NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Anyone Forget About Ross Chastain’s Future?

Who is the new driver for Wood Brothers Racing?

After a roller coaster of a month where Matt DiBenedetto was told he was out of a job, almost won at Bristol Motor Speedway and had a solid run at Darlington Raceway, Wood Brothers Racing has announced his hiring for 2020 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

DiBenedetto has had a very topsy-turvy career. The Californian burst onto the NASCAR scene in 2010 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and flamed out at Joe Gibbs Racing fairly quickly. This was before Toyota Racing Development tended to its drivers from cradle to Cup car, so DiBenedetto was fairly unprepared for the task compared to many of the drivers in the TRD system today.

After a few odd runs in 2012 and 2013, DiBenedetto hooked up with Curtis Key to run the full 2014 NXS season and then moved up to the Cup Series with BK Racing. The lone highlight of DiBenedetto’s tenure at BK was finishing an impressive sixth in the 2016 spring Bristol Motor Speedway race. DiBenedetto then signed with Go FAS Racing for 2017 and 2018.

DiBenedetto decided to leave GFR, with no clue as to what he’d be driving in 2019, before landing with Leavine Family Racing for 2019. DiBenedetto struggled in the first half of the season, with just one top-15 finish (a 12th at Bristol). A then-career-best fourth at Sonoma Raceway lit a fire under DiBenedetto, and he’s had all six of his top-10 finishes in 2019 his last seven starts.

But that wasn’t enough for him to keep his job. LFR obviously stands to benefit greatly from its closer partnership with JGR; better equipment, one of the best prospects in the history of NASCAR in Christopher Bell, probably one of the top five best crew chiefs of the past 10 years in Jason Ratcliff. If it had to sacrifice DiBenedetto to get all of that, it just makes sense.

DiBenedetto’s new ride, the vaunted Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, was unexpected but very welcome. Paul Menard choosing to step aside for the good of everybody and continuing to support the team is admirable. It might just be Menard’s career highlight save for his upset fuel mileage victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway eight years ago. It will be the best equipment DiBenedetto has ever driven in his Cup career. Now there should be no reason to not see him win a couple of races next season.

Who will make the NXS Playoff… OK, let’s be honest, who cares?

This week’s NXS race will be the final event of the regular season, and the playoff field is already really mostly decided.

Most of the playoff drivers will be racing for extra playoff points; the top 10 in regular season points will be awarded at least one. Tyler Reddick needs just 11 points to clinch the regular season championship, while Bell has at least locked in second if he can’t catch Reddick.

The other seven drivers who have clinched playoff spots heading into the weekend are Cole Custer, Justin Allgaier, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Noah Gragson, Michael Annett and Justin Haley.

No driver on the outside looking in can still point their way into the playoffs. Gray Gaulding, Jeremy Clements, Brandon Brown, Ray Black Jr., Garrett Smithley and Stephen Leicht need to win to get in. Vinnie Miller and David Starr need to win and get into the top 20 in points to qualify.

If none of those drivers win (and they probably won’t; none of them have more than three top-10 finishes this year), the three drivers that would lock their entry into the playoff field would be Brandon Jones, John Hunter Nemechek and Ryan Sieg. Yes, three drivers who have no place in the playoffs, in the playoffs. And people say 12 playoff drivers is too many for this series.

Who will survive the Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway?

So, um, one problem for Cup drivers once again this year is going to be the heat.

OK, yes, Vegas is paying money to have two races a season. But does race two really need to be this week? It can’t wait a month when the temperatures will be cooler?

Las Vegas is the town of Team Penske. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win three of the last five in the desert. In that same time period, however, Martin Truex Jr. won a race and has scored the most points among the field.

Kyle Busch has been consistent at his hometown racetrack. But he also hasn’t won there since 2009, and hasn’t won a race in general in his last 12 Cup starts (the horror). He’ll have a decent finish, but he won’t actually win this week.

So, what about the other big free agent in NASCAR?

Now that one of the bigger questions of Silly Season have been answered following DiBennedetto’s signing with the Wood Brothers, the spotlight now turns to Ross Chastain.

Chastain has a number of possibilities for 2020, perhaps not even foreseen at the start of the season like his 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series campaign. The 26-year-old watermelon farmer should have just about every team taking a look at him; nobody else has won with Kaulig Racing, and nobody else has even been able to compete with Niece Motorsports. Yet Chastain has been competitive no matter what team he’s driven for this year outside of Jay Robinson’s shoestring budget of a Cup team.

Sadly, in part because Chastain only brings but so much money to the table, teams and, by extension, sponsors have been reluctant to invest in him. The only big-time sponsor that was ready to throw its weight behind him ended up being a fraud.

Heck, Chastain couldn’t even land his Kaulig gig without Nutrien AG reaching out to its marketing agency’s owner, the approximately 293-year-old Elliott Sadler, to come out of retirement for a couple of races this year to sweeten the deal. But still, things should hopefully be changing during this silly season, now that Chastain has yet another NXS win to his credit.

The worst possible deals Chastain could take at this point would be another full-time Truck ride or a lower-tier Cup ride such as with Front Row Motorsports. Another season in Trucks could very well pigeonhole him to that series, like it seems Brett Moffitt might have accidentally done.

Meanwhile, signing a big deal with a low team in Cup can kill a driver’s market when they become a free agent; AJ Allmendinger entered JTG Daugherty Racing as one of the hottest names on the free agent market in both NASCAR and Indycar, and he left it with not even a rumor of joining a new team.

Supposedly Chastain still has some form of relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing following the Christmas not-miracle of its NXS team shutting down after Chastain had committed 2019 to it. The chances of a CGR Cup expansion is incredibly low, especially since it’s September and nothing has been announced. But CGR has always kept a very tight ship; CGR is the only team in Cup where nobody has any real clue about contracts (at least until Kurt Busch joined the team).

I don’t know about CGR sneaking a third Cup team around, nor being able to hide the personnel it would have needed to hire last month to make it happen. But if any of the bigger teams can, it would be CGR.

Finally, there’s Kaulig, which seems like the most logical choice. Kaulig has room to expand to two full-time cars next season, considering how successful its second/third team has been whenever it wheeled them out this summer.

Haley will be going into his second season with a lot of momentum; earned or not, he did win a Cup race at Daytona International Speedway, which is going to help his marketability as far as attracting sponsors next year. Chastain could be a great pairing with him, considering their experience working together already and being able to teach the younger driver some tricks of the trade before either moves on to bigger and better things in 2021.

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Matty

“Earned or not” (your quote), Haley won a Cup race. Wanna know what we call that? A WINNER 🏆

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