Story By: SCOTT RUNNING / STAFFORD MOTOR SPEEDWAY – STAFFORD SPRINGS, CT – When Stafford Speedway’s Late Models take to the track for the first time in 2019 during NAPA Spring Sizzler Weekend on April 26-28, there will be a new driver-team combination on the track that will be sure to be one of the championship favorites.
Michael Bennett, who won the Late Model championship in 2015, will join Rob and Marc Russell’s #31 Alpine Tree Co. / LifeCare Family Chiropractic team that won the championship with Glen Reen behind the wheel in 2017. With Reen vacating the #31 seat to focus more on his SK Modified® efforts, an almost perfect opportunity arose for Bennett to return to the division after stepping away from competition after the 2018 NAPA Spring Sizzler.
“Glen got in touch with us around Christmas time and he let us know he was going to be concentrating more on his modified stuff and unfortunately wouldn’t be driving the car this year,” said Rob Russell. “We were sad about that and when we started tossing a few names around for a new driver, Michael’s name came up a couple of times. Michael told us that whatever we needed he would put it together some how some way that would allow him to drive the car. My brother Marc and I talked it over some more and it seemed like Michael was a perfect fit for our car with the passion and fire he still has inside of him to go racing.”
“I reached out to Marc Russell on Facebook and we got together a couple weeks ago and they told me what they were looking for,” said Bennett. “Thanks to most of my old sponsors that I was able to round up with Alpine Tree Co., Bingo, Ben Dodge, my parents Herb & Laura Bennett, Bob Hitchcock and Independent Wheel, B.A. Muzio Plumbing & Heating, Tolland NAPA, S & B Carpentry, G & M General Contracting, 100 Percent Printing, Randy’s Trucking, Stafford Mechanical Services, Hilltop Restaurant and Bar, and Sunoco Race Fuels, I was able to provide what they needed and we made the deal. I really can’t thank Ben Dodge enough for always being there for me throughout my decision to step away and now to come back. When this opportunity came around with me just driving the car and still being able to spend time with my family and do what I needed to do at home, it was a no-brainer to join up with them.”
The pairing of Bennett with the Russell team forms one of the more formidable combinations that will be on the track in the Late Model division this season. The 2019 season will mark Bennett’s 11th season in the Late Model division and he has 20 career wins and the 2015 championship on his resume. Russell has teamed with Glen Reen to win 5 races and the 2017 championship in the last three seasons and both Bennett and Russell have their eyes set on contending for another championship in 2019.
“I definitely think we can make another run for a championship with Michael,” said Russell. “We won it with Glen in 2017 and Michael won in 2015, so by combining a driver that ran his own team and won a championship with our championship winning team, I think we can be a pretty lethal combination. I know what it takes to wheel one of these late Model cars to the front and win races and to have a driver like Michael who has won time and time again at Stafford is huge for our operation. I just hope we don’t let Michael down.”
“Being a championship winning team is the big draw to Rob and Marc and their team,” said Bennett. “They’ve been real competitive the last several seasons. We’ve helped each other out in the past but we never hooked up on a racing deal. Every team says at the Spring Sizzler that they want to win the championship. Everyone in the Late Model division has been racing for a long time and they’re all very competitive cars. We have to win races first in order to win the championship. Hopefully the learning curve for us to get a feel for each other will be quick and we can start to win races right off the bat. I know they had some struggles last year but that doesn’t mean that they’re not competitive and fired up to make things work.”
Despite sitting out all but one race in 2018, Bennett is confident that his experience will help him nullify any growing pains he might encounter getting back into the Late Model division. A learning curve that Bennett will have to contend with is the fact that the Late Model division will be racing on a different tire than what the division ran in 2018. While Bennett will have to learn the new tire combination, it’s the same for all Late Model drivers and Bennett might actually have an advantage over some of his fellow Late Model drivers as he says the new tire will take him back to the setups that he ran in 2010 and 2011.
“We’re going to be on a different tire this season so we won’t be able to drive the cars as hard as we have the last couple years,” said Bennett. “I think it’s going to go back to a feel like we had back in 2010 or 2011 so there’s going to be a slight learning curve for everyone. But as far as driving the car, it’s like riding a bike and it’s just a matter of other things we’ll have to tackle with the tires and the car.”
Now that Bennett has officially returned to the Late Model fold at Stafford, he can’t wait to get back on track and start mixing it up with some of the returning veterans as well as some old new faces that are returning this season.
“I’m really excited to be able to get back behind the wheel and be able to contribute to Friday nights at Stafford and hopefully continue to build this Late Model division back up,” said Bennett. “I’m coming back, Adam Gray is coming back, and Dave Wray is coming back, so hopefully it will be more exciting with more guys out there and guys who have been competitive in the past and we can put on a great show for all the fans.”
The 2019 Late Model season will kick off at the 48th Annual NAPA Spring Sizzler® on April 26-28.