Bristol was 'sixth-place victory' for DiBenedetto, BK Racing
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Matt DiBenedetto 's best day in NASCAR's top series nearly ended with the ultimate buzzkill. Driving back Sunday from Bristol Motor Speedway after salting away a career-best sixth-place finish and becoming the provisional leader for feel-good story of the season, the 24-year-old driver saw flashing blue lights not far from his home in Hickory, North Carolina. "Ah, dang, that sucks after a good day,' " DiBenedetto recalled thinking as he pulled to the side of the road. But DiBenedetto didn't think he was over the posted speed limit, a notion that was confirmed when law enforcement approached him. "The cop comes up to me and says, 'Hey, I have one question for you: I just want to know why you were going so darn slow?'" DiBenedetto said. "So then I realized it was a prank." The best of pranks as it turns out. The second-year driver for BK Racing drove the rest of the way with a police escort and with his parents following him home, where he expected a small, muted observance of his stirring Sunday drive. That didn't happen, either, not with the secretive planning of sponsor and close chum Constantine "Cosmo" Kogan, who rallied DiBenedetto's circle of friends into a boisterous welcoming committee, complete with party favors and uncorked bubbly. "There were probably 30-40 people out in our neighborhood," DiBenedetto said with a smile Monday from his BK Racing shop in north Charlotte. "Silly string everywhere. My car was covered. Champagne, the little party popper things -- it was out of control. It was absolutely hilarious. Only my friends, that's just cool to see how much they care and they were all so excited." DiBenedetto's hard-fought sixth-place finish made its own viral turn Sunday, thanks not only to the underdog rooting interest for one of the circuit's smaller teams but also for the unabashed emotion that the driver showed in post-race interviews. As he watched his family wipe away tears off camera, the tremble in his voice became more pronounced. "I couldn't quite hold back the emotion," DiBenedetto said. "I would be lying if I said that I was fighting off the tears, but unfortunately just couldn't hold it back. That was a dream come true for me. I know it wasn't a first-place finish, but for us that was like a win to finish up there in sixth in the Cup Series, which I've dreamed of racing in since I was 5 years old. Just to be here in the first place is a dream come true." Living dreams Making it to the sport's big leagues seemed like destiny, but so often fate takes the curvier road. DiBenedetto seemed earmarked for stock-car racing glory early on as part of the first NASCAR Next class in 2011, then called the NASCAR Next 9. What followed after a successful first season in the K&N Pro Series was a hodgepodge of spot duty in the XFINITY Series, sitting in the driver's seat one week and out the next. "It seem like it's all kind of gone by in a blur," DiBenedetto said. "I was racing K&N, part of the NASCAR Next and then thought my career was done five times in between then and now. It's been so up and down so many times. For me to be here, it's still surreal to think back." Opportunity for DiBenedetto meant pounding the phones and knocking on doors. His big break came shortly before the 2015 season in the form of a race-to-race agreement with BK Racing owner Ron Devine. DiBenedetto said Devine took a substantial chance in hiring a driver without Sprint Cup experience, but the risk was modestly rewarded -- the week-to-week deal turned into a full season with just one DNF and a return invitation for 2016. "Being a rookie in Sprint Cup is way tougher than I gave it credit for," DiBenedetto said of the learning experience. "It's just a whole different level of racing. You have to be so perfect at every single thing you do, down to the level of not losing a half-second on pit road. You have to drive your tail off every single lap of the race to make sure you stay on the lead lap -- everything." Driving his tail off makes for a suitable description of Sunday's spirited drive at Bristol. Carl Edwards captured the checkered flag and punctuated his celebration with his trademark backflip, but he was also head over heels about DiBenedetto's accomplishments, saying, "They finished sixth? Man, that's unbelievable. That's probably tougher than what we did." The driver of the No. 83 Toyota wasn't about to draw a direct comparison with Edwards' feat, but was quick to spread the credit for a banner day among his BK Racing shopmates. "To win in the Sprint Cup Series among the 40 best is incredibly difficult and that takes an amazing amount of talent like Carl Edwards has," DiBenedetto said. "I don't know if I want to say it was harder than what he did, but we're definitely proud of what we did. I'm more proud of all the guys that work on the team, proud of my crew chief … I'm just more proud of my guys, not myself. They're the ones that deserve that good of a finish. They're the ones that are working late nights and dedicating their lives to doing best job they can and putting a good race car underneath me. "It is lot of hard work like Carl did say. That's a total team effort. That's a lot of hard work by my guys. I was just happy to be the one holding the steering wheel and able to drive it up there for them." The camaraderie among the tight-knit group is what made BK Racing 's post-race cheer all the more jubilant with hugs all around. That celebration spread to the shop Monday, with DiBenedetto springing for pizza during the team's lunch break. "A lot of that emotion is shared by this whole team," said Ryan "Frenchie" Dubois, in his second year as BK Racing 's general manager. "We work really hard here and face a lot of obstacles that a lot of other teams aren't faced with. For us to overcome those obstacles and come out of there with a sixth-place victor-, er, sixth-place finish, it's like a victory for the team right now and what we're trying to do for the future." Dubois caught himself, but "sixth-place victory" has a certain ring to it. "To jump to sixth was great," he added. "If we can back that up next week, that'll be a Cinderella story for sure. We just want to be consistent, do everything right. We've got fast cars this year, that's the positive thing. We've got the right people in place, and it's about putting everything together. Once we do all that, we'll get those outcomes more often than not." It's an opinion shared by veteran crew chief Gene Nead, who began working with DiBenedetto in the second half of last season and was atop the pit box for nine Camping World Truck Series victories with Ted Musgrave at the wheel from 2002-05. "It's a definite David and Goliath story, you know what I mean, for a team this small without enough proper funding," Nead said. "You walk out in the shop, there's 60 people. You go into Gibbs', there's 600. It's pretty hard to do what you did with 10 percent of their people." Basking in Bristol Fittingly enough, DiBenedetto was savoring the moment before ever turning a lap Sunday. The California native decided to have some fun with Bristol Motor Speedway 's unique system of drivers selecting their own music for pre-race introductions, taking a page from his wedding reception last August. During his reception, each member of the wedding party selected their own entrance music. His father's comedic take, entering to ZZ Top's "Sharp-Dressed Man" in full beard, hat, sunglasses and guitar, clearly resonated. With his dad's permission, DiBenedetto reprised the role Sunday with gusto, donning the full costume and earning some of the biggest pre-race laughs. "You've got to enjoy it every step of the way, you've got to do fun stuff," DiBenedetto said. "That's what the fans want to see and to get them riled up before the race. That's what it's about." That spirit has been contagious, one that's extended to all corners of the BK Racing shop and that's helped boost the team's morale. "With Matt, for one his attitude is always positive," Dubois said. "He's a very humble driver and very appreciative of the opportunity that he has. We've seen from the beginning with him that he's constantly improved. He's not plateaued like some other drivers have and so we're constantly building with him. We think he's the future of our team and yesterday was a perfect example of what we see, and hopefully everybody else was able to see that, too." Plenty did, based on the outpouring of support on social media and the congratulations he's received privately from well-wishers. DiBenedetto pulled out his phone to show 202 text messages he hadn't had time to respond to, part of the 300-plus pings he estimated he'd accumulated in less than 24 hours. This season's most improbable finish at one of the series' toughest tracks gave DiBenedetto more than TV time, a police escort and a silly-string serenade. It also gave him the rewarding feeling that comes with taking a dark-horse team into the stratosphere usually reserved for the sport's heavyweights. That's why sixth on Sunday meant so much. "Just because we've worked so hard to get here," DiBenedetto said. "To do this without any major funding behind me or family money or anything of that nature, to do it just based on hard work and what teams thought I could do behind the wheel, that's nearly unheard of. To fight that hard and to get here makes you appreciate it that much more."
Best drivers of the No. 16 Sprint Cup car
The No. 16 car that Greg Biffle now drives for Roush Fenway Racing has a storied history with several current and future NASCAR Hall of Fame members among its pilots -- here's look at some of those drivers in that number, on 1/6/16. In addition to Biffle, some of the best drivers who have wheeled the No. 16 are Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Rusty Wallace, Joe Weatherly and Glen Wood. Several more have driven the 16, including Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ted Musgrave , and Kevin Lepage , who were among the first to drive the car for Roush Racing, debuting it for the team in 1992. More than 80 drivers have been behind the wheel of the No. 16 for at least one race. Vote in our poll for the best of the bunch.
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New Hampshire Motor Speedway: 25 Years, 25 Moments
Buy Tickets - SYLVANIA 300 New Hampshire Motor Speedway 's September event weekend will mark the facility's 25th Anniversary. Relive some of the top moments over the past 25 years. From Rusty Wallace capturing the inagural NASCAR Sprint Cup race win to Cole Custer becoming the youngest driver to visit Victory Lane in a National Series event - check out the top 25 moments below. 1. August 13, 1989: Groundbreaking for New Hampshire International Speedway (formerly Bryar Motorsports Park). 2. June 5, 1990: Track owner Bob Bahre and N.H. Governor Judd Gregg cut the ribbon to officially open “New Hampshire International Speedway.” 3. July 15, 1990: In NASCAR's debut at NHMS, Tommy Ellis wins the Grand National Series ( XFINITY ) race. 4. August 23, 1992: Joe Nemechek and Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) bump each other on the way to the finish line with Nemechek taking home the win. 5. July 11, 1993: Rusty Wallace wins the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at NHMS. 6. July 9, 1995: Jeff Gordon earns his first win at NHMS en route to his first Cup Series championship. 7. July 14, 1996: Ernie Irvan captures the win in one of the more emotional victories in NASCAR history. The win came less than two years after Irvan suffered a near-fatal crash at Michigan, where he was given less than a 10 percent chance of survival. 8. June 28, 1998: In his final season as an IndyCar driver, Tony Stewart wins the IRL New England 200, his final career win in the series. 9. Sept. 17, 2000: Jeff Burton leads all 300 laps of the Dura Lube 300 to earn his record-setting fourth Cup Series win at NHMS. The race is infamously remembered for its use of restrictor plates. 10. Nov. 23, 2001: The New Hampshire 300 runs as the last race of the season on Friday after Thanksgiving. Robby Gordon wins the race and Jeff Gordon holds the Sprint Cup Series trophy for the fourth time. 11. Sept. 19, 2004: The Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship debuts with its opening race, the SYLVANIA 300. Kurt Busch wins the race and goes on to become crowned Champion. 12. Sept. 18, 2005: Robby Gordon chucks his helmet at Michael Waltrip after a wreck on the backstretch. 13. June 28, 2008: Chuck Hossfeld edges Ted Christopher by 0.001 seconds in the Whelen Modified Tour’s New England 100, the closest margin of victory in speedway history. 14. June 28, 2009: Joey Logano becomes the youngest winner in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history at 19 years, 35 days. 15. Sept. 20, 2009: Fifty-year-old Mark Martin takes the lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with the 40th and final win of his illustrious career. It was his first and only win at NHMS. 16. June 26, 2010: Kyle Busch ends a streak of 23 straight different winners at NHMS in the XFINITY Series by becoming the first two-time series winner in the track's history. He also won the '09 race and followed up with wins in '11 and '13. 17. July 16, 2011: Kyle Busch earns his 100th NASCAR National Series win and ties Mark Martin ’s record for most XFINITY Series wins with 49. 18. Sept. 25, 2011: Tony Stewart assumes his only lead in the SYLVANIA 300 with two to go when Clint Bowyer runs out of gas. The win was Stewart’s second in as many Chase races and propelled him to the championship. 19. July 14, 2012: NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Mike Stefanik beats Ron Silk in the Whelen Modified Tour Town Fair Tire 100 by 0.003 seconds. 20. Sept. 23, 2012: Denny Hamlin follows through on his guarantee to win, and celebrates with military personnel in victory lane. 21. July 11, 2013: Toomas Topi Heikkinen wins the SYVLANIA SilverStar zXe Global RallyCross race when leader Tanner Foust crashes on the final hairpin turn. 22. July 14, 2013: Part-time driver Brian Vickers wins the Camping World RV Sales 301, his first win since battling back from blood clots in his legs and lungs that threatened his life. 23. July 11, 2014: Ryan Newman wins the inaugural Modified All-Star Shootout event, a combination race between the best of the Whelen Modified Tour and Whelen Southern Modified Tour. 24. July 13, 2014: Brad Keselowski ties a NASCAR record by becoming the 13th different non-repeat winner at the same track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. 25. Sept. 20, 2014: At 16 years, seven months and 28 days, Cole Custer wins the NASCAR Camping World Truck s Series UNOH 175 to become the youngest winner of a NASCAR National Series race.