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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Shades of Rich Bickle

Another driver came to mind when Matt DiBenedetto finished sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last weekend, and that was even before his post-race interview.

To recap, although chances are you’ve seen the stories or read the interviews by now: DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 83 for BK Racing, managed his first top 10 in 41 starts in the Cup Series after driving his Toyota from 30th to sixth by race’s end.

Afterward, DiBenedetto was elated and visibly moved during his interview with FOX Sports 1.

“I’m sorry I’m so emotional,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s just, this is like a win for us. I’m so excited. I see my family back here — my wife Taylor, my brother is in town from the military and I’m so glad he got to experience this. This is just… this is incredible. I’m so blessed to be here.”

Underdog stories are not a thing of the past in NASCAR’s highest ranks. Sure, they’re a rarity, but that’s what tracks like the superspeedways or even road courses are for. By now, it’s not expected that we’ll get a feel-good-story winner or even top-10 finisher,  but it’s certainly a very real possibility.

But after that, short tracks tend to be the next place where a have-not can at least compete somewhat with the big guns. This is most prevalent in the Camping World Truck Series, but as evidenced by the strong showings of DiBenedetto and even Front Row Motorsports’ Landon Cassill, who led a handful of laps Sunday before a late-race accident relegated him to 22nd, it can be done.

In 1998, a very similar story to that of DiBenedetto went down at a track much like Bristol: Martinsville Speedway.

There, on Sept. 27, 1998, Rich Bickle scored what would be his only top 5 in his Sprint Cup Series career.

Bickle, from Edgerton, Wis., was a journeyman driver in NASCAR’s national series, with 85 Cup, 54 XFINITY and 79 Truck series starts over a career that lasted into his mid-40s. Beyond NASCAR, he was an accomplished short track driver across the Midwest and beyond, with hundreds of victories at a plethora of different speedways.

In NASCAR, Bickle’s greatest triumphs came in the Truck Series, where he ran the full season twice, in 1996 and 1997. The latter year was his best, piloting Darrell Waltrip’s No. 17 to three wins, 15 top 5s, 17 top 10s and a runner-up finish in points.

By the next season, the 37-year-old was called on to replace Greg Sacks in Cale Yarborough’s No. 98 in the Cup Series after Sacks was injured at Texas Motor Speedway. He ran the balance of the season, 21 starts in all with five DNQs, ending up 39th in points.

Really, Bickle’s 1998 season was fairly unspectacular, though it did turn into a full-time ride in the No. 45 the next season.

But at Martinsville in the fall, he achieved NASCAR immortality — and he didn’t even win.

Bickle started his No. 98 on the outside of the second row, the second of three top-5 qualifying efforts that season. And by the end of 500 miles… well, he wasn’t in victory lane, because that spot was reserved for Ricky Rudd, perhaps the more famous happening of the day — after all, Rudd did so in his self-owned No. 10, extending his streak of at least one win in the series to 16 and requiring an oxygen mask afterward after the cooling system in his car malfunctioned during the race.

But when the dust cleared, Bickle was fourth — by far the best he’d done up to that point, and the best he’d accomplish in his lengthy NASCAR career.

If Rudd’s horizontal post-race interview could be topped by anything, it was Bickle’s. The driver, surrounded by friends and family, was choked up from the start, simply nodding after receiving congratulations, someone off camera shouting, fittingly, “You made it!”

Once Bickle finally was able to speak, he faltered once more — “I can’t help it,” he said, holding back more tears. “I don’t show much emotion. …this is a win for me. Thanks.”

It’s always tremendous as a viewer of NASCAR to see moments like that. From Bickle to DiBenedetto, with plenty in between — think back to David Gilliland’s XFINITY win for the underfunded No. 84, or Johnny Borneman’s fifth-place run at Talladega Superspeedway in the same series in 2010, when he declared it “the best day of my life.” Some fans flock to these types, especially after runs and subsequent emotional interviews like these that make supporting an often backmarker driver worth it.

That’s not to say Matt DiBenedetto will never score a top 10 in NASCAR again. Frankly, if his BK Racing team continues running at the level it has in 2016 — which is to say, certainly better than previous years — it doesn’t seem out of the question to find DiBenedetto or teammate David Ragan repeating a strong showing at another track, be it short, long or somewhere in between.

But even today, many discuss Rich Bickle and his tears-laden interview, perhaps more so since the advent of YouTube and the ability to watch such interviews again and again. It’s moments like these that are a joy to revisit.

Because seeing the same guy win for the 50th time? Sure, that can still be highly rewarding. But that first win, or even first top 10? There’s perhaps nothing like it.

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