

DiBenedetto’s humility, his roller-coaster journey and his underdog story is making him a fan favorite. The crowd gave its loudest roar of the night when his interview was played on the video board and PA system after the race. He responded by turning and raising his arm to the crowd. The fans yelled louder.

While all drivers experience racing’s highs and lows, DiBenedetto has been challenged as much as anyone in Cup. After his family moved from California to North Carolina to further his racing career when he was a teen, they eventually reached a point where they could not support his racing. He landed a ride in Joe Gibbs Racing’s development program but ran only seven Xfinity races in 2009-10 because of a lack of sponsorship.

He later drove start and parks in the Xfinity Series, feeling that it was better to be in even a low-budget ride than not being at the track.

His first season in Cup was in 2015 with BK Racing, a team that was sold in bankruptcy court last year. He decided to leave his ride with Go Fas Racing after last season even though he had no ride lined up at the time.

DiBenedetto landed with Leavine Family Racing for this season but there were questions even from the beginning of if he would last more than one season because of Toyota Racing Development’s backlog of drivers.

Once Joe Gibbs Racing completes an extension with Erik Jones, all four of the team’s drivers will be set for next season. But there still needs to be a place for Xfinity driver Christopher Bell in Cup. With Leavine Family Racing aligned with JGR, it only made sense that Bell could go there. No official announcement has been made but all indications are that Bell will be driving the No. 95 next year.

So DiBenedetto faces an uncertain future. Again.

“This journey has made me strong and I would not change it for the world,” he said. “It makes you appreciate being here 1,000 times more. This journey has beat me down on the ground more than I can possibly explain.

“It’s hard. It’s been really hard. I’m glad it’s been hard. I want to appreciate it the most that I can. I want it to make me fight and claw and dig as hard as I possibly can, and that’s what this journey has done.”

It was only fitting that with drivers picking the song to be played when they were introduced before the race that DiBenedetto selected the theme from “Rocky” to serenade his arrival.

DiBenedetto thrilled the crowd by wearing a silk robe with “Italian Stallion” on the back and boxing gloves. He threw a few punches at the air as he sauntered down the walkway.

Call him the people’s champ.

“It was what I was going to do it last year, but it was more fitting this week,” DiBenedetto said with a smile of his song and outfit. “It was a cool intro and fitting, I guess, for my story that fans have embraced so much.”

Each time DiBenedetto has been challenged, he’s come back in his career. Now that he’s with a ride that has had him racing closer to the front than any time in his career, the next chapter is finding a ride that can keep him in that spot. Or better.

He said Friday that he just wants to win in Cup. He came as close as he ever has Saturday night.

The pain on his face showed. But just as the ice in that bag he tossed after exiting his car melted, so did his disappointment.

And what could have been one of his most frustrating finishes ended with him smiling, and fans chanting his name as he walked out of the track and toward the next part of his journey.