Matt DiBenedetto is off the bubble and on the starting grid for his first Daytona 500.
The Grass Valley native qualified for the race last weekend and locked into the final spot for open cars. His average speed of 192.686 mph was about three-tenths of a second slower than Elk Grove native Kyle Larson’s 192.938.
DiBenedetto and Larson were safe from being knocked off the starting grid at Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona International Speedway to determine the last two open spots and the official starting grid for Sunday’s Daytona 500 – the Super Bowl of North American auto racing.
Larson finished sixth and DiBenedetto ninth in the second Can-Am Duel. Larson will start Sunday’s “Great American Race” in Row 7 of 20 in 14th position alongside Kasey Kahne. DiBenedetto will line up in Row 10, next to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in 20th position.
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“I’m glad I got to sleep all this week,” DiBenedetto said of his qualifying run. “But I’m really excited for our team. They’ve all worked so hard to get us in the field, and having Toyota support us and provide us with a (Toyota Racing Development) engine helps a ton.”
After his qualifying run, DiBenedetto celebrated with friends with a round of miniature golf.
“We qualified in the 500, and I won at miniature golf,” DiBenedetto told reporters in Daytona.
NASCAR has instituted a charter system beginning this season though 2025 that awards 36 teams automatic entry into the field at every Sprint Cup Series race. That leaves four “open” spots each race for drivers such as DiBenedetto and his BK Racing team. NASCAR also has shrunk the field at each race from 43 spots on the grid to 40.
While racing against the top teams and drivers, DiBenedetto said the goal for the Daytona 500 is to survive and move on.
“But if we can finish ahead of some of the top teams, then that will be a good day,” he said. “And at Daytona, anything can happen.”
DiBenedetto, 24, lived in Grass Valley until he started winning a lot of kart races in Northern California and he and his parents, Tony and Sandy, moved to Hickory, N.C., to be closer to NASCAR’s top teams. He attended Alta Sierra Elementary and Magnolia Middle School in Grass Valley through seventh grade before moving East.
His sisters, Katie Kimbrel and Kelly Hackney, live in Lincoln with their families.
After success on the K&N Pro Series East circuit, DiBenedetto moved to the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2009 and then moved up to the Sprint Cup Series last season with BK Racing, where he finished 35th overall yet still earned $2.98 million.
Sweet wins Outlaw opener – Brad Sweet, another Grass Valley native, won the 2016 World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series season opener Feb. 12 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla. Sweet won again two nights later and claimed the “Big Gator” trophy, awarded to the top driver over the three-night Sprint Week Championships.
“It feels good to win any of these Outlaw races,” Sweet told the Motor Racing Network. “This is my third season, so I understand how grueling these years are and how important it is to start the year off strong. I also know that just because you win tonight doesn’t mean anything for the future. We just have to keep digging, and hopefully this is our year to win a lot of races.”
Sweet finished third overall in the World of Outlaws points chase last season and had five wins. He already has two this season.
Sweet and the rest of the Outlaws, including Elk Grove native Paul McMahan, will race at Stockton Dirt Track on March 18-19 then March 23 at Placerville Speedway. That race is sponsored by Sweet and is known as the Brad Sweet Presents Placerville Short Track Outlaw Showdown.
BMR driver takes season opener – Todd Gilliland, just 15, won the K&N Pro Series East season opener last Sunday in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. The new full-time Bill McAnally Racing driver won the pole and is 2 for 2 for BMR. The son of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David Gilliland won the K&N Pro Series West season finale in November in his debut.
Sunday’s race was not without controversy. Through an official’s error, the white flag – signaling the final lap – was not waved until half the field had passed and Gilliland and Spencer Davis were battling side-by-side for the lead. At the finish of the 150th and last scheduled lap, Gilliland had the lead, but the checkered flag didn’t wave, and the race continued.
On the 151st and last lap, Ronnie Bassett knocked Gilliland into Davis, and Bassett took the lead and the checkered flag.
NASCAR, however, declared the race over after Lap 150 and Gilliland the winner.
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee: firstname.lastname@example.org, @editorwriter001.