Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – The smile hasn’t faded from Matt DiBenedetto’s face and there is an unmistakable extra zip in his step. The 28-year-old has hardly been able to walk more than two feet at a time in his Las Vegas hotel lobby this week without a fan stopping him to ask for an autograph or pose for a photograph.
The warm reception is fresh off some career-changing news. On Tuesday, Wood Brothers Racing announced that the popular Californian will drive the team’s famous No. 21 Ford in 2020. DiBenedetto will replace veteran Paul Menard, who is retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season.
The reaction from both fans and his competitive peers has been equally effusive – both for DiBenedetto’s recent work driving the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota and for the big news about his future.
“The support has been crazy,’’ DiBenedetto said. “I can’t believe how much my phone and social media has blown up just after [a runner-up finish at] Bristol (Tenn.) and then with this announcement this week and the success our team has had.
“We’ve been running well. All these things compounded and it’s been interesting walking around the track or at South Point [Casino] getting stopped, to an extreme I’m not accustomed to that at all – even walking through the garage.
“It’s definitely been interesting and crazy how in a couple weeks how much support you can gain and it’s amazing how much people have gravitated to the this story and how much positive feedback there is in such a world where it can easily be negative. It’s amazing and heartwarming to see on how social media of all places, be super positive.”
Certainly DiBenedetto is in the midst of a career year performance-wise. He’s had four top-10 finishes in just the last six weeks, highlighted by that career best runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin at Bristol, Tenn. three weeks ago. He also led a race high 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 only to be collected in a late-race accident.
The three top fives – fourth place at Sonoma, fifth at the New Hampshire and runner-up at Bristol – are the first top-five finishes in his five-year career. His six top-10s – with 10 races remaining still – are triple his previous best single season effort (two).
Longtime fan favorite Elliott Sadler, 44, will be making his final NASCAR national series start in Saturday’s Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300 Xfinity Series race.
Even following the 2018 season finale, where Sadler contended for the series title, the 44-year-old Virginian said Friday he “kinda knew” that he had the possibility of running a couple races this season. But this weekend, for sure, he maintains, will be his last NASCAR green flag.
“This one definitely has a different feel to it,’’ Sadler said Friday. “This one, 100 percent, unless you’re visiting [his hometown] Emporia, Virginia, you won’t see me around anymore. So it has a different feel about it.
“I have different emotions just maybe the competitive side when I take the helmet off for the last time. I definitely feel it’s the right time to close the book and move onto the next chapter of my life. A few mixed emotions, but honestly, I feel really good going into this weekend, really relaxed.
“I know deep down inside, this is it.’’
Sadler certainly leaves on not only his own terms – which was important to him – but also on very good terms competitively speaking. In 22 years of national series NASCAR competition, he won three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races, 13 Xfinity Series races and finished championship runner-up in the Xfinity Series an unprecedented four times (2011, 2012, 2016, 2017).
Respected by his fellow competitors and well-liked by the massive NASCAR fandom, Sadler said he takes great solace in his exit. He looks forward to more time at home with his young kids – a busy daughter and son.
And he is especially grateful to the Kaulig Racing team, who surprised him with a specially designed No. 10 Chevrolet, which he had 14th on the speed chart in opening practice Friday. His car will have the same yellow and red paint scheme he ran as a kid in go-karts and a young man in Late Models. It’s even the same colors his father’s business used on its service trucks.
“For 50 years, it’s the color of everything we’ve done in the Sadler family,’’ Sadler said.
“When they surprised me with it this week, that probably got me more than anything because it means so much.’’
It’s especially important to him this final weekend.
“I feel so good about this weekend and the decision that has been made and leaving on my own terms,’’ Sadler said. “No one’s pushing me out the door. I’m going out on my own accord and I can sleep with that, no regrets at all.’’
BELL’s PLAYOFF OUTLOOK
Xfinity Series championship contender Christopher Bell’s future is undoubtedly a hot topic among NASCAR fans eager to know if he has a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride on the horizon. But Bell is remaining vigilant about the task at hand – winning the 2019 Xfinity Series title.
He shows up for the series’ regular season finale, Saturday’s Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) tied with Cole Custer for the most wins (six) in the Xfinity Series this season and sits in second place – 50 points behind the leader, four-race winner Tyler Reddick in the points standings.
Yet Bell refuses to consider himself “the favorite” in racing for the title.
“It’s definitely elevated our game because we have a lot of really competitive cars right now,’’ Bell said. “There’s not really a favorite right now so we just have to go out there and establish myself and my team as the favorite.’’
Bell, who drives the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finished runner-up in his first ever Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas last year and was 13th this March. Yet his record on the season makes him an absolute favorite on Saturday. In addition to his six victories, he has four runner-up finishes and four third-place showings. He’s finished in the top three in 14 of 25 races this season – a 56 percent clip.
Certainly that gives Bell, the 2017 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion and 2013 USAC National Midget champ, reason to be optimistic. And all good vibes help, he said.
“That’s really good and I hope that we can keep it up,’’ Bell said. “That’s always been my goal, just to go out there and win. Last year we were fortunate enough to win the first race of the Playoffs and that locked us into the next round, so that would be a really big goal for us.’’
SETTING THE PACE
Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship leader Brett Moffitt showed up in Las Vegas this week fresh off back-to-back wins in the series’ previous two Playoff races at Bristol, Tenn. and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. And while he’s earned the automatic pass to the next round of the Playoffs, he entered Friday night’s first Playoff round finale cautiously optimistic but certainly encouraged by his No. 24 GMS Racing team’s performance.
“It’s huge until next week,’’ Moffitt said of his impressive Playoff start. “It’s a whole new game when we re-start [the second round of the Playoffs]. The only thing we have done is we took a lot of pressure off ourselves after Bristol and capitalized on getting the most playoff points possible at Canada.
“If the roles were reversed and I was fighting for a transfer spot right now I’d be looking at my team in jealousy and say, ‘What do we have to do to run like that?’ But it’s not just of late. It’s all year and everything we’ve done to improve as a race team. We got our trucks better and we got our team to work better as a race team.’’
Moffitt’s results indicate as much. He’s had top-10 finishes in eight of the last nine races, including the four wins. His Playoff victories at Bristol and the Canadian road course both came from the pole position.
“We’ve got to keep getting better and we can’t feel comfortable and keeping pushing as if we were the ones getting cut. I think that’s how you have to look at. Everyone on this team is more motivated to win three races in a row. We’re still in attack mode and want to win.”
FRIDAY MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES PRACTICE
Las Vegas native Kurt Busch led the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Friday afternoon. The No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driver was followed by March winner Joey Logano and his Team Penske shopmate Brad Keselowski, the defending September race winner. Eleven of the top-12 speeds in the final Cup practice were occupied by Playoff drivers.
Clint Bowyer put the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford on the top of the opening practice, while fellow Playoff qualifier William Byron placed his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy second on the speed chart. Four-time Vegas winner Jimmie Johnson was third fastest in the day’s opening session.