Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – Driver Matt DiBenedetto learned this week that he will not be returning to the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota next year.
“We have chosen to move in another direction for 2020,” LFR said in a statement on Thursday. “Matt has been an important part of our team this year, putting together strong runs.
“He’s a talented young driver and we look forward to closing out this season with him behind the wheel of the No. 95 Camry. We wish him nothing but the best in the future.”
The team indicated it would have no further announcements at this time, though speculation has been rampant that Christopher Bell, under contract to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota team, would fill the seat at the JGR affiliate.
“I got the devastating news that I will not be able to return to Leavine Family Racing next season,” DiBenedetto wrote in a Twitter post. “I am thankful for Bob (Leavine), Sharon (Leavine), (co-owner) Matt Diliberto and everyone at LFR and Toyota for allowing me to do exactly what I set out to do, which was showcase my talent.
“It has been exciting for us as a team to get top fives, top 10s and lead the most laps in the Daytona 500.
DiBenedetto scored the first top fives of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career this year, finishing fourth at Sonoma and fifth at New Hampshire. He is currently 23rd in the series standings, with a career-best four top 10s this season. He’ll take the track next in Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Although this is a difficult time for me, nothing is going to stop me from winning in the NASCAR Cup Series,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m hopeful there is a team out there that will give me the chance to continue my dream and allow me to win for them.”
ERIK JONES CONFIDENT ABOUT RETURN TO NO. 20 JOE GIBBS RACING CAMRY
For fans who have adorned any parts of their bodies with No. 20 Erik Jones “tats,” you can relax.
On Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jones exuded confidence that he will return to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota next season.
“I wouldn’t be worried about covering it up, no,” Jones said of those who’ve gotten “inked” in his honor. “We’re very close (to a contract), and I hope we can put something out soon to make it official.”
Jones was at Bristol on Thursday to prepare for a rare appearance in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Driving the No. 81 JGR Supra, he topped the speed chart in final practice for Friday’s Food City 300 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Before Thursday’s news that Matt DiBenedetto would not be returning to Leavine Family Racing next year, speculation had been rife that Jones might be replaced by prolific Xfinity Series winner Christopher Bell.
Now it seems far more likely that Bell will take the seat in the No. 95 Leavine Toyota.
“I was very comfortable and knew the situation and knew where things were headed,” Jones said on Thursday. “We all had a good plan, and I was going to continue to work toward being in the No. 20 car. It never bothered me. I understand why (the speculation arose).
“I’m a pretty straight-up guy. If I felt I wasn’t going to be back in it, I would have definitely trended more in that way. I probably would have alluded to the fact that I wouldn’t be back. I was always confident that I would be back and still feel that way.
“I’ve kept saying ‘We’re getting there,’ ‘We’re getting there,’ and now it’s all but done.”
In the last five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, Jones has risen from 18th to 14th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings and appears likely to qualify for the series Playoffs three races from now.
“I think it’s definitely helped,” Jones said of his recent performance. “You want to run well. You want to run up front. I feel like over the last two months we’ve kind of shown we belong there.
CHRISTOPHER BELL SAYS HE’S STILL UNSURE OF 2020 PLANS
Though the season of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota is officially, Christopher Bell said on Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway that his plans for next year are not set.
Bell is under contract to Joe Gibbs Racing and knows he’ll be racing next year, just not where.
“Everybody’s wondering about 2020, but nothing is official until it comes from me or whatever team or whatever happens,” Bell said. “So I have no news to tell you guys right now. We’ll just have to wait for another day.”
Though Bell represents himself in contract negotiations, he says the decision-making power about his future lies with his car owners.
“There’s a number of different cars that I could drive next year,” Bell said. “Obviously I could still run the Xfinity Series. I could go to the Cup Series. It’s not in my hands right now, so I just have to go out there and continue to try to win races.”
About the open seat in the No. 95 LFR Toyota, which is affiliated with JGR, Bell said, “That’s tough for me to answer, because right now, I drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, and the 95 is not a Joe Gibbs Racing car.
“We’ll just have to see how it works out in the next coming weeks.”
DALE EARNHARDT JR., FAMILY SAFE AFTER PLANE SKIDS OFF RUNWAY, CATCHES FIRE
Dale Earnhardt Jr., wife Amy and daughter Isla reportedly were safe and under observation at a local hospital after the private jet on which they were traveling skidded off the runway at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Airport and caught fire.
Elizabethton Fire Chief Barry Carrier said the Earnhardts escaped the crash, according to WJHL FOX 8 News.
Airport Manager Dan Cogan said the plane skidded off the end of the runway and caught fire, the report said. Highway 91 at Industrial Drive was closed while emergency crews responded to the scene.
Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt, provided details of the crash on Twitter.
“I can confirm Dale, Amy & (daughter) Isla along with his two pilots were involved in a crash in Bristol TN this afternoon,” Kelley Earnhardt wrote. “Everyone is safe and has been taken to the hospital for further evaluation. We have no further information at this time.”