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2020 Silly Season Updates and Expectations

With the NASCAR Cup Series off-season in full effect and the 2019 Awards Banquet in Nashville wrapping up a week ago, we’re already under 60 days away from the Daytona 500. As the 2020 season draws closer, the sport has now seen many of it’s stars swap rides as well as inherit well-established teams to begin their new careers.

Here’s everything you need to know about the most up to date team changes to this point and the newest faces entering NASCAR’s premier series:

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto

Quite possibly the best storyline to come out of 2019 was the breakout of Matt DiBenedetto. The former driver of the No. 95 for Levine Family Racing made headlines in the first race of the season  when he had a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500. As the year progressed, fans soon came to realize that the 27-year old was no fluke.

The California-native would go on to complete the season with 152 laps led, seven top-10s and three top-fives – which included a second-place finish  to Denny Hamlin at Bristol Motor Speedway.

While DiBenedetto did not notch the first win of his career in 2019, he certainly turned heads and cemented himself as a fan favorite. In fact, he finished third overall in the Most Popular Driver ballot.

Fast forward to 2020, Paul Menard revealed he would be stepping away from full-time racing, leaving his seat in the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 wide open. When Menard announced he would be giving up his ride, he fully endorsed DiBenedetto as his replacement and sure enough – the California-native will now be driving the No. 21 Ford Mustang for the Penske-affiliated team.

Not only was DiBenedetto the feel good story of 2019, but the signing and how it came about for the 27-year old was also a feel good story.

Team Penske amassed six wins last season and it would not be a surprise to see DiBenedetto capture his first career win in better equipment. One thing is certain, we should see the fan favorite contending for top-10 finishes and maybe even top-fives. However, he is making the jump from Toyota to Ford. Even while fielding a significantly less cars than Ford and Chevrolet in 2019, Toyotas were the class of the field. It will be interesting to see if DiBenedetto can make the transition with ease.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

After seven years of full-time racing for Roush-Fenway Racing, Jack Roush decided to part ways with two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The now former driver of the No. 17 Ford Mustang posted yet another lackluster season driving for ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ When teammate Ryan Newman is 10 years older, racing in the same equipment and making the Playoffs, it’s not a good look.

The Mississippi-native now finds himself racing for JTG Daugherty Racing in the No. 37 car, which was driven by Chris Buescher in 2019. The two drivers posted similar stats last season and in all honestly, this is a true-blue car swap. The only major difference is that the two-time Xfinity Series Champion is making the jump from Ford to Chevrolet, which could put him at a disadvantage.

In 2019, Stenhouse totaled one top-five, three top-10s and led 109 laps, which placed him 23rd in the overall standings. Expect more or less the same from the Mississippi-native in 2020.

Gavin Baker | NKP

Chris Buescher

As documented above, Stenhouse would be taking over driving duties for the No. 37 Chevy Camaro which Buescher piloted in 2019. The 2015 Xfinity Series Champion will now join Newman at Roush-Fenway Racing as he will now take over for the No. 17 Ford Mustang.

The 26-year old driver didn’t have an awful season given his equipment and manufacturer disadvantage last year. While he only led 13 laps en route to four top-10s, this was good enough to place him 20th in the overall Cup Series standings – three spots ahead of his counterpart, Stenhouse.

The Texas-native is inheriting a quality ride and he’ll have a well-established veteran in Newman to lean on for advice. He even showed glimmers of hope in the 2019 season, contending for top-10 finishes regularly towards the end of the year. It would not be out of the question to see Buescher add some more top-fives to his resume and even have a shot at making the Playoffs in 2020.

Rusty Jarrett | NKP

Tyler Reddick

Historically, Xfinity Series drivers making the jump to the Cup Series doesn’t pan out until a few years down the road. However, Tyler Reddick is indeed Cup ready.

The 23-year old driver just recorded his second-consecutive title in the Xfinity Series and he already has experience at the sport’s premier level. While the California-native has only run two race at the Cup level, in one of those starts he finished ninth and at Kansas Speedway nonetheless. Not to mention, in the same equipment that he will be racing with in 2020.

In one of the more shocking headlines from 2019, it was announced that Richard Childress Racing would be parting ways with the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet, rookie Daniel Hemric. By no means at all did Hemric have a disappointing debut season, but with such highly touted talent on the rise in NASCAR’s lower divisions there is a strong emphasis on performing now.

Reddick will now take over driving for the No. 8 Camaro at Richard Childress Racing, but rest assured for him, he should have much more lee-way than the driver who came before.

Given the 23-year old’s experience and showcased talent in two of NASCAR’s series, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see Reddick compete for top-10s and maybe even top-fives with a shot at making the Playoffs in 2020. I personally could see him delivering Richard Childress Racing their first win in two years.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Cole Custer

Fans have been treated to many unlikely and divisive moves in the offseason, but this could be the most shocking. It was well documented that Daniel Suarez was seeking a contract extension during the 2019 season. Team-owner Tony Stewart even reiterated that they were “close” to a deal in mid-October.

Just days before the events at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing released a statement citing that Cole Custer would be promoted to the Cup Series and they would be parting ways with Suarez. This now leaves the Mexico-native with no ride currently for 2020 and places Custer in the No. 41 Ford Mustang.

While he was one of the Xfinity Series ‘Big Three’ last year, don’t expect the 21-year old to make immediate waves like Reddick possibly can. The California-native does have limited experience running three race at NASCAR’s premier level, but in 2018 and for Rick Ware Racing.

Custer does have many advantages over Reddick and Christopher Bell as he prepares for his debut season in the Cup Series. Not only will he have teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola to turn to for help, but he’ll also have Stewart to assist as well. Not to mention, Stewart-Haas Racing has been one of the most dominant forces in the sport since it was established in 2011.

It typically takes rookie drivers around two years to settle into NASCAR’s highest division, but it would not be shocking to see Custer start his career off strong. He should be in contention for top-10 finishes and may even snag a top-five here and there. Playoffs could be a possibility, but right now consider it a stretch.

Russell LaBounty | NKP

Christopher Bell

The final piece to the Xfinity Series ‘Big Three’ will be inheriting the former ride of DiBenedetto. As revealed, the 27-year old will be taking over driving duties for the No. 21 at Wood Brothers Racing, which now places Bell in the No. 95 at Levine Family Racing.

Bell will without a doubt be faced with the biggest disadvantage of his two counterparts from last season, but this doesn’t mean he can’t have a successful season. Levine Family Racing went from Kasey Kahne (who had a less than stellar season due to health issues) to DiBenedetto who seriously turned heads and made waves in 2019.

The talent is definitely there for the 24-year old, who had a series leading eight wins, 20 top-fives and 21 top-10s in the Xfinity Series last year, but this is the Cup Series. Unlike Custer and Reddick, Bell has no experience at NASCAR’s highest level and it would be incorrect to say that he’ll tear it up like he did in NASCAR’s lower division, especially in the No. 95 car.

It’s again not out of the question to see him have a successful year – look at what DiBenedetto did last season. And should the Oklahoma-native remain at Levine Family Racing through 2021, maybe we could see this small team follow the trend that Furniture Row Racing did with Martin Truex Jr. at the helm.

But for 2020, we should expect to see Bell mostly in contention for top-15 finishes with an occasional top-10 mixed in as the season progresses.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Matt DiBenedetto Finding Improvement with Leavine Family Racing

At the start of the season, it appeared to be a struggle for Matt DiBenedetto. However, the past six races, it appears that Leavine Family Racing has turned a corner.

After scoring no top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, DiBenedetto has scored three in the last six events, including a fourth-place finish at Sonoma Raceway. 

The success can be not only attributed to the chemistry between DiBenedetto and crew chief Michael Wheeler, but also the team’s alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR has obviously been fast this year, sweeping the top-three spots at Pocono Raceway.

“It’s been good,” DiBenedetto commented. “We get really good race cars. I have a good relationship with the fellow Toyota drivers which helps and it’s so nice to be able to pick their brain and get advice from champions and such good drivers. The support from Toyota is really good, and we are lucky to have the people on our team that we have. Guys like Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief) and our engineers that are so good, because we don’t get all the information, like Furniture Row (Racing) did. We are not quite at that level yet, but we have such good people that it just shows that we can still perform and go out there and get those top-fives and top-10s.”

Being able to sit in some of the meetings with JGR, DiBenedetto added the biggest benefit has been the consistent advice the other drivers have been able to offer so the No. 95 Toyota Camry is fast as it can be from the drop of the green flag.

“I have always been a smart racer and have been able to get the most out of my equipment,” he continued. “I can go out there and hustle the car and wheel it. But getting some of the finer points, like from Martin (Truex Jr.) and Kyle (Busch) and some of them on making sure that I can maximize what I have for the weekend in the car. That’s a big part of it, and their experience has been nice to lean on when I can.”

The fourth-place finish a couple weeks ago has certainly helped the confidence, especially now heading into Watkin’s Glen on Sunday. It almost brings more pressure in everybody wondering if DiBenedetto can back up the performance.

“I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself,” he commented. “I’m always hard on myself as far as making sure I’m as perfect as I can be for my team. I am big on that. I have been through so much in my career. It has made me a really, really mentally tough person, so not a lot gets to me. I just go out, perform, do my job and the rest of it takes care of itself.”

Another strong performance would certainly help their position in points, as they currently sit 24th in the year-long standings. A win would be a dream come true, and put them in the playoffs.

“I think the focus is really just doing what we are doing and focusing on track position and focusing on setting ourselves up for the end of these races,” he said. “Because that’s our best shot is to keep positioning ourselves where we are in the top-five and is something happens and we can get a win, that gives a bigger point jump than anything else.

“We are 24th in points. We’re a much better team than that.”

The success has caught the attention of the fans, as it’s always great to see an underdog succeed. It’s even more special in realizing the shop that they’re working out of, which led Alan Kulwicki to his underdog success with a championship in 1992.

“A lot of history in our race shop, right behind the Charlotte Speedway,” he said. “It’s cool being called an underdog, or a growing, team. We’re still in the growing stages. It’s so much fun to go out there. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was really satisfying when we go out and pass powerhouse teams and go up and run in the top-five like we have the last few weeks.

“When we pass former champions and beat powerhouse teams, it’s pretty satisfying.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

DiBenedetto Encouraged By Start To The Season

LAS VEGAS, Nev — It may still be early in the 2019 season, but it is already been an up-and-down year for Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto, who used the word “encouraging” to describe the first two races.

“Encouraging, would be a good word because Daytona we lead the most laps in the 500 and Atlanta we had good speed, we probably had a top-15 car but got into incident on pit road, got hit and got some damage, had to pit under green, and that kind of ruined our day,” DiBenedetto told POPULAR SPEED. “But, as far as the speed and the people we have and the work ethic, and the partnership with Toyota, that’s like really really really good. I think we’ll have some fast racecars and good runs all year.”

For the 27-year-old, the arrival of the new year has brought upon a transition. After two seasons with Go Fas Racing, he moved to LFR’s No. 95, which subsequently brought him back to the Toyota camp as his new team moved to the manufacture after being previously associated with Chevrolet.

“It’s been a lot of change, but I kind of feel at home being back in the Toyota camp,” DiBenedetto said. “They have always treated me so good, and I’m really appreciative for that. So, it feels great, just being back here and they treat me as important as any of their other drivers and are really dedicated to making this team a growing and winning organization. The support you get from them is pretty awesome.”

The change also gifted the California-native a new crew chief in Mike Wheeler, someone who is no stranger to success in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, winning five races with Denny Hamlin, which included a Daytona 500 in 2016.

“What I like is that he will make me a better driver because he expects a lot of me and of everybody,” DiBenedetto said. “He’s experienced and he knows what it takes to win, so he knows what I need to do, he knows the homework I need to do, he puts me to work and makes me study and be as prepared as I possibly can be to drive the car. We get along very well because we are both very passionate and he cares a lot and those are the type of people you want to be surrounded by.”

Looking ahead at the upcoming season, many say that this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the first real test of the new rules package. DiBenedetto noted that restarts and pit stops will be very important, and looking outside Vegas at the west coast swing, the three races will provide three different challenges.

“I think they are all going to be so different, that’s the cool part,” DiBenedetto said. “Here (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) we tested, and I learned that track position and restarts are going to be important and, I think Phoenix will be different because we will have horsepower and we’ll be going really fast around there. Then Fontana is completely different, I think that will actually be a pretty good race because, you get clean air in the corners because you can run seven different lanes, that will be a fun one.”

Heading into this weekend, DiBenedetto will look to finish the job after two races with positive starts and negative endings.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

A Win-Win-Win Scenario For Leavine, DiBenedetto, And Toyota

On Wednesday, Leavine Family Racing announced that Matt DiBenedetto would be the driver of their No. 95 in 2019.

Also, the team also confirmed they would be switching to Toyota and forming an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.

These moves are wins for everybody involved.

It’s a victory for LFR, a young team who has yet to make a significant impact in the sport now takes over the spot Furniture Row Racing currently has with Gibbs.

While there is no guarantee that they perform as well as FRR, this is a team that is currently used to qualifying around 25th and finishing around 20th; the opportunity at hand give them to an excellent chance to improve. They will now have the assistance of one of the best organizations in NASCAR and manufacture support from the defending manufacturers’ champion.

On the flip side, the move works well for JGR and Toyota as they will not lose a team at the end of the season despite FRR’s demise.

Besides, if all goes well, the two could have a potential landing spot in Cup for some of their development drivers that are currently rising the ranks of NASCAR. Whereas without LFR and with the four-car limit the sport has in place, they could lose drivers as they have with Noah Gragson, William Byron, and Ryan Preece due to not having enough room. With the No. 95 in their stable, they now have that chance to work with Leavine and possibly create a situation like they had in 2017, where Erik Jones ran full-time in Cup with FRR.

The move is also a win for DiBenedetto, their newly acquired driver.

The 27-year-old who left his home for the last two years in Go Fas Racing simply because of the fact he wanted a chance to prove himself. The move to the No. 95 allows him.

DiBenedetto, who has went from starting and parking to racing in lower-funded rides, now has an opportunity to show everyone that he belongs here.

The California-native showed that his skill when scoring the occasional top-10’s with BK Racing and Go Fas; if he can continue to exceed exactions with his new team, the potential for more success will continue to grow.

With all the changes that are coming in 2019, this may be one that will require the most attention as the season progresses.

Can they see success even close to the bar set by Furniture Row? How much will they improve? All these questions will eventually be answered, but for now, Leavine Family Racing appears to be heading in a positive direction.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @MitchellB66

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Matt DiBenedetto Joins Leavine Family Racing

When Matt DiBenedetto announced he was leaving Go Fas Racing at season’s end, he said it was to align himself for a better opportunity. That has now come virtue of Leavine Family Racing, as he will drive the No. 95 in 2019.

In addition to bringing a new driver on board, the team will also switch manufactures, going from Chevrolet to fielding Toyota Camrys.

“We’re thrilled to welcome Matt (DiBenedetto) to our organization,” said Bob Leavine, Owner of Leavine Family Racing. “We feel that he’s going to be a great addition to the team with his great personality and experience on track within the series. It’s a tremendous feeling to know that we’re also able to announce our alignment with JGR and TRD for next season as well. Obviously, they’re both first-class organizations and proven winners, so for us to be able to align with them is a huge step for our organization. I’m excited as we continue to work ahead for 2019 thanks to getting Matt as our driver and Toyota as our manufacturer.”

Leavine Family Racing becomes the second Toyota-backed confirmed team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for next year alongside Joe Gibbs Racing. The two companies have also now entered a technical alliance together.

“Toyota welcomes LFR to our racing family and we look forward to seeing the No. 95 Camry on track in the 2019 MENCS season,” said Laura Pierce, General Manager for Motorsports, TMNA. “They are a talented and well-run organization with the commitment to improve their competitiveness in this sport. The addition of a driver like Matt DiBenedetto and his enthusiasm and dedication to excelling on the race track will certainly make a positive impact on the team.”

DiBenedetto is in the midst of his fourth season of Cup Series racing, with a series-best finish of sixth-place at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016. To date, he has scored four career top-10 finishes. 

“I can only begin to explain how fortunate I am to be joining LFR,” said Matt DiBenedetto. “The thought of being reunited with Toyota and the folks at TRD is just unbelievable for me and my family. This is the biggest opportunity of my life and it’s a dream come true to be a part of a team that continues to elevate their program at the highest level of NASCAR. No words can describe my gratitude to everyone who believes in me. I’ve had to fight so hard, the old school way, to get here and that will always make me appreciate this amazing opportunity. When I got the phone call from Bob (Leavine) and Jeremy (Lange, LFR General Manager) I was speechless. My wife and I both had tears of joy and it was a very emotional moment that we will always cherish. I look forward to making everyone proud next year, working day and night with my team to show people what we are made of.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

A Few Key Drivers Left with Significant Finishes After ROVAL

Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ended with a breathtaking ending that had some drivers appalled with their Playoff results.

Fans witnessed one of the craziest finishes in NASCAR history and the talk after the event was the last lap and the Playoff results going into the round of 12.

Ultimately, there were a few drivers that ended the race with a strong result that was much needed.

Jamie McMurray scored a second-place finish, which is crucial as it was announced in early September that his 12th-full time season with Chip Ganassi Racing would be last with them.

After missing the Playoffs, McMurray did everything in his control to stay out of trouble at the ROVAL. Although he did not finish in the top-10 at the end of the first two stages, McMurray was in the right place at the end of the event.

The 42-year-old captured his second top-five finish of the season.

“Yeah, our DC Solar Chevy was really good all day long,” McMurray said. “We got a little bit off in the last pit sequence. We got a little bit behind, but had a really good car and then we had the one restart when Brad (Keselowski) was on the front row and I happened to be on the inside and that was the lane to be in so you could avoid the wreck.”

Luck was on a few drivers side this past Sunday and McMurray was one of those that took full advantage of it.

As the season winds down, McMurray may be one of the drivers without a ride next year and his performance at Charlotte and the upcoming weekends may open opportunities for the veteran.

Last week, it was announced that AJ Allmendinger would not be returning to JTG Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger brought the team its first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win and handled the situation with much positivity and honesty when he met with the media.

“Nobody likes being without a job,” he said. “The possibility of not having a paycheck coming can be scary. But change can also be a very good thing. The more time I sit and think about it and talk about it with my family, it’s literally been a year and a half I’ve not been happy. We’ve struggled (as a team). It hasn’t been fun. It’s hard on everybody.”

The 36-year-old put the busy news week behind him and got off to a hot start on Friday at the ROVAL. Allmendinger qualified second and was looking like he was in route to having a promising weekend and maybe capturing the win. After surviving the race and a couple strong restarts, Allmendinger finished seventh in the inaugural event.

Rumors circling the garage are that Allmendinger is either going to run Sports Cars or join the Verizon Indy Car Series. But whatever is in Allmendinger’s future, finishing the season off with momentum will be a boost in wherever he is racing next year.

Another driver that had a key finish was Grass Valley, California’s Matt DiBenedetto. The 26-year-old captured his sixth top-20th finish of the season at the mysterious ROVAL.

Mysterious it was for DiBenedetto.

DiBenedetto was of those drivers that never tested at the track and went into the weekend with knowledge from a simulator.

As crazy as that sounds, DiBenedetto stated in his race recap video that his No. 32 Superior Logistics Services Ford Fusion had speed which lead him to a 13th place finish.

DiBenedetto announced in early September that he would be leaving Go Fast Racing at the end of the season. Strong finishes with the No. 32 team to end the year off could be huge for DiBenedetto and possibly have an impact on the future of his career.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Top-10 for DiBenedetto Feels Much Like a Win

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For some Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organizations in the garage, it is a miracle to place in the top-15 in at least one of the 36 races on the schedule. But Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway put a lot of small teams in position to finish strong.

The restrictor plate race under the lights was filled with chaos in the first half of the event, which was quite a surprise to many. By the end of the second stage, two massive wrecks had already taken place taking championship contenders like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and others out of the event.

But the chaos and carnage that filled the first half of the race led to new faces finishing the event in the front that we don’t usually see. Both JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet’s earned top-five finishes, Ty Dillon received his first top-10 of his career, and Canadian born D.J. Kennington brought the Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota home in the 13th position.

One driver that finished in the top-10 with a torn-up race car was Matt DiBenedetto. The Californian placed seventh and earned his first top-10 of the season.

Despite the damage his race car suffered, DiBenedetto was satisfied that they were able to earn a top-10 after the race.

“It was okay especially considering the damage on every corner of it. Yeah, the Fords always run really good at Speedways so that’s why we always seem to find ourselves up front at the end, so Fords and Roush Yates engines are the best so we’re glad to have them.” DiBenedetto told POPULAR SPEED.

Dibenedetto put himself in contention at the end of the event, but they just didn’t have enough to get an inch on the leaders.

“Um no, that was about all we had there,” DiBenedetto said. “We restarted on the bottom at the end and the bottom is a little tough to get going and we just kind of stalled out where we. You know those cars up front had some pretty good speed and we kind of ended up about where we should’ve. I would like to win but you know one day.”

He may very well win one day.

In fact, it is not the first time Dibenedetto has been under the spotlight. Back in 2016, while racing for BK Racing, he placed sixth at Bristol earning his first top-10 of his career.

The 26-year-old has proven he has talent behind the wheel. Going into Kentucky with momentum, it would not be a surprise to see their race team improve as the season winds down.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MrBrandonRivero

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Slime Time: Nickelodeon, Drivers Make All-Out Push For Young Fans

It’s no secret that growing the sport of NASCAR racing is going to require an influx of young people who become engaged and passionate race fans. That much is a given.

This weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, Nickelodeon is making an all-out push to connect young fans with its Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.  Six race vehicles — two each in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, XFINITY and Camping World Truck series — are carrying Nickelodeon special paint schemes, and Sunday’s Cup race is called the Tales of the Turtles 400.

And the drivers and sponsor are noticing all the kids noticing their heroes of the half shell.

“It’s neat. You get all these kids who are just obsessed with the Ninja Turtles,” said Jeffrey Earnhardt, who has a “BeBop Rocksteady” scheme on his No. 33 Circle Sport Chevrolet in the Cup Series. “They’re like, ‘Man, that car is so awesome. You’re my new favorite driver.’ I think it’s a great way to get the younger demographic in tune with NASCAR and really follow the sport.”

It helps, too, that Earnhardt’s sponsor, Hulu, offers Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episodes for viewing, which makes this an opportunity for good sponsor synergy.

(C) Logan Whitton | NKP

Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 32 “Samurai” GoFas Racing Ford in the Cup Series, agreed with Earnhardt’s take.

“One of the best parts of it is it’s always fun to connect with kids,” said DiBenedetto. “This is one of the greatest ways to see the kids and their parents connect. The young generation watched (the Turtles), my generation watched it growing up. I focus a lot of efforts on the kids, because if they come here and have a great time, they’ll bug their parents to bring the whole family back here.”

Anthony DiCosmo, Senior Vice President of Sports Marketing, Nickelodeon, said the television network is committed to bringing in new fans to NASCAR. “This is a pioneering effort,” DiCosmo said in an exclusive interview with PopularSpeed.com. “I think us (Nickelodeon) being involved in the sport brings a different connecting tissue to the sport.”

DiCosmo was bullish on Nickelodeon’s involvement with NASCAR.

“It allows kids to come here and experience racing in a new and different way,” DiCosmo said. “And maybe it’s the hook that allows them to become lifelong fans, which is really what our goal is being here: to try and cultivate the next generation of fan.”

To that end, NASCAR has allowed Nickelodeon to do something that’s never been done before: the winning driver in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 will be covered in Nickelodeon’s famous green slime, which will be shot out of a “Shaboozinator.”

It’s a bold move that required the approval of NASCAR, the Cup Driver Council and all of the teams in the race. “The sport’s been really good to us,” said DiCosmo. “There’s so much flexibility and they are willing to push the envelope in ways a lot of other sports haven’t been so far, so I applaud NASCAR for doing that.”

Categories
Feature NASCAR Cup Series

Bristol Favors Surprise Contenders

Restrictor plate tracks have often been known as the great equalizers in NASCAR. The unpredictability that often defines races at Daytona and Talladega provides an opportunity for smaller teams to succeed.

Bristol Motor Speedway may not immediately come to mind as a track in this category, but it has produced similar characteristics in its races through recent years.

Dating back to August 2013, many competitors have posted breakout performances at “The Last Great Colosseum.”

Striking a balance between patience and aggressiveness is critical at short tracks and road courses. This allowed road racing aces Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose to perform well at Bristol. In the 2013 night race, they finished third and eighth respectively.

In March 2014, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. captured his best career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finish of second while Aric Almirola placed third, and Ambrose had another strong run and ended up fifth.

Stenhouse Jr. again impressed many in the next two events, finishing sixth in August 2014 and fourth in April 2015. Justin Allgaier and Danica Patrick also performed well in April, placing eighth and ninth respectively.

One year ago, smaller organizations thrived at Bristol. Front Row Motorsports’ Landon Cassill led 20 laps, and BK Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto scored the team’s highest result in its five years of existence by finishing sixth.

Roush Fenway Racing found more success last season as Trevor Bayne placed fifth in April and Stenhouse finished runner-up in August. Chris Buescher also ran well in August, coming home fifth in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford that shares a technical alliance with RFR.

Many of these performances marked career highs for the competitors, attesting to Bristol’s ability to favor surprise contenders.

RFR has struggled in recent seasons, but Bristol has often shown promise for the organization. Bayne’s top-five performance last April stood as his best non-plate track finish of the season, and his finest performance since winning the 2011 DAYTONA 500.

Bristol is Stenhouse Jr.’s best track on the schedule as he holds an average finish of 10.6. Of his eight career top-five performances, three have come at the track, and in his last six Bristol starts, he has posted four top-10 finishes.

A victory would be monumental for RFR. Bristol may present their best opportunity to achieve this feat and break their winless streak that dates back to Carl Edwards’ win at Sonoma in 2014.

Along with the classic short-track racing atmosphere, the unknown factor playing a larger role adds intrigue heading into the Food City 500. Whether its RFR or another small team, surprise contenders may make some noise on Sunday.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Concussion Protocol Expanded Across NASCAR

As the world continues to learn more about concussions and after Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s time away from the sport last season, NASCAR has updated their concussion protocol procedures for all competitors across their three national series.

“NASCAR has worked very closely with the industry to ensure our concussion protocol reflects emerging best practices in this rapidly developing area of sports medicine,” said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. “We will continue to utilize relationships we’ve had for years with leaders in the neurological research field who helped to shape these updates.”

As per usual, any driver who is involved in a wreck must make a trip to the Infield Car Center to be looked over. The rule has been updated to reflect the new “damaged car policy”, now stating “a driver whose car sustains damage from an accident or contact of any kind and goes behind the pit wall or to the garage is required to visit the Infield Care Center to be evaluated”.

As part of NASCAR’s event standards, each care center physicians must use the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries, and NASCAR’s new medical partner AMR will provide on-site neurological consultative support at events to work with NASCAR.

Per the company’s guidelines, SCAT-3 is “a standardized tool for evaluating injured athletes for concussion”. Their guide breaks down the assessment in which athletes must follow, which can be looked at by clicking here.

Last season, Earnhardt Jr. missed the second half of the year following Kentucky Speedway in July due to recovering from a concussion sustained in a crash at Michigan International Speedway in June. The 42-year-old spent past five months under the care of Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, through his recovery. Collins, along with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, cleared Earnhardt following a 185-lap test at Darlington Raceway over the course of five hours.

The discussion of concussions and clearance of drivers was a touchy subject throughout the course of 2016.

Notably, Matt DiBendetto was forced to sit out of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Texas Motor Speedway in October, due to a crash in the XFINITY Series race the day before. Driving the No. 14 entry for TriStar Motorsports in the XFINITY race, DiBenedetto made heavy contact with the outside wall on Lap 134 of the 200 lap event. After being checked over, DiBenedetto was not cleared to drive by physicians and entered NASCAR’s concussion protocol. It was determined following testing that he did not have a concussion.

In the Verizon IndyCar Series, Will Power sat out the season opener at St. Petersburg due to symptoms following a crash in practice. It was determined later they were caused as a result of an “inner ear infection”. The resulting discussion saw many opinions shared from different sides, including a discussion between Brad Keselowski and Popular Open Wheel’s Tony Johns.

On the flip side, Sarah Cornett-Ching sustained a concussion in the ARCA Racing Series and sat out the end of the season, before returning to racing this February. She spoke about the experience recently with Popular Speed’s Andy Marquis.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.