In NASCAR’s Cup Series, drivers who aren’t in the playoffs are feeling their share of the pressure.
Matt DiBenedetto felt it. Daniel Hemric is feeling it.
Without a win between them, those two have been in the headlines as the Cup tour made its way to Richmond Raceway for Saturday night’s Federated 400, second of the series’ 10 playoff events.
DiBenedetto and Hemric — who paid their dues in the sport’s less glamorous series — are part of the swirl of stock car racing’s fight for survival at its top level.
Things worked out well for DiBenedetto, at 28 in his fifth Cup Series season.
He was told in August that he wouldn’t be back in the Toyota fielded by Leavine Family Racing next season. He made a point of thanking team owners Bob and Shannon Leaving for giving him a shot at Cup racing, and waited for what would come next.
A few days later, DiBenedetto was named driver for the Wood Brothers Racing Ford team in 2020.
Maybe things will work out just as well for Hemric, 28 and in his first full season on the Cup tour.
“I got sat down on Monday and given the news,” he told reporters Friday at Richmond Raceway. The news was that he won’t return to drive a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing in the Cup Series in 2020.
In a chin-up interview, Hemric said he looks forward to the next chapter in his racing career.
“Stuff happens,” he said. “Life happens. The sun comes up the next day and you try again.”
He said he has been “blown away by the support” from drivers and others in the racing industry, including some who have been willing to make calls aimed at finding a ride for him next year.
Starting spots in NASCAR’s top series are especially coveted these days. The sanctioning body trimmed the starting field for its races from 43 cars to 40 starting in 2016. And fewer than 40 cars show up for most races. With 38 entries, Richmond is the 22nd of this year’s 28 events this season with fewer than 40 drivers on the grid.
Meanwhile, NASCAR’s second-level tour, the Xfinity Series, is producing drivers hungry to advance. And those drivers are gaining prominence by winning at their level. Seven-time Xfinity winner Christopher Bell is expected to replace DiBenedetto at Leavine Family Racing in 2020. Hemric’s likely replacement on the Childress Cup Series team is five-time Xfinity winner Tyler Reddick.
For years, Cup Series drivers regularly dropped a level to enter Xfinity races and dominated the series. In 2010, Cup drivers won 33 of the 35 Xfinity events and that series’ championship. NASCAR eventually responded by limiting the number of races allowed in the lower series for Cup veterans — this year seven starts is the maximum.
Hemric, asked if more wins for the Xfinity drivers makes them more attractive to Cup team owners, pointed out that winning there is easier now.
“I’ve raced in the series,” he said. “I had this conversation with a guy who’s won a substantial amount of races in the series this year, and he himself told me that the competition he’s raced against this year is not what it was in the past….
“So yes, the numbers look all flashy, but I can promise you, you get to this level — and I’m proof of it — it’s a different deal.”
He said he hasn’t made plans for next year but has discussed possible paths forward. Asked if he would be willing to return to the Xfinity Series, he left the door open.
“The best thing for the soul,” he said, “is to get back in a race car.”
Hemric can hope the balm for his racing soul comes as quickly and as spectacularly as it did for DiBenedetto, whose 2020 ride is with one of NASCAR’s most storied teams.
The Wood Brothers, with roots in Stuart, have recorded 99 Cup Series victories, many of them with drivers in somebody’s hall of fame — David Pearson, Dan Gurney, Cale Yarborough, Curtis Turner, A.J. Foyt.
And though the Woods are more than two years removed their last win, the team’s affiliation with the high-flying Team Penske operation offers the possibility that the Woods could advance to the front of the pack.
“That list of drivers is so great,” DiBenedetto said, “so many of my heroes. To have my named tacked onto that list is an honor — to drive for the Woods, and I hope to win for them.”
Brothers Glen and Leonard Wood founded the family team in 1950 in Stuart. Glen’s children — Eddie Wood, Len Wood and Kim Wood Hall — are the team’s co-owners now.
“The team’s legacy is amazing,” DiBenedetto said. “But the most impressive thing of all is that everybody who knows the family talks about what great people they are.”
His quick turnabout in the past few weeks has been an emotional thrill ride.
“A few weeks ago,” DiBenedetto said, “my wife, Taylor, was crying in pure panic. Two weeks later, she was crying tears of joy.”