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Paul Menard to retire from NASCAR; Matt DiBenedetto will drive No. 21 in 2020

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Wood Brothers Racing announced Tuesday that Paul Menard will retire from full-time NASCAR competition after 2019 and Matt DiBenedetto will take over the historic No. 21 Ford next season.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will retire after 13 full-time seasons in the Cup Series. The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be his 471st start.

This year was his second season driving for Wood Brothers Racing. Menard, 39, joins David Ragan in being the second long-term veteran to announce their retirement from full-time racing after this season.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment of my career racing in the NASCAR Cup Series and I’m so thankful for all the great memories and friendships I’ve made through this sport,” Menard said in a press release. “But I’m looking forward to spending more time at home with my wife Jennifer and our two young children while moving forward with the next chapter of my life.

“I want to thank everyone at Wood Brothers Racing, along with Team Penske, and our partners at Menards, Motorcraft, Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers and Ford. It’s been a privilege to work with them and some of the true legends of our sport, including Andy Petree, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robert Yates, Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Glen and Leonard Wood. I’m excited for what the future holds and I’m looking forward to sharing the plans for 2020 and beyond in the coming weeks.”

Said DiBenedetto in a statement: “I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020. The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”

The news about DiBenedetto’s new ride comes after he was informed by Leavine Family Racing last month he wouldn’t return to the No. 95 Toyota next season.

DiBenedetto, 28, is in his fifth season of Cup competition. Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was his 166th start. He has six top-10 finishes, including three top fives this season. All of those have come in the last 11 races. One of his top fives was a runner-up finish in the Bristol night race, where he led a race-high 93 laps but lost to Denny Hamlin.

DiBenedetto will be a guest on NASCAR America MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.

“We want to thank Paul Menard for his dedication to the team over the last two seasons,” said team President and co-owner Eddie Wood in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a strong finish to 2019 and we wish him nothing but the best for the future. All of us at Wood Brothers Racing are excited to welcome Matt DiBenedetto to the team beginning next season. Matt has shown a lot of promise on track and everyone has seen it in his results this season, especially over the past several months. We want to continue to build on that success together as we gear up for 2020 and the future of Wood Brothers Racing.”

Later in a press conference, Menard said he expected Menards to remain as a full sponsor on the No. 21 and Ryan Blaney‘s No. 12 car.

Long: Indy success provides emotional lift for Bubba Wallace, Jeb Burton

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INDIANAPOLIS — Amid the weekend’s celebrations at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most emotional moments came not in Victory Lane but on pit road.

One driver cried. Another beamed.

Jeb Burton and Bubba Wallace have faced various challenges in their careers. The 27-year-old Burton, son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, has fought to remain relevant in NASCAR. The 25-year-old Wallace, whose dynamic personality is engaging, has been open about his struggles on the track and off.

In a sport where the focus often shifts to the next young driver, it’s easy to forget how much racing Burton and Wallace both could have left and the impact they could make.

Of course, racing, as in life, isn’t always fair. Short tracks across the country feature drivers who had the talent to race in NASCAR’s premier series but never got the chance whether because they didn’t have the proper funding, right look or were too old when discovered.

So in that sense, Burton and Wallace can be considered among the fortunate to have climbed NASCAR’s ladder. That isn’t satisfying for either, though. They want more.

Burton has not had a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s top three national series since a 2015 Cup effort with BK Racing, a team that no longer exists after going through bankruptcy court a year ago. Burton has pieced together rides with whatever sponsorship he can find. He’s run three Cup, 14 Xfinity and four Truck races since 2017.

He will drive two more Xfinity races this season (Texas and Miami) for JR Motorsports, giving him seven starts in the team’s No. 8 car this season.

Burton finished fourth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis, tying his career-best result. He could not contain the tears after exiting his car.

Asked where the emotion was coming from, Burton said in a quivering voice: “Two years ago I didn’t know if I was going to drive again. That’s where it comes from.”

Burton later said: “Every time I get into a race car I feel like I’ve got something to prove. You don’t know, this could be the last time out there. You don’t know. I cried like a baby in my TV interview because it means so much. You don’t know when this could be your last day. You’ve just got to cherish every moment.”

That’s not been easy for Wallace at times this season. He tweeted in early May that he had not “been (in) a good place for some time now.” A few days later at Kansas Speedway, Wallace said how “you try to be the best you can and sometimes it ain’t good enough.”

The session with reporters ended with Wallace later burying his head in his hands.

He won a segment in the Monster Energy Open in May, received a heartfelt embrace from Ryan Blaney and was emotional in his interview with FS1, saying “Damn, I’ve been feeling like a failure for a really long time.”

His struggles on the track haven’t helped. Richard Petty Motorsports struggled to find proper funding for nearly the first six months of the year. The results showed.

Until Sunday’s Brickyard 400, Wallace had not finished better than 14th this season and had only four top-20 results.

After he finished third Sunday, Wallace screamed on his radio: “Yeah! That ain’t supposed to happen! That is not supposed to happen! We did it! Nice job!”

Wallace could not stop smiling after climbing from his car. Richard Petty hugged him.

“We needed this,” Wallace said. “We needed this weekend. We unloaded with speed and I was bragging to everybody.”

Wallace called Sunday “an unforgettable day at Indy.”

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There are many places one can find points gained or lost over a 26-race regular season that can determine who makes the playoffs. Such is the case for Daniel Suarez, who finished four points behind Ryan Newman for the final playoff spot Sunday.

Here are a couple of key moments this season that had they gone differently could have given Suarez the chance to race for a championship instead of Newman:

# Suarez won the pole at Kentucky in July but did not score any stage points.

Suarez led the opening 49 laps at Kentucky but when a caution came out, the team decided to change four tires. Two cars took no tires and 10 cars took two tires during that caution. Suarez restarted 13th, the first car on four tires. He finished the opening stage in 14th and scored no stage points.

In the second stage, Suarez had a flat tire and had to pit under green and then was called for speeding. He fell three laps down at one point and never had a chance to score any stage points.

That was one of three times this season that the driver who started on the pole failed to score any stage points. Austin Dillon did not tally any stage points after starting on the pole at Auto Club Speedway in March, and Denny Hamlin failed to do so after starting on the pole at Bristol in August.

Drivers who started on the pole scored an average of 10.2 stage points per race in the regular season this year. Suarez could have used those 10 points Sunday.

# Newman’s extra pit stop at Michigan in August.

Twenty-seven cars, including Newman, pitted for fuel on Lap 150 at Michigan, putting them all on the edge of making it the rest of the race on fuel. Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road the next lap to top off on fuel.

With no caution the rest of the way, fuel mileage was critical. Newman went from 18th to 12th in the final three laps as cars ahead of him had to pit for fuel or ran out on the track.

Newman ran out of fuel on Turn 4 of the last lap but easily made it across the finish line. Had he not stopped on Lap 151 to top off, he wouldn’t have made it to the end and would have lost several positions.

Instead, those six points gained by others running out fuel helped Newman secure the last playoff spot.

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Ryan Newman helped snap the playoff drought for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 car.

The car once piloted by Hall of Famer Mark Martin last made the playoffs in 2006 — the year Jimmie Johnson won the first of his record-tying seven Cup titles.

Newman’s team has gone through key changes since last season’s finale in Miami. Scott Graves became the team’s crew chief for this season. The team also has a different engineer and car chief from last year’s Miami race.

“Our team is so new,” Newman said. “It is newer than I have ever experienced. That is huge. With all the changes we had in our sport in the offseason, I think it was underestimated by me and a huge change to tackle.

“I feel like we have done a good job but to answer your question, we just need to continue to progress to make our cars go faster. I think we have had some good strategy and pit stops and good moves on the race track. All those types of things. Good things need to turn into great things and keep progressing as a team.”

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Leaders crashing late in a race can can create ill will and lead to spicy exchange between competitors. Not for Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis.

Instead, fans saw sportsmanship after the two drivers wrecked with seven laps left.

Reddick approached Bell on the track and gave him a tap on the back.

Reddick told NBCSN after leaving the infield care center: “No one in this garage or in NASCAR racing in general should ever question Christopher’s driving ability. That wasn’t the issue there.

“His car just simply got loose, and we just got together and we didn’t really have a lot of race track. It’s (the) end of the race, we’re going for it type deal. Nothing against Christopher. He did nothing wrong. His car just got loose. Just part of racing at the end at this place.”

Refreshing to see how this situation was handled.

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Shortly after celebrating Kevin Harvick‘s victory at Indianapolis, crew chief Rodney Childers was focused on the challenge of the playoffs, which begin Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I think this season is just tough,”  he said. “I think it’s going to be tougher the next 10 races than it’s ever been. You’ve got 550 (horsepower) races that you have to be good at. You’ve got 750 races you’ve got to be good at. You’ve got road course cars you’ve got to be good at. You’ve got to have a good Martinsville car. There’s so many different things in the playoffs this year that it’s going to be so important to have great race cars every week.”

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The quote of the weekend belonged to Kevin Harvick’s son Keelan.

Asked what it was like to kiss the bricks after his father’s win, Keelan said: “They don’t taste great, but it was fun kissing the bricks.”

Friday 5: To each their own on celebrating wins

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So many options. So much excitement. What to do?

Should a race winner do donuts? Should they do a reverse victory lap? Or a bow? Or climb a fence? Or the latest, offer a hug.

Just as there are different ways to enjoy a NASCAR win, drivers also have distinct opinions on how to celebrate those accomplishments.

I don’t go too over the top, but we sure do like to hang around the track for a long time and we really don’t ever want to leave that Sunday night after the race,” Martin Truex Jr. told NBC Sports. “We just want to kind of hang out and maybe stay over in the motorhome or something and party in the campground. These races are tough and that’s kind of why you see guys enjoy it so much because you never know when you get another one.”

One tradition that goes with a Truex win is that crew chief Cole Pearn takes a selfie with the team in victory lane and posts it on social media.

Brad Keselowski admits he’s a fan of sprint car drivers climbing on the wing of their car and celebrating after a win. Keselowski has created his unique victory celebration by having a pit crew member bring out an American flag to his car. It’s something he began doing in 2010.

Brad Keselowski celebrating his 2018 win at Indianapolis. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I had won a few races and I didn’t really know what to do, and I thought I’ve got to have a plan for this,” said Keselowski, defending winner of this weekend’s Southern 500. “I thought about something I really liked. I remember when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. did it at Dover (in 2001) and I thought that was the coolest thing and then he stopped. I was never sure why he stopped. I thought that would be really cool to do. Something that nobody else was doing and looked kind of fun and was personal.”

Keselowski has said he thought about a military career if he wasn’t successful with his racing endeavor. His Checkered Flag Foundation supports veterans and first responders.

Kyle Larson has punctuated wins by doing donuts and taking the steering wheel off. That was curtailed after NASCAR advised Larson against such flamboyant actions, citing safety concerns.

“Honestly, in sprint cars, I only do donuts and stuff if it’s a really exciting finish,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I feel like when you win in NASCAR, like you’re obligated to do donuts just because that’s what they expect.”

Rookie Ryan Preece said that there is something better than donuts.

“The donuts are all well and cool, but I think they’re kind of overplayed,” he told NBC Sports. “I think the (reverse) victory lap is something that is pretty special. I would say the (reverse) victory lap is the coolest one of them all. I actually did it at Iowa (in 2017). It’s just not as rough on equipment and is pretty cool seeing all the fans.”

But Ryan Newman likes the donut celebration after a race for a particular reason.

“I still pattern my victory celebrations, which are rusty now at this point, after Alex Zanardi’s donuts,” Newman said. “I always admired him as a race car driver and his ability to celebrate and do it at different parts of the course, and I just thought that was spectacular.

“My dad has always told me if you can’t win, be spectacular. So, I guess if you win, you better be spectacular.”

For others, the celebration can be a moment of thanks. Xfinity driver Chase Briscoe kneels.

“I’m a pretty relaxed guy as it is,” Briscoe said. “I get excited but I don’t get too excited. I feel like my signature thing is just getting down on one knee and praying and just thanking God. I did that at the Roval (last year). I wasn’t in a dark place but really questioning myself and really thankful for the opportunity and just gave Him thanks and it was well received. I’m not going to hide my faith. I’m proud of it. I did it (at Iowa in July) as well.”

The latest celebration comes from the Xfinity Series. While it might not rival a Carl Edwards backflip, Tony Stewart fence climb or Cole Custer’s beer smash and tumble, the latest victory celebration is unique.

It’s a hug.

But not just with anyone.

With one of the NBC Sports reporters.

Austin Cindric bearhugged Rutledge Wood during his interview after Cindric scored his first career Xfinity win at Watkins Glen. Cindric then hugged Dillon Welch during his interview after winning at Mid-Ohio.

It’s that type of emotion Cindric said he likes seeing from others who win, citing Team Penske driver Will Power’s reaction after winning the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

“I think my favorite are the ones where you can see the emotion of the drivers and how much it means to them,” Cindric said. “I think of when Will Power won the Indy 500. He had been trying to win that race so long and to see him do it and be there in person and see how the emotion, there are so many pictures of him going crazy in victory lane, the crazy eyes and the smile, things that mean that much to drivers because there’s a lot of work that goes into it and there’s a lot of pressure you end up putting on yourself. I think that connects with race fans so well when you see ho much it means.

“What drives me nuts, I’ll take your standard Formula One interview, the guy who just had the greatest race of his career and he’s like ‘This is a good weekend, such a great opportunity, thank you to the guys.’ Just the most bland interview. The biggest moment of your life just happened. Get excited about it. I think that’s what makes our sport fun.”

2. Memorable throwback schemes 

With NASCAR heading into to Darlington Raceway for its fifth throwback weekend, here’s a look at my favorite throwback schemes.

Aric Almirola in 2015. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)

A classic look.

STP and the Petty Blue. The two were synonymous in NASCAR for years and it only made sense that for the inaugural throwback weekend in 2015, these two would return to the track with the paint scheme from 1972.

Aric Almirola got into the spirit of the weekend by sporting a Fu Manchu to match what Richard Petty once showcased.

Almirola finished 11th in that race.

 

Kyle Larson in 2015. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Perhaps no car has looked as sharp under Darlington Raceway’s lights since the sport went to a throwback weekend format than this car, driven by Kyle Larson in 2015.

What made this car even better was that it had the paint scheme and proper sponsor to go with it.

This mirrored the car Kyle Petty drove for SABCO Racing from 1991-94 (and also the car Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, drove in the 1990 film “Days of Thunder”).

Larson finished 10th in this car, placing a spot ahead of Aric Almirola in that No. 43 car.

 

Ryan Reed in 2016 in Xfinity Series. (Photo by Jeff Curry/NASCAR via Getty Images)

This car ran in the Xfinity Series race in 2016, as more Xfinity teams began embracing the throwback idea at Darlington. This continues to grow as several Xfinity teams come to Darlington with throwback schemes each year.

Ryan Reed drove this car for Roush Fenway Racing. The paint scheme pays tribute to Bobby Allison and the car he drove in 1975. Allison won three races that season, including a victory at Darlington.

Reed finished 13th in the Xfinity race.

 

Austin Dillon in 2017 (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Richard Childress Racing had both its No. 3 and 31 cars with this look for the 2017 Southern 500, but the No. 3 car looked the best to me.

RCR went with this look to honor Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 Southern 500 victory with the Wrangler paint scheme.

While Earnhardt will be remembered for his black cars, I always liked this paint scheme.

Dillon finished fourth with this car.

 

William Byron in 2018. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It was good to see Jeff Gordon’s rainbow paint scheme eventually return for the Southern 500 at Darlington in 2018.

Dylon Lupton drove a rainbow paint scheme car in the 2017 Xfinity race.

While Lupton’s car looked sharp, the paint scheme was meant to be on a Cup car for throwback weekend. Hendrick Motorsports did the right thing in 2018 by putting it on William Byron’s ride.

Byron finished 35th in last year’s race.

Go here to see what throwback paint schemes will be on the track this weekend at Darlington. The Xfinity Series race will be at 4 p.m. ET on NBC. The Southern 500 airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

3. Playoff race

With two races left in the Cup regular season, four drivers are racing for what would be the final two playoff spots. Daniel Suarez holds the final spot.

The standings look this way entering Sunday’s Southern 500:

15. Ryan Newman — 603 points

16. Daniel Suarez — 591 points

17. Clint Bowyer  2 points out of playoff spot

18. Jimmie Johnson — 26 points out of playoff spot

Newman has an average finish of 12.1 at Darlington, his best of all the active tracks that he’s had more than one start. His 13 top 10s at Darlington also are the most there among active Cup drivers. Suarez has never finished better than 29th in two Cup starts at Darlington. Bowyer has an average finish of 22.8 at Darlington and his only top-10 finish there came in 2007. Johnson is a three-time winner at the track but has not finished better than 12th in the last four races at Darlington.

4. Familiar face

Joe Nemechek, who turns 56 on Sept. 26, will drive the No. 27 Cup car for Premium Motorsports this weekend at Darlington Raceway. This will be Nemechek’s 668th career Cup start but first since March 1, 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s continued to run in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

To put it into perspective, when Nemechek last raced in Cup:

# William Byron was in the K&N East Series (and would win the 2015 title)

# Erik Jones was in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (and would become the youngest series champion that year)

# Daniel Suarez was in the Xfinity Series (and would become the rookie of the year)

# Kyle Busch was out after being injured in a crash during the February Xfinity race at Daytona (he would come back to win the Cup title that year).

Also, Nemechek is entered in both Xfinity and Cup races at Darlington this weekend. That will give him 1,174 career starts in NASCAR’s top series.

Richard Petty holds the record for most starts in NASCAR’s national series with 1,182 — all in the Cup Series.

Mark Martin is third on the all-time starts list with 1,143 across the three national series. Kevin Harvick is next with 1,139 career starts.

5. Rollin’

Since NBC Sports took over broadcasting the Cup series at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points in that time than Denny Hamlin. The top four in points in that time are all from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Here are the drivers who have scored the most points since Chicagoland:

313 – Denny Hamlin

295 – Martin Truex Jr.

290 – Kyle Busch

260 – Erik Jones

257 – Kevin Harvick

257 – Kyle Larson

250 – Joey Logano

245 – William Byron

232 – Kurt Busch

225 – Brad Keselowski

 

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Bubba Wallace now (l)inked forever to Richard Petty with tattoo

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Countless fans have gotten Richard Petty’s autograph over the last six-plus decades.

But only one race car driver can now say he actually took The King’s signature and turned it into a tattoo.

That’s what Bubba Wallace did Monday, living up to his promise he made a little over two weeks ago that he’d get a tattoo of Petty’s signature after Petty surprised Wallace by putting his autograph on Bubba’s left forearm.

Now, it’s official: Bubba will forever and proudly have The King’s signature permanently emblazoned on the back of his upper right thigh.

 

Bubba live-streamed the inking and pain on Instagram.

There were also other tweets either by Wallace or about his eventful day, as well.

 

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Bubba Wallace’s No. 43 to carry Adam Petty paint scheme at Darlington

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Bubba Wallace will honor the late Adam Petty in the Sept. 1 Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Wallace unveiled Tuesday the paint scheme on the No. 43 Chevrolet that he will drive in the throwback weekend race, a scheme that mirrors the design on Adam Petty’s car when he won the ARCA race at Charlotte in September 1998.

 

It will also reflect the paint scheme Petty carried on his race car while competing in what is now the Xfinity Series.

The Petty family nicknamed that car “crayon” for the variety of colors on it with then-sponsor Spree (a prepaid phone card).

MORE: A look at other throwback schemes for the Southern 500

Wallace has one previous Cup start at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped track known as “Too Tough To Tame,” starting 27th and finishing 26th in last year’s race.

Adam Petty, son of NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty and grandson of NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, was killed May 12, 2000, at the age of 19, while practicing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Richard Petty made 65 career starts on Darlington, earning three wins, 25 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes.

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