For a few days at least, the most beloved figure in NASCAR is Matt DiBenedetto.
Just days after being informed that he was losing his 2020 ride, the journeyman driver delivered the best performance of his career en route to a second place finish in the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
As DiBenedetto was being interviewed late Saturday, a loud roar went up from the stands after fans saw his image on the massive Colossus television screen.
And long after other drivers had left the track, DiBenedetto signed autographs and changed high-fives with fans.
“It’s been a tough journey and a hard week,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m here to win. I’m thankful for my wife and fans for sticking with me … Something will come open. It’s going to happen.”
The stats are not so kind to DiBenedetto. In 24 Cup starts this season, he has five top-10 finishes and ranks 22nd in points. For his Cup career, DiBenedetto has just three top-fives in 164 races.
HEROIC HAMLIN: The post-race scene was unique late Saturday night as race winner Denny Hamlin actually apologized for spoiling an epic upset for DiBenedetto.
Hamlin later revealed that he gave DiBenedetto $5,000 last year when the 28-year-old from Grass Valley, California, launched a fund-raising campaign.
It turns out that that a benefactor made a similar donation years ago when Hamlin was ready to give up as a Late Model racer in Virginia and join the family business.
WATERMELON MAN: The second most popular driver of the week was versatile Ross Chastain.
The 26-year-old watermelon farmer from Alva, Florida, lived up to his aggressive reputation by making several bold moves during a third place run in Thursday’s Truck Series event.
Moments after the race, the defiant Chastain was confronted by a couple of angry crew chiefs.
Chastain has earned respect among fans for balancing a hectic schedule of competition in NASCAR’s top three series. In a phone interview at mid-week, Chastain offered insight into his work ethic.
“When you’re farming, you’re usually at the field at sunrise and you go home when the sun goes down,” Chastain said. “My family has grown watermelons for eight generations and has been involved in farming for 12 generations. I just work until the job is done.”
CLEMENTS TIME: Another grinder who proved a point in Bristol was Xfinity Series regular Jeremy Clements.
The Spartanburg, South Carolina, resident, who has driven for underfunded teams throughout his career, finished fourth in Friday’s Food City 300 after qualifying a career-best fifth.
True to his engaging personality, the 34-year-old former dirt racer lingered in the pit area to chat with reporters past midnight before making the drive back home with his wife.
BRISTOL REVIVAL: From Wednesday’s Food City Race Night in downtown Bristol to Friday night’s Foam Party and Saturday’s compelling finish, all the optics were positive for the latest NASCAR showcase.
Among several veteran writers in the press box, crowd estimates for the Night Race ranged from 90,000 to 100,000.
The usual Sunday morning critics, pointing to empty seats in the upper sections of the massive 146,000 facility, fail to appreciate that the Night Race outdrew most of the world’s major sporting events, including the Super Bowl. Not bad for a city with just 27,000 residents.
RATINGS: The good news from the Night Race extended beyond attendance. According to a release from NBC Sports, the overnight TV rating was up seven percent compared to last year’s event. It was also the highest-rated Saturday night cable race since the 2017 Kentucky event.
Meanwhile, the race earned 94 percent approval in the popular weekly Twitter continued by veteran motorsports journalist Jeff Gluck.
ON DECK: The next event at BMS will be the Bandit Big Rigs Bristol Battle on Oct. 12.
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