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Penalty report from Homestead-Miami Speedway

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NASCAR issued four fines and one suspension for lug nut violations during its championship weekend in Miami.

Cup Series

Mike Wheeler, crew crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

Xfinity Series

Mike Shiplett, crew chief on Cole Custer‘s No. 00 Ford, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Truck Series

Steve Lane, the owner of On Point Motorsports and crew chief on Danny Bohn‘s No. 30 Toyota, was fined $5,000 and suspended one points race for two unsecured lug nuts. The No. 30 truck competed part-time this season and made 16 starts. The team told NBC Sports it will not appeal the penalty.

Trip Bruce III, crew chief on Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet, was fined $2,500 for one unsecured lug nut.

Other

NASCAR issued an indefinite suspension to Jeffrey Schmidt for violating its substance abuse policy.

Silly Season scorecard: Christopher Bell moving to Cup in 2020

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Not that there was any doubt, but Leavine Family Racing made it official that Christopher Bell will join the team in 2020 to drive the No. 95 car in Cup.

What stood out about Tuesday’s announcement were the details:

# Jason Ratcliff, Bell’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series at Joe Gibbs Racing, will join Bell at Leavine Family Racing.

# Mike Wheeler, the No. 95 team’s current crew chief, will remain and become the competition director.

# The technical alliance between Leavine Family Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development will be enhanced.

# As part of his statement, Bell said sponsor Rheem would follow him to the No. 95 car and join current sponsor Procore.

ANNOUNCED OPEN RIDES FOR 2020

No. 8: With Richard Childress Racing stating that Daniel Hemric won’t return to the team (announcement made Sept. 17) next season, all that is left to be done is for the official word that Tyler Reddick will move up to take that ride. Childress spoke July 30 about wanting to keep Reddick.

No. 38: Front Row Motorsports must replace David Ragan, who stated Aug. 14 that 2019 would be his final season running a full schedule.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2020

No. 13: Ty Dillon posted a video Sept. 6 on Instagram refuting rumors that he would retire after this season. He has a contract with Germain Racing through 2020.

No. 20: Joe Gibbs Racing announced Sept. 6 that it had signed Erik Jones to an extension. It is a one-year extension for the 2020 season.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto replaces Paul Menard at Wood Brothers Racing (announcement made Sept. 10). DiBenedetto’s deal is for 2020 only.

No. 95: Christopher Bell moves up to Cup in 2020 and will drive for Leavine Family Racing (announcement made Sept. 24).

AMONG THOSE YET TO ANNOUNCE DEALS FOR 2020

No. 1: Kurt Busch‘s contract expires after this season but all indications are that he’ll return to the Chip Ganassi Racing team with Monster Energy in 2020.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer‘s contract expires after this season but Bowyer stated Sept. 20 that he did a commercial shoot with Kevin Harvick for Mobil 1 last week for next season.

No. 41: Daniel Suarez has said that both he and the team have an option on his contract for next year. He has remained confident that he will return to Stewart-Haas Racing.

It’s official: Christopher Bell to drive No. 95 Cup car in 2020

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Leavine Family Racing made the long-awaited news official Tuesday: Christopher Bell will move to Cup and drive the team’s No. 95 Toyota next season.

The 24-year-old Bell, who has moved through Toyota’s development ranks, will take over the car for Matt DiBenedetto in 2020. Bell’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, Jason Ratcliff, will join him in the move to the No. 95 team. Current crew chief, Mike Wheeler, will remain as the team’s competition director. Michael Leavine moves from that role to become vice president of racing operations. 

Leavine Family Racing also announced an enhanced technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development. TRD will continue to build the team’s engines and provide technology, data and technical assistance. Enhancements to the technical alliance between JGR and LFR, which began with the 2019 MENCS season, will continue to build into the 2020 season.

“I’ve said from the start, I want this team to be competitive,” said Bob Leavine, LFR team founding owner, in a statement. “Christopher is one of the most talented drivers we’ve seen come up through NASCAR’s ranks and together, with JGR and Toyota’s support, I’m confident our team will continue to grow, just as it has this past year. We’re certainly happy to continue to progress our relationship with both JGR and TRD as the technical partnership takes the next step forward.”

Said Bell in a statement: “Since I was young, I wanted to make a career out of racing. To take this next step and race in the NASCAR Cup Series with the support of LFR, JGR and Toyota is just a dream come true. It also means a lot to me to have Rheem make the move to Cup racing with me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without their support and I’m also excited to have the opportunity to represent Procore now.”

Bell will make his Cup debut in the 2020 Daytona 500, the team stated.

“TRD and Toyota have worked with Bell since his early dirt track career and we’ve been proud to see him work his way to NASCAR’s highest level,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, in a statement. “Christopher is a special talent and we’re happy to have him winning races and championships in a Toyota.

“We look forward to seeing his continued growth and success at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. We’re also pleased with how the relationship between JGR and LFR has progressed during their first season working together. We’re confident this enhanced alliance for 2020 will continue to make them a threat for race wins week in and week out.”

Bell is in his second full season in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is coming off a win in last week’s playoff opener at Richmond that sends him to the second round. The Richmond victory was Bell’s seventh of the season and his 15th in 68 Xfinity career races — a 22.1% winning percentage.

Bell seeks his first Xfinity title. He won the Truck Series championship in 2017.

“There’s been nobody that has won all three championships,” Bell said last weekend at Richmond when asked what is there for him in the final races of the year with his 2020 future in place. “That’s been one of my goals ever since I was kid, I wanted to set records, break records. I love getting track records whenever we qualify. To be able to be the first driver to have … championships (in each series), that would be a pretty cool record to have.”

NASCAR Darlington penalty report

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued five penalties — four in Cup and one in the Xfinity Series — stemming from last weekend’s Cup and Xfinity races at Darlington Raceway.

In Cup, four crew chiefs were each fined $10,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed:

* Mike Wheeler, No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota (driver Matt DiBenedetto).

* Greg Ives, No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver Alex Bowman).

* Chad Knaus, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (driver William Byron).

* Chad Johnston, No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (driver Kyle Larson).

In the Xfinity Series, one crew chief was fined $5,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed:

* Jeff Meendering, No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (driver Brandon Jones).

There were no other penalties issued.

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Matt DiBenedetto hopes to continue upswing at Michigan, his ‘weakest’ track

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After his sixth-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, Matt DiBenedetto declared he was “fighting for my life, my career” in NASCAR, as speculation continues to swirl around where he’ll be racing in 2020.

The Leavine Family Racing driver left the road course with his fourth top 10 in seven races. Before this stretch, he hadn’t finished better than 12th in the first 15 races of the year.

Now DiBenedetto and the No. 95 team take their fight to Michigan International Speedway, which DiBenedetto viewed as his “weakest” track when the Cup Series last visited the 2-mile facility in June.

In that race, DiBenedetto started 29th and placed 21st. In nine starts there, it was his best finish and his first on the lead lap.

In his first year with LFR, Michigan is the third track after Daytona and Pocono that DiBenedetto has visited a second time.

“I think that we’ve had a bit more speed lately at tracks that were our weakness starting off the year, so I think this weekend going back to Michigan will be a good test for us since I feel that Michigan was our weakest track when we raced there a few months ago,” DiBenedetto said in a media release. “The challenges that we faced there in June were speed in general as well as the aero balance of the car. I held it wide-open, and unfortunately, we just didn’t have the speed to be able to catch up.”

With this year’s rules package, DiBenedetto said Michigan presents different challenges than the tracks he’s excelled at in the last seven races, which included two road courses, as well as Daytona and the flat 1-mile track in New Hampshire.

“In traffic at Michigan, it’s really hard to pass and that’s what makes it a tough track for us since I’m not controlling a lot in our Camry like I am at the tracks that we’ve run better at lately,” DiBenedetto explained. “This weekend we’ll be dependent on the speed of our car and our track position.

“I think that for the stability of the car, everything’s about aero, especially with high downforce since it’s super sensitive to that. Trying to get the aero balance of the car to feel right and make it feel stable is something that we’ve been working on learning and will be important this coming weekend.”

On DiBenedetto’s pit box will sit crew chief Mike Wheeler, who is in his first year with Leavine Family Racing after three full-time seasons with Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Appearing on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On-Track” Wednesday, Wheeler said there was “no switch” flipped in order for DiBenedetto to suddenly be running near the front.

It was just a matter of the No. 95 team finally getting its house in order after a massive offseason of change for the organization.

“I’ve heard some rumblings of, ‘Oh, you’re getting better this from (Toyota Racing Development)’ or ‘you’re getting better that from JGR,'” Wheeler said. “Honestly it just comes back to hard work. Beginning of the year, I wouldn’t say we were short-staffed, but we were definitely on the short-end of the stick as far as overcoming the package changes.

“We had to start from scratch in a lot of areas, but also changing over manufacturers (from Chevrolet to Toyota) and chassis suppliers. A lot of the ways they did things here at LFR have to start over. Measuring the car, setting up a car, parts and pieces, mileage systems, note taking. All that starts from scratch.”

Wheeler said having “some baseline events to run well, but not great” has benefitted his team over this recent stretch when it came to be prepared once they showed up to the track.

“(Cars get) built sooner than later and (we) get ahead of schedule so we can actually try to carry out some performance enhancements,” Wheeler said. “Next thing you know we started clicking off some top 10s and top fives.”

But Wheeler admits they don’t expect exponential improvement at Michigan.

“We haven’t learned enough yet to really correct everything that we want to at this point,” Wheeler said in a media release. “Hopefully with the gains we’ve made with the 550 (horsepower) spec package, we can perform better than we did in June, but keeping track position, qualifying well and executing all day will be the keys to finishing up front.

“The 750 spec package is quite a bit different than the 550 spec package, so a lot of our good runs with the 750 package don’t apply to tracks like Michigan. There’s no doubt that going to Pocono twice (where they finished 17th each time), we had learned more and performed better, but we still face some uphill challenges that we don’t have all the answers for yet.”

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