BRISTOL, Tenn. – Aric Almirola, William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto became all-stars Wednesday evening by racing their way into the NASCAR All-Star Race through the 85-lap NASCAR Open at Bristol Motor Speedway.
DiBenedetto won the event overall – topping the final stage and giving Wood Brothers Racing its first Open victory – while Almirola and Byron won stage one and stage two of the sprint, respectively.
Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer earned the fan vote and made the All-Star Race in that manner.
Almirola made his path to the All-Star Race look easy, driving to the inside of polesitter Michael McDowell on lap 11 of the first 35-lap stage and leading the rest of the way to notch the stage win.
It put Almirola into his third-career NASCAR All-Star Race. The prior two starts came thanks to NASCAR Cup Series race wins.
“We’ve just had such a good run lately, and we deserve to be in the All-Star Race,” said Almirola, who has _ top-10 finishes in a row in points-paying competition. “This team has done an amazing job and we’ve been bringing really fast Ford Mustangs to the race track. Proud to have Smithfield in the big show tonight.
“I was actually really nervous, man. When you come to a race like this, you never know what might happen,” Almirola added. “You hate to have the All-Star Race and not be in it, especially with as good as we’ve been running lately. We’ll watch the rest of the Open and get ready for the big show tonight.”
The fireworks of All-Star Night got going in a hurry, however, after Michael McDowell turned Bubba Wallace into the outside wall on lap 18 in a fierce battle inside the top five.
Wallace’s shunt ended his night, while McDowell soldiered on to finish seventh at the end of the Open.
If Almirola’s drive into the All-Star Race was seemingly effortless, Byron’s was even more so. He took command at the start of the second 35-lap stage, after Almirola left the track, and led every lap of the caution-free segment to clinch his second All-Star Race start.
Byron won stage one of the Open in 2019 and won stage two this year to grab a golden ticket.
“This was good; it’s always good to advance into the All-Star Race and have a shot to go for a million dollars. The guys did a good job with this car. A little bit different Axalta look for us this week. It needs a little bit of love on the left-rear quarter panel, but hopefully we can get that fixed up and just be ready to go. This is one of my favorite tracks, so it’s pretty awesome to see the fans here and everything.”
DiBenedetto stayed out at the end of the second segment and took the lead at the start of the final stage, which went 15 laps green-to-checkered without incident.
However, he noted it wasn’t easy, considering his tires were older than some of those chasing him.
“Oh, man. I was hanging on for dear life. We were so loose on entry,” said DiBenedetto. “I was right on the ragged edge, and I’m just so just thankful to the team for battling back. My gosh, we had big damage there at the start and had to fix it. That’s battling back. That’s been this team lately.
“We’ve been fighting so hard. I’m so proud to be driving this thing and thankful for Menards, FVP, the Wood Brothers team, Motorcraft/Quick Lane, and everyone that allows me to have the opportunity to race in my first All-Star Race,” he added. “This is so cool.”
Bowyer, who finished second to DiBenedetto by .789 seconds at the end of the Open, received the 20th and final spot into the All-Star Race courtesy of the fan vote.
The fan vote was awarded to the highest driver in voting that made it to the finish of the Open and wasn’t already qualified for the All-Star Race by other means.
“You hate to lean on them (the fans), but it damn sure feels good to have the fans back at the track. Thank you guys!” said Bowyer. “We’re going to go out here and see if we can make some more noise. It’s fun to be around this place. You want to talk about an All-Star event, this is the right track to do it. It’s only going to get better as we go here. We’ve already seen sparks flying, tempers flaring, and I think you’re going to see more of it.
“We’ve got a little bit of work to do on our car, but we’re in it,” he added. “I watched my buddy, Kasey Kahne win it one time off a fan vote — maybe we can do the same thing.”
Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon filled out the top five at the end of the Open and were among those who just missed the cut to advance into the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race.