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."
Gaughan trying to revisit title that got away
RELATED: XFINITY Chase Grid " Get to know the field CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It may not be a quintessential case of déjà vu, but Brendan Gaughan has been to Homestead-Miami Speedway before, under similar circumstances. Now, as one of 12 drivers to qualify for the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase that begins Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Gaughan hopes he'll have a chance to claim a prize that eluded him 13 years ago—a title in one of NASCAR's top three touring series. In 2003, Gaughan entered the final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Homestead as the points leader in a four-driver race for the championship. In addition to Gaughan, Ted Musgrave , Travis Kvapil and Dennis Setzer had a shot at the title. Musgrave's truck owner, Jim Smith, had five entries in the final event, and one of those drivers, Marty Houston, tangled with Gaughan in a violent crash on Lap 100. After Musgrave was penalized for jumping a subsequent restart, Kvapil claimed the championship with a sixth-place finish. Though Gaughan says he spends little time regretting the missed opportunity, he does crave another opportunity to compete for a title in the final race of the season, albeit under a different format in another series. "I've been in a Homestead race where four drivers were racing for the championship, and sadly, I was not the one who won it—sadly for me, not for Travis (Kvapil)," Gaughan said on Tuesday during XFINITY Series Chase Media Day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "I would love to have all that pressure again and be in that situation again, and my goal is to get back to Homestead to be one of those four. "I've always said to this day, that race that we ran at Homestead that day, we were the fastest truck on the race track that day. We were brilliant. One second of life—couldn't have done anything different. It was just one second that you couldn’t change. "And I would love a chance, not to change that one second, but to make a new one second and end up getting by that wreck and standing on that podium. ... I would love to go back to Homestead and finish what I was trying to do 13 years ago and put a great cherry on top of a career for me." Not that Gaughan's career is about to be over. The driver of the No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet said he'll be back for another season next year, and the Chase format is a strong reason he'll continue to compete. "What made me want to keep racing was this Chase format, this excitement around this," Gaughan said. "Now, instead of battling for fifth place, and we're 89 points out of this championship—and we can get to maybe second or third if a guy has a bad race and we have a good ones, and you're just watching points and going 'Oh, man, let’s see how far we can get'—we're racing for the championship." </p>
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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