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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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‘Crew chiefs will be covering their eyes on restarts’ at Auto Club Speedway

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Each of the three Cup races held since the Daytona 500 has featured an unknown.

Those races – at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix – each featured a different form of the 2019 rules package for teams to figure out.

Atlanta saw cars with 550 horsepower and brake ducts. Las Vegas swapped in aero ducts. The 1-mile ISM raceway in Phoenix had cars with 750 horsepower and brake ducts.

This weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway will be the first to use a package for a second time, as teams take to the 2-mile track with 550 horsepower and aero ducts.

Add the package to the track’s worn surface and wide corners, there’s one aspect of the race drivers seem to agree on.

Like Phoenix, restarts will be pivotal. But they’ll also be wild.

“I think the crew chiefs will be covering their eyes on restarts,” Clint Bowyer said in a media release. “These restarts are going to be crazy. They have been in the past at that track, so who knows how wild they’ll be this weekend.”

The first restart in the Auto Club 400 last year came with 18 laps to go in the stage and featured cars as many as four to five-wide in Turns 1 and 2.

In a media release, Ty Dillon said cars can be taken seven-wide in the corners “if you wanted to.”

Cars fan out in Turns 1-2 at Auto Club Speedway in the 2018 Cup race.. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

When talking about restarts, Bowyer sounds like he’s mulling strategy at Daytona or Talladega when deciding whether to race with the lead pack or avoid a multi-car wreck by riding in the back.

“As a driver, you think I should get up there and race and get as many positions as I can,” Bowyer said. “But, part of you is thinking that maybe I should just be safe this early in the race, hang back a bit and make sure we survive. Problem is, if you hang back and they don’t wreck, you feel stupid.”

But what should be expected after the first lap?

“I think those first four or five laps are going to be really crazy still,” William Byron said in a release. “I think that the lane choices that you have at Auto Club Speedway will help keep the racing a little bit closer, and with that, you are going to have to kind of be gritty throughout the run to keep your position.

Matt DiBenedetto thinks complaints of “dirty air” inhibiting the ability to pass will be less frequent on Sunday.

“You can go into the corner and run about ten different lanes, so I don’t think that we’ll have that problem,” DiBenedetto said in a media release. “We’ll be able to go and get the clean air in the corners and then draft on the straightaways, so I think it will work this weekend where we can actually pass quite a bit, unlike at some other tracks so far.”

A small example of what could be seen on Sunday was displayed in January during a Goodyear tire test at the track. It saw Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez swapping positions as if they were in a race, an unusual sight for a tire test.

Though cars will feature aero ducts like at Las Vegas, DiBenedetto’s crew chief, Mike Wheeler, anticipates the racing will look “like the racing we saw in Atlanta,” which also features an aged, rough surface.

“Cornering won’t be as difficult as what you would have seen at Fontana last year, because you’re still going to be wide open through the corners and then being trimmed out to go as fast as you can down the straightaways,” Wheeler said in a media release. “Ultimately though, that top speed in the 170’s will still be that same top speed no matter what track we go to.  California, unlike Michigan and Texas, can wear tires out so that could also become more of a factor this weekend.”

Then comes pit strategy.

As one of the larger ovals on the NASCAR circuit, Auto Club Speedway invites a variety of decisions on when a team chooses to get four fresh tires if they must during a green-flag run.

“When you add in the tire falloff, then it becomes strategy and how many laps do you stay out when everybody else starts pitting because you’re going to give up three seconds a lap,” Kevin Harvick said in a media release. “If the caution comes out, you can get caught a lap down. So there are so many things that come into play, but it has become a great race and a great racetrack to race on.”

Penalty report from Las Vegas Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued two fines to Cup crew chiefs for having one unsecured lug nut on their cars Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Billy Scott, crew chief on Daniel Suarez‘ No. 41 Ford, and Mike Wheeler, crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, were each fined $10,000.

No other penalties were announced.

 

Penalty report for Atlanta Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued three fines to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts during the race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Two were in Cup with Derek Stamets, crew chief on Bubba Wallace‘s No. 43 Chevrolet, and Mike Wheeler, crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, being fined $10,000 each for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Johnny Sauter‘s crew chief Joel Shear Jr. was fined $2,500 for one unsecured lug nut.

There were no other penalties.