Holly Cain – NASCAR Wire Service
It had been almost three months since Martin Truex Jr. last raised a trophy and while others may have wondered about his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team’s Playoff potential, this team never wavered in its confidence or pursuit.
And sure enough, they were the ones celebrating in Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after Sunday night’s South Point 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs opener.
“Welcome back,’’ an ecstatic Truex screamed to his team on the radio after taking the checkered flag an impressive 4.173-seconds ahead of fellow Playoff competitor, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick.
It was Truex’s fifth victory of the year – best in the field – and an automatic ticket to the next round of the Playoffs.
“We took a gamble, qualified 24th,’’ said Truex, who led 32 laps. “For a while it wasn’t looking too smart with the 4 (Harvick) out front. Got the right adjustments in the end. Had a great car all day long.
“Hell of a way to make a championship run. Get some good bonus points, move on to the next round, see what we can do there.’’
As strong as Harvick’s Ford had been – leading 47 laps on the day – he said after the race he really didn’t have much for Truex in the end.
“I knew the Gibbs cars would be tough,’’ said the 2014 Cup champ. “Martin was just so much better on the second half of the run. He made up that ground there, was able to stay close enough to us. My car started to get loose and push the front. It was just in kind of a four-wheel drift.
“We did some things this weekend that we probably will have to un-do going forward. I think we can do a little bit better going forward.’’
The Top-10 drivers on Sunday were all Playoff competitors. Three-time Vegas winner Brad Keselowski was third in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott brought his No. 9 Chevrolet home fourth and Harvick’s Penske teammate Ryan Blaney was fifth.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron were sixth and seventh, followed by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, reigning series champion Joey Logano in ninth and Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman in 10th.
While the race’s final laps came down to a battle between Harvick and Busch, it was actually Logano who led the most laps on the day – 105 of the 267.
“We got shuffled out the back and then got to the outside of the 41 (Daniel Suarez) and didn’t know I was there and he crashed our car,’’ said Logano, whose No. 22 Ford suffered a lot of right side damage after it was squeezed into the wall avoiding Suarez.
“We just didn’t have a chance to fix it as good as it needed to be and as good as it was before that,’’ said Logano, who won the first stage.
“They fixed it as good as they could to recover with a top 10. Our car was so fast and I feel like we had a chance of winning it, but we just kind of got shuffled into everything.’’
On the plus side, Logano said, “Our car was fast. We were definitely capable of winning this thing, no doubt. We showed that. That is a positive.’’
It was a frustrating evening for many of the other Playoff drivers as well, several who worked through various obstacles from a flat tire for polesitter Clint Bowyer (finished 25th) to a crash for Ganassi driver Kurt Busch (39th) to an early race mechanical issue for JGR’s Erik Jones (finished 36th).
First-time Playoff participant, 21-year-old Byron rallied to that seventh-place finish, but actually brought out one of the race’s four caution flags on lap 182 after spinning.
Regular season champion and Las Vegas native Kyle Busch also had a busy day. He went two laps down early after brushing the wall. He made up enough positions on track and earned a spot back on the lead lap only to have problems with lapped cars as he raced forward.
The frustration was clear after he climbed out of his No. 18 JGR car on pit road, relegated with a 19th place finish even after he rallied back inside the top 10 at one point in the waning laps. The upside for him is the bonus points he received for winning the season title will carry over and balance some of the bad luck on Sunday.
“Should have run fourth probably, instead of 19th, ‘’ Busch said on pit road, his disappointment obvious as he called out the driving technique from slower cars.
When reminded he gets to carry those bonus points, he said, “It’s pathetic to have to lean on insurance. My premiums are going to go up.’’
The Cup Series moves to Richmond Raceway next week for the second race of the opening Playoff round. With the victory at Vegas, Truex has taken a three-point lead on Harvick in the championship standings. Logano is third, seven points behind Truex and Kyle Busch is fourth, 19 points off the lead.
Tyler Reddick gambles on fuel to win at Las Vegas
Tyler Reddick and his Richard Childress Racing Team gambled and hit the jackpot at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Saturday evening – taking a chance on fuel mileage; racing just hard enough and simultaneously saving just enough fuel to hold off Christopher Bell by .738-seconds in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300.
Reddick, who hoisted his fifth trophy, also officially earned the regular season championship based on points, on lap 71 of the 200-lap race. He was running fifth place at the time.
“Christopher Bell had a really fast race car today, but we were just able to come in and get fuel and tires and run really fast laps to keep us in front of him,’’ said Reddick, whose 30 laps led to close out the win were the sum of his laps out front.
“Hat’s off to [crew chief] Randall [Burnett] and all the guys, we’ve had a really fast car in the past, unfortunately today we didn’t have it but we got them with strategy.’’
Brandon Jones was third, polesitter Cole Custer was fourth and Justin Allgaier rounded out the top five. Veteran Elliott Sadler, 44, a four-time Xfinity Series championship runner-up and 13-race winner, finished 10th in his last NASCAR national series race.
It was a strong statement for Reddick, 23, who earned his fifth victory to close out the regular season and now begins the Playoff run on a high note – the regular season champion and the most recent winner heading into the title run. The Californian has a series-best 20 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 26 races and is the defending Xfinity Series champion.
A six-race winner this season, Bell led a race-high 154 laps on the night and was understandably disappointed in the outcome after an especially strong showing Saturday. He pit for tires and fuel with 30 laps remaining and returned to the track to try to make up Reddick’s nearly 20-second advantage at the time. He slowly gained but ultimately came up short.
Although Bell’s impressive effort on the night didn’t earn him the race trophy, he does go into the Playoffs with the points lead. He is the top-ranked driver with 2,055 points as they are reset. Custer and Reddick are tied for second as the points re-set, 11 points behind Bell.
The rest of the Xfinity Series Playoff qualifiers in their re-seeded order include Austin Cindric, rookie Chase Briscoe, veterans Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett, rookie Noah Gragson, Brandon Jones, Justin Haley, Ryan Sieg and rookie John Hunter Nemechek. The seven-race Championship Playoffs begin next week at Richmond Raceway.
Sieg failed post-race technical inspection, but fortunately for him, it didn’t cost him a Playoff berth.
Custer, who bested Bell for the pole position Saturday afternoon, earned his fourth consecutive top-10 at the track and although disappointed not to win, seemed optimistic about his Playoff potential.
“We were just tight,’’ Custer said of his No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “We tried to make adjustments to fix it. Just a tough weekend. ‘’
But, he added. “We had a great regular season and looking forward to the Playoffs. I’m pumped for it. I think all the tracks in the playoffs we’ll be strong and everybody should look out for us.’’
Reddick’s crew chief Randall Burnett conceded it was a risky move to get the victory, but said he was feeling the Vegas vibe and that a strategic gamble was their only hope in besting the faster Bell.
“We felt like we weren’t going to be able to get up there and compete with the 20 (Bell) he was the class of the field all day,’’ Burnett said. “We saw an opportunity there. We knew we would be really close. None of the other guys came down (pit road). We really didn’t have anything to lose at this point.
“We got back out there, he [Reddick] did a great job managing and holding pace. We just managed our pace based on how fast the 20 was catching us. We had to pick it back up at the end.
“It just worked out. “
Hill passes Chastain late to win at Las Vegas, advance
to NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Round of 6
Austin Hill earned his third NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series win of the 2019 season Friday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – perhaps his most important victory as it advances him to the second round of the Playoffs with big momentum and raised expectations.
Hill’s No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota finished an impressive 2.116 seconds ahead of fellow Playoff competitor Ross Chastain, whose No. 45 Chevrolet led a race-best 88-of-134 laps. Polesitter Christian Eckes finished third in the Kyle Bush Motorsports Toyota.
“This means the world to me,’’ said Hill, 25, who passed Chastain for the lead with 11 laps remaining and pulled away to the substantial victory margin.
“When I saw the 45 (Chastain) in my sights, we were running close lap times. I changed my line a little bit. And that was a big statement win.’’
Much of the drama and heartbreak in the race happened to the drivers vying for the six positions that advanced to the next round of the Playoffs. Joining Hill in the Round of 6 are Chastain, defending series champion Brett Moffitt, Stewart Friesen, Tyler Ankrum and Matt Crafton.
Moffit faced the least pressure all day because he already transferred to the Round of 6 by winning the Playoffs opener at Bristol.
Chastain wrapped up his transfer spot via points after winning Stage 2.
Friesen carefully nursed his No. 52 Chevrolet to the race finish, posting a 19th-place showing after driving a truck that was down a cylinder and spending substantial stretches of the race on pit road.
Ankrum, an 18-year-old who wasn’t old enough by NASCAR rules to compete in the March Las Vegas race, held on to finish 11th and earn the final Playoff position – by a mere two-point margin over two-time series champion Johnny Sauter.
Sauter’s teammate Matt Crafton suffered a 30th-place finish, but he had enough of a points cushion coming to Las Vegas that he will advance in the Playoffs as well.
Heading into the Round of 8 finale, Sauter, Crafton and their ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger were seemingly “sure-bets” to advance in the Playoffs. But before the halfway point of the race, they had their fates decided in unfortunate and unpredictable manners.
It was an especially gut-wrenching early end to Enfinger’s championship hopes. Crowned the series’ regular season champion three races ago, the past Las Vegas winner retired after only seven laps when his No. 98 Ford suffered an engine failure. He took the green flag with two points to the good on making the Round of 6 and only minutes later had his championship hopes deflated with the turn of events.
“It’s just frustrating,’’ Enfinger said. “These guys work their tails off all year. We had a good truck, just wasn’t meant to be.”
Only 33 laps later, Sauter and Crafton suffered their simultaneous race-ending problems. Crafton’s No. 88 Ford had to pull off track and he climbed out as the safety crew arrived.
Sauter was able to drive his truck back to pit road where crew members had to extinguish flames under the hood. The team took it to the garage and although he tried to return to the race for the final stage, his truck’s engine gave out on the first lap of the restart.
Crafton, meanwhile, had to pull his No. 88 ThorSport truck off the track immediately for the safety crew to work on.
“The 13 (Sauter), I saw him hit something and whatever it was it hit our truck too,’’ Crafton said. “I said the 13’s on fire and they told me I was on fire.’’
“I really thought we had something tonight, but we’ll rebound.’’
The next race is set for Oct. 12 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Wood Brothers Racing announces Matt DiBenedetto
to replace Paul Menard in 2020
In what many consider a surprise announcement only five days before NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series Playoffs begin in Las Vegas, one of the sport’s most iconic teams, Wood Brothers Racing, announced Tuesday that driver Paul Menard will be stepping out of the driver’s seat and Matt DiBenedetto will replace him in the famed No. 21 Ford beginning in the 2020 season.
Wood Brothers team principles conceded in a conference call with the national media Tuesday that the team didn’t necessarily intend to make the news a “surprise” turn of events. Menard said he had been considering stepping out of a fulltime driving role for months. Ultimately, the father of two young children decided, “I love my family more.”
According to those involved, Menard informed the Wood Brothers team of his intentions to stop racing fulltime three weeks ago and then immediately suggested that DiBenedetto, who currently drives the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing, would be a good driver to take over the No. 21 Ford for them. The Wood Brothers car is in a technical alliance with Team Penske, and Penske team principals were also involved in securing the deal with DiBenedetto.
The whole process from Menard telling the team he wanted to leave the fulltime ride to the team securing DiBenedetto took only about three weeks, they said.
“First thing out of Paul’s mouth was ‘Get Matt,’” team owner Eddie Wood acknowledged. “So right away, we started a conversation with Matt and that’s the only direction we went. And I’d like to thank Paul for putting us in that direction.”
“It all came together really quick and it’s amazing how fast things turn,’’ DiBenedetto said, acknowledging the uncertainty about his future had created some tough emotional moments for him and his family.
“My whole path and career has been pretty unorthodox and crazy for sure,’’ DiBenedetto said. “I believe strongly in fate and that everything happens for a reason. I’ve had to trust in that throughout this whole journey because if I had control of everything throughout my career, I would have messed it up many, many times.
“I’ve just had to work as hard as I can. I live for this day and night and have had to let the things out of my control fall as they may. I’ve just been really lucky and it’s unreal how this path and opportunity worked out.’’
Following the mid-August announcement that he would not be returning to Leavine Family Racing for the 2020 season, DiBenedetto said he had received “a few phone calls” from teams expressing interest in him.
“But as soon as I got the phone call [from the Wood Brothers], that was a dream come-true phone call and I was basically all-in on the opportunity,’’ he said.
“They could have called me at two in the morning to meet with them and I would have been there immediately,’’ he said, adding, “This is the best opportunity of my life and I think we can all build something great for years to come.’’
Team owner Len Wood said simply, “He was our first choice. I just think it was meant to be.’’
DiBenedetto, a 28-year-old Californian, is in the midst of a career year in the No. 95 LFR Toyota – leading a race-best 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 before being collected in a wreck in the waning portion of the race.
He’s scored the first top fives of his five Cup seasons (at Sonoma, New Hampshire and Bristol) this year and already earned a career-high six top 10s in the car. Only three weeks ago he scored a dramatic and career best runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin at the famed Bristol night race.
The 39-year-old Wisconsin native Menard has competed fulltime in the Monster Energy Series for 13 seasons earning his lone victory at one of the sport’s grandest races, the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His first fulltime Cup job was in 2007 driving Chevrolets for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He raced a season each for both Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports before settling in at Richard Childress Racing, where he competed from 2011-2017. He moved to the Wood Brothers No. 21 last season.
Menard has two Monster Energy Series pole positions to his credit – in 2008 at the Daytona summer race and last year at Chicagoland. He has one win, 20 top-five and 69 top-10 finishes. His best season statistically was 2014 when he had five top fives and 13 top 10s.
He has three NASCAR Xfinity Series victories as well and said he still planned to compete in assorted Xfnity races in the upcoming seasons.
Menard is currently ranked 19th in the Monster Energy Series standings with four top 10s through the opening 26 Cup races.
“The way I look at it there’s still 26 years before I can get my AARP card, so I’ll stay pretty busy doing things’,’ Menard joked, adding, “First and foremost, I need to be a good dad, good husband. Outside of that are a lot of opportunities. Obviously we have a great company up in Wisconsin [Menards] that’s growing and vibrant.
“I’m not done racing yet, trying to figure out what the next step is for sure, but it’s not going to be 38 races a year, I can tell you that.’’