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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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Matt DiBenedetto: Indy road course ‘everything we could ask for’

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After a morning spent testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Matt DiBenedetto admits the circuit is “tougher than I thought,” but that its 14- and 12-turn formats have “everything we could ask for” competitively.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver piloted a No. 22 Team Penske car around the road course for the only scheduled test ahead of the Xfinity Series’ debut on the circuit July 4 (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

“The part that I like the most about this course is that it actually does have multiple passing opportunities, and that was one of the things we wanted to evaluate is how it’s going to race, how technical it is in the passing zone,” DiBenedetto said during a press conference between test sessions.

“So the cool thing is what we love as road racers is heavy braking zones. Clearly, the end of the front straightaway here, you have a very heavy braking zone. You also have another long back straightaway getting into Turn 7, which is a heavy braking zone. And then on the 14-turn course, you have another braking zone coming into (Turns) 12, 13, and 14. When you come up onto the short chute, get on the brakes, get on there.

“There’s high-speed stuff. There’s low-speed stuff. So it’s pretty much everything we could ask for from a competitor’s standpoint for raceability. Also, the little chicane back there coming on the back straightaway is really technical. I’m still figuring out my approach to that. There’s a lot of different elements to the racetrack that makes it exciting.”

DiBenedetto described how the Indy track compares to other road courses that NASCAR series compete on.

“Coming off of that chicane, exiting it, I’ve made comparisons to Sonoma already,” DiBendetto said. “Then some of the low-speed stuff, where you’re in either first or second gear, I’ve compared to Mid-Ohio, which is also a really neat course.

“And then I guess you could compare it to maybe a Watkins Glen or something, where you’re flying down the front straightaway and then you have a real heavy braking zone, which is perfect, which allows the opportunity to pull out and try and pass people and outbrake and all those different things.”

DiBenedetto said there is “no doubt” there will be physical racing come July.

“There’s a lot of areas not only to try and outbrake and pass, but actually set up in the prior corner, to set up for those passing zones and things like that,” DiBenedetto said. “There’s some low-speed stuff where people might just use their bumper and knock them out of the way, whatever. So there’s opportunities for all of that.”

The main goals of the test were to gather data that will help NASCAR determine which road course format to use, how long the race will be, evaluate safety concerns and to gather info for Goodyear.

Wayne Auton, Xfinity Series managing director, said Goodyear brought tire setups from the Xfinity Series races at Road America and Mid-Ohio, as well as the Charlotte Roval. The morning session had DiBenedetto using the Roval tires.

“Goodyear is getting a lot of data with Matt’s feel inside the race car,” Auton said during the press conference. “And going down into this long straightaway and into that real slow Turn 1 area … Matt’s done us a great job, and we’re getting a lot of input. We’ll do some maybe 10-lap runs here this afternoon and see what we find out from that and take that back, and then we’ll decide on which course we’re going to run.”

Auton said that video from a GoPro camera placed in DiBenedetto’s car will be shared with drivers who will compete in the July 4 race (DiBenedetto will not be eligible to compete due to conducting the test) and that some data collected by Team Penske would be shared with competitors.

The main difference between the 12- and 14-turn layout is the final section of the circuit, which empties from the infield road course onto what is Turn 1 of the oval. In the 12-turn format, cars drive completely through Turn 1 (Turn 12) heading the opposite way Cup cars will drive when they race on the oval for the July 5 Brickyard 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

On the 14-turn layout, after returning to the oval from the infield portion of the road course in the short chute between Oval Turn 1 and 2, there is sharp right-hander (Turn 12) toward the infield, followed by a left-hander (Turn 13) which leads back to the frontstretch (Turn 14). It is the same portion of the track IndyCar uses for its race on that circuit two weeks before the Indianapolis 500.

DiBenedetto said both the 12- or 14-turn format “would put on great racing.”

“The 14-turn course, you’re coming up on that short chute, and it’s right on edge, and you get to brake right next to the wall there (in the short chute between oval Turns 1 and 2), which is pretty cool, and it’s just really unique. I can’t compare that to anything actually. So that’s a cool technical passing zone opportunity.

“Then on the 12-turn course, it spiked the old heart rate pretty good coming through backwards through oval Turn 1 … That was very weird.”

 

Matt DiBenedetto to test Xfinity car on Indy road course

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Matt DiBenedetto will take part in a one-car Xfinity test today on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

The test by the Wood Brothers Racing driver comes after the track and NASCAR announced last week that the July 4 Xfinity Series race (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) will be held on the road course rather than the historic 2.5-mile oval.

Due to DiBenedetto taking part in the test, he will not be eligible to compete in the race.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than DiBenedetto’s. New track owner Roger Penske said the focus of the test with DiBenedetto will be primarily to look at run-off areas.

“We will not be running at any speeds here next week, just with the weather,” Penske said during the announcement. “If someone thinks we picked (DiBenedetto) to run this. This was a car that could be available.”

The high for Wednesday in Speedway, Indiana, is not expected to top 40 degrees.

The July 4 race will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

The Xfinity Series has raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Kyle Busch has won four of those races. Other winners have been Justin Allgaier (2018), William Byron (2017), Ty Dillon (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012).

 

Xfinity Series to race on Indy’s road course

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The Xfinity Series will race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course this year, track officials announced Wednesday.

The July 4 race, sponsored by Pennzoil, will take place at 1:30 p.m. ET and air on NBC. The Cup race on July 5 also will be on NBC at 3:30 p.m. ET.

“As all the Xfinity drivers are looking into this weekend, I think we’re all going to be excited to be (in) the first NASCAR road race at Indy,” Justin Allgaier said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’re all going to want to win that first race. I remember the first time coming here and racing in the Xfinity Series how exciting that was.”

Matt DiBenedetto will test different configurations for the road course on Jan. 22, Ben Kennedy, NASCAR managing director, racing operations and international development, said Wednesday. Kennedy said DiBenedetto will not be eligible to compete in the Xfinity race in July.

Moving the Xfinity race from the oval to the road course is the first major move made at the track since Roger Penske’s company purchased the speedway. One of Penske’s priorities has been putting more emphasis on the track’s NASCAR weekend, which has suffered significant attendance declines for more than a decade.

“We look at the (Indianapolis) 500 and the success we have and this race, we had many, many fans here as we started and then we had the issue with tires (in the 2008 race that led to NASCAR issuing an apology) and other things,” Penske said about why the focus on the NASCAR weekend. “We really have not had the ability to fill the stands the way we want. I think it’s a challenge for us. It’s something we want to work on. So it became a priority for us.”

Penske Corporation’s purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions became official Jan. 6. The sale to Roger Penske’s company was announced Nov. 4.

Penske discussed his plans for the track Jan. 9 on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “I guess my first grade card is how we do in the first year in making a difference at the track in 2020. We’re completely focused on that. We’re going to make several millions of dollars of investments before the month of May. It’s not to create more revenue or profit bottom-line, it’s entirely what can we do to make the guest and fan experience better.”

This will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

The other road course races will be May 30 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Aug. 8 at Road America, Aug. 15 at Watkins Glen and Oct. 10 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The Xfinity Series has raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Kyle Busch has won four of those races. Other winners have been Allgaier (2018), William Byron (2017), Ty Dillon (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012).

The plan is that track officials will need about 90 minutes to convert the track back to the oval configuration after the Xfinity race on July 4 before Cup teams will be able to practice. The first practice is tentatively scheduled for 5:05 – 5:55 p.m. ET and final practice is scheduled for 6:35 – 7:25 p.m. ET. Cup teams will qualify the morning of the July 5 race at the tentative time of 11:05 a.m. ET.

Other announcements about the Indy weekend are that Florida Georgia Line will hold a concert on July 4, a fireworks show and new infield camping.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than the test with DiBenedetto next week. Penske said the focus of the test with DiBenedetto will be primarily to look at run-off areas.

“We will not be running at any speeds here next week, just with the weather,” Penske said. “If someone thinks we picked him to run this. This was a car that could be available.”

Probable 2020 milestones in the Cup Series

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The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season is nearing with the 62nd running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 16.

There are a lot of changes this year.

Now it’s time to look at some of the accomplishments that could or likely will be achieved over the course of the 36-race season, for both drivers and teams.

Jimmie Johnson

The seven-time champion will have one last go at earning a record eighth title before retiring from full-time Cup racing. He’ll also try to end a 95-race losing streak that dates to June 2017. A win by Johnson would give him 84 and move him into a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth all-time.

Kyle Busch

The defending Cup champion is within milestones in all three of NASCAR’s national series. He’s four Cup wins away from 60, four Xfinity Series wins from 100 and four Truck Series wins away from 60. Busch has said once he reaches 100 Xfinity Series wins he’d stop competing in the series unless car owner Joe Gibbs needed him to fill in.

With 56 career victories, Busch is seventh on the all-time wins list. Dale Earnhardt is sixth with 76 victories.

A win by Busch this year would give him wins in 16 straight seasons. That would match Jimmie Johnson’s streak from 2002-17. Richard Petty had 18 straight seasons with a win (1960-77) and David Pearson had 17 straight seasons with a win (1964-80).

Kevin Harvick

The 2014 Cup champion needs one win to reach 50 for his career. He’s currently tied for 11th on the all-time wins list with his team owner, Tony Stewart. Harvick has 1,151 starts across NASCAR’s three nationals series. Thirty four starts this year will match him with Richard Petty for second all-time. Joe Nemechek has the most all-time with 1,188.

Denny Hamlin

After earning six wins in 2019, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver needs three more to reach 40 Cup wins. He’s currently tied with Hall of Hamer Bobby Isaac. Should Hamlin win the Daytona 500, he’d be the first driver to win the race in back-to-back seasons since Sterling Marlin (1994-95).

Martin Truex Jr.

The 2017 Cup champion could reach 30 career wins this season. He has 26. Of note, every eligible retired driver who has 30 or more Cup wins is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Five active drivers have 30 or more wins: Brad Keselowski (30 wins), Kurt Busch (31), Hamlin (37), Harvick (49) and Kyle Buch (56).

Ryan Newman

In his second season with Roush Fenway Racing, Newman is within two victories of 20 career wins. He’s been stuck there since 2017 when he won the spring race at Phoenix Raceway. A win would give Newman a victory with all four organizations he’s competed for in Cup (Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing are the others). Roush is winless in the last 91 races.

Kurt Busch

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver should reach 700 Cup Series starts this season. He’s 16 starts away from the mark and is scheduled to reach it June 14 at Sonoma Raceway. Among active full-time Cup drivers, Busch’s 684 starts are the most.

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano

The Team Penske drivers should both reach 400 career starts this season. Logano will reach the mark in the Daytona 500, while Keselowski needs 23 starts. He’s scheduled to make start No. 400 on Aug. 9 at his home track of Michigan International Speedway (Keselowski has yet to win there).

More: Team Penske changes up crew chief lineup

Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola

McDowell and Almirola are each set to reach 350 Cup Series starts this season. McDowell is scheduled to reach that mark Sept. 19 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Almirola would reach it Oct. 25 at Texas Motor Speedway. With 321 starts, McDowell trails Landon Cassill (324 starts) for most starts among active full-time drivers without a win. StarCom Racing has not announced its plans for Cassill in 2020.

J.J. Yeley

The veteran driver is set to compete full-time for Rick Ware Racing this season. It would be his first full-time Cup season since 2007 when he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing. Yeley is nine starts away from his 300th Cup start. He is scheduled to reach the mark April 19 at Richmond Raceway.

Notable veteran drivers without Cup wins: Matt DiBenedetto (176 starts), Ty Dillon (126 starts), Corey LaJoie (93 starts), Bubba Wallace (76 starts), William Byron (72 starts) and Ryan Preece (41 starts).

Rookie winner?: Should Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, John Hunter Nemechek or Brennan Poole win a race this year, they’d be the first full-time Cup rookie to win a race since Chris Buescher in 2016.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Team Milestones

Wood Brothers Racing

If Matt DiBenedetto wins a race in 2020, he would earn Wood Brothers Racing its 100th Cup victory. The team has 99 wins in 1,582 starts since 1953.

Stewart-Haas Racing

Four wins away from 60 Cup wins since its inaugural season in 2009. Seven poles away from 60.

Chip Ganassi Racing

Two wins away from 20 Cup victories since 2001 (includes five wins under the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing banner).

Richard Childress Racing

3,000 combined Cup starts. Needs six, or three races with its two teams. Scheduled for March 1 at Auto Club Speedway. Team is winless since the 2018 Daytona 500 (71 races).

Team Penske

2,000 combined Cup starts. Needs 21, or seven races with its three teams. Scheduled for March 29 at Texas Motor Speedway.

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