Greg Erwin

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.”

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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Bristol winners and losers

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WINNERS

Busch family — Kyle wins for the third time this season and Kurt finishes a season-high second. Kyle Busch has won 10 of 16 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races he’s started this year. He has three Cup victories (in eight starts), three Xfinity wins (in four starts) and four Truck wins (in four starts).

Gambling crew chiefs — Adam Stevens’ call to stay out when the lead-lap cars pitted with 19 laps to go put Kyle Busch in the lead. Matt McCall made the same decision and Kurt Busch started second and finished second. Greg Erwin also made that call, putting Paul Menard fourth (he was 13th before the final caution). Menard finished sixth. Billy Scott also made that call for Daniel Suarez. He restarted third and finished eighth.

Ty DillonCrew chief Matt Borland’s decision to keep Dillon on track during a caution shortly before the end of stage 1 allowed Dillon to restart second. Dillon did the rest, nipping Clint Bowyer at the line to score his first career stage victory. It also marked the first stage points Dillon has scored this season. Dillon went on to finish 15th. It’s his fourth top-15 result in eight races. Last year, Dillon needed 31 races before recording his fourth top 15 of the season. 

Christopher BellHe won the Xfinity race and the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus on Saturday. Then on Sunday, car owner Joe Gibbs said “Christopher has a place with us long‑term.”

LOSERS

No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team: Kevin Harvick’s car failed inspection three times before the race, forcing him to start at the rear and serve a pass through penalty at the start of the race (along with having his engineer ejected and losing 30 minutes of practice this week at Richmond). A loose wheel forced a green-flag pit stop. It wasn’t until late in the race that he got back on the lead lap, finishing 13th with what some competitors said was one of the best cars on the track.

Denny Hamlin He had his third pit road speeding penalty of the season Sunday. Yes, he recovered to finish fifth and did win the previous week at Texas with that penalty (and one for an uncontrolled tire), but how much longer are things going to be sloppy on pit road for this team? 

No. 2 Team Penske team: Brad Keselowski lost a potential top-five finish when NASCAR penalized him for restarting in the wrong position with 14 laps to go. Keselowski finished 18th. Keselowski later said he originally lined up ahead of two cars that didn’t pit because they were hidden among the cars not on the lead lap. “As a team, we kind of miscommunicated,” Keselowski said. “There are four or five checks and balances to make sure that doesn’t happen and pretty much every one of them fell through, starting with me not seeing those cars mixed in with the lapped cars and kind of carrying all the way throughout the team.”

Joey Logano not surprised at Penske, Ford Mustang’s early success

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While many fans and teams were uncertain how the new Ford Mustang would perform upon its introduction to the Cup Series this season, Las Vegas winner Joey Logano, crew chief Todd Gordon and the rest of Team Penske embraced the change and newness.

“I think any time there’s a rule change like we have right now in NASCAR (the new aero package), it presents an opportunity to figure things out first,” Logano said to NBC Sports on Tuesday as part of a Panini/Donruss NASCAR trading cards media tour. “Like I said after (Sunday’s race at Las Vegas), we sure don’t have it figured out yet, but I’d say we’re doing pretty good with the speed we’re developing.

“You just have to figure it out a little better than the next guy, right? That’s the most important piece. I feel like we’ve made some good gains over the last few weeks as far as the racing side. Our qualifying efforts have been weak, so we have to make some more gains on that front. But I’m pretty proud of the effort of everyone to figure out the new rules package. As we keep going, the drivers are going to get better, the teams are going to get better and the racing is going to change. We just have to keep developing as fast as possible to stay ahead of it.”

Last year, several Chevrolet teams – particularly Hendrick Motorsports – struggled throughout the 36-race season. It took 21 races after Austin Dillon‘s Daytona 500 triumph last season before another Chevy won a Cup race. Chevrolet teams wound up winning just four races all season getting acclimated to the new body style.

But that’s not been the case with Ford and the Mustang. Leaving Las Vegas, five Mustangs and their drivers are in the top 11 in the Cup standings.

“First off, I think Ford’s done a great job collaborating with the race teams and everybody has made decisions together to make the best race car they can when they were designing the Mustang for NASCAR,” said Logano, the reigning Cup champion. “The other piece that is equally as big is the timing of it.

“Right now, with the new rules, everyone’s going through a development cycle, starting from the beginning again. Whether we were still racing the Fusion or Mustang, we’d still be developing at the same rate and learning things that we had no clue about because you’re asking something different out of the race car when you build it. So switching to the Mustang didn’t really have a penalty of starting from the beginning because everybody is starting from the beginning.”

Now that Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have secured spots in the playoffs by virtue of their respective wins at Las Vegas and Atlanta, their teams can not only be more aggressive between now and the start of the playoffs in September but can also help their teammates – Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard of Wood Brothers Racing – to get on track and potentially get wins themselves.

“I think any time you have your teammate winning, it generates momentum within the race shop, which is good, and drives you to be that guy where everybody wants to be the top dog and you’re always fighting for that spot,” Logano said. “But we also work together real well to make sure we’re winning while we’re doing that.

“As far as the 12 car of Blaney, they’ve had a lot of speed but they just haven’t had things go their way in the first couple of races. So it’s early. I don’t think they have anything to worry about. They’ve got fast race cars, Blaney is a great driver. I think they’re going to be fine.

“As far as the 21 car (with Menard), they’ve been improving over the last year. With last year being their first year together with Paul and (crew chief Greg Erwin) at the Wood Brothers, it’s been a learning curve to figure things out. I can see them making gains as well throughout this year.

“As long as everyone is running good by the time when it matters the most, during the playoff time, that’s a big deal for (team owner Roger Penske). It’s nice to have two of them in, that’s great, we can race aggressive now, whether it’s pit strategy or the way I drive the car, we can make big moves, so that’s great. But at the same time, we still have to be concerned that the rest of our cars make the playoffs.”

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Friday 5: Questions about the upcoming Cup season

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Many places often celebrate Friday at 5 where the weekend begins. Although there’s no NASCAR Cup action this weekend, fans can still enjoy Friday 5 with a (fun) look at the upcoming season with these five questions.

1. What is the new driver/crew chief combination that is most intriguing?

Among the new driver/crew chief combinations this year:

Billy Scott with Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing

John Klausmeier with Aric Almirola at SHR

Matt Borland with Ty Dillon at Germain Racing

Greg Erwin with Paul Menard at the Wood Brothers

Travis Mack with Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing

Greg Ives with Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports

Darian Grubb with William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports

The one that intrigues the most is the Grubb/Byron pairing. Grubb won a championship with Tony Stewart in 2011, led Denny Hamlin to the title race in Homestead in 2014, worked with Carl Edwards in 2015 and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson while serving as interim crew chief with Chad Knaus suspended.

Grubb has never worked with a rookie.

Byron is more than a rookie. The 20-year-old is viewed by many to be the future of Hendrick Motorsports. Grubb will play a key role in molding Byron and that’s an important responsibility. How Byron handles the highs and lows of the season will rest with Grubb. This will be worth watching closely.

2. How will Fords compete with the other manufacturers this season?

Chevrolet brings out the Camaro ZL1 this season. Toyota won 16 races with the updated Toyota Camry last year. Ford will have the oldest model among the three.

Brad Keselowski raised issues about Toyota’s success last year and NASCAR not keeping the manufactures closer. He sounded a warning about the 2018 season moments after the 2017 season finished in Homestead

“When that (Toyota) car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there (were) two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think anyone ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt like Formula 1, where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.

“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know. I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”

That’s the challenge Fords could face this season. Ford won 10 races last year, but only two of the final 19 races last year. Will that trend continue this season?

3. There were three first-time Cup winners in 2017. Will that number be equaled this season?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon each scored their first career Cup victory last season.

Among the drivers seeking their first career Cup win this season: Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Ty Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. Those drivers represent Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Germain Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.

It would seem a good bet that Elliott and at least one other driver on that list scores their first career Cup win this year. It’s possible there could be three first-time winners again.

4. For fun, who is your way-too-early final four picks at Homestead?

Let’s go with Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

5. For fun, in the way-too-early category, how many drivers who didn’t make the playoffs last year make it this year?

Let’s go with three. Thinking Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

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