If history is any indication, a future NASCAR star or two will be among those attempting to make the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 feature race on September 23.
For a pair of current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt DiBenedetto, NASCAR’s premier Late Model Stock Car event holds a special place in their heart even though their day job will keep them from participating.
“It’s the biggest race of the year for the Late Models that run in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country. There is no bigger race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There is a lot of history in the race itself. There is a lot of money on the line, it can change the entire season for any of these teams that win it.”
DiBenedetto described it as the “Super Bowl of Late Model racing” and noted that upwards of 100 cars were in attendance in 2014 when he finished fourth in the event.
“That was the most fun, nerve-wracking Late Model weekend we ever competed in. It’s cool, it’s just so competitive,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s probably my favorite race to watch at Martinsville, period. They drive their hearts out just to make it into the race…People race harder than they’ve ever raced in their lives because that is their time to shine.”
When the green flag drops under the Speedway’s new LED lighting system on September 23, the level of talent behind the wheel of the 40 cars in the feature race will rival any field in the country, according to Earnhardt Jr. and DiBenedetto.
“There’s racecar drivers in that field that have what it takes to be full-time Cup guys, full-time Xfinity guys or full-time Truck guys,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There’s a lot of veterans, too, that are dominant competitors at tracks across the southeast. They’re real heavy-hitters that are hard to beat and have a great reputation. It’s a fun race to watch because it’s a good mix of guys that are new that are trying to figure out a way to get to the next level and there’s guys that are established veterans that have been in Late Models for years and years piling up incredible resumes.”
“Those guys are the best in the country at what they do,” DiBenedetto said. “Philip (Morris) and Lee Pulliam - there’s so many guys that deserve an opportunity to be racing up here at the Cup level. Those guys are some of the best drivers in the country.”
With the talent level behind the wheel and it being just one race, as opposed to a full season, it is not always the big spenders that bring home the big prize of $25,000 at the end of the race. Last year, Mike Looney, a driver who never had the budget to race for a track championship, held off three-time national champion Lee Pulliam for the victory.
“You don’t have to have the best of everything to have a shot at it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It is such a hard race to win, but the guys that win it are just survivors that have a little speed and drive a smart race.”
“That’s huge, that’s a heck of a payday,” DiBenedetto said. “We were a little family team with volunteer guys working on the team. I know quite a few people that still do that. There’s a lot of guys that put everything they have into it and the drivers themselves are working on the racecars. You’ve got a little bit of everybody, but with the right people they can all compete.”
For DiBenedetto, reading stories or watching highlights of the race is still an annual tradition.
“It’s brutal racing, but it’s good, hard racing,” DiBenedetto said. “There’s a lot of bumping and banging…guys bump quite a bit and pretty much do anything they have to do to make it into the race, then when it comes down to the end of the race they are absolutely doing anything they have to do.”
Earnhardt Jr, a 26-time winner in NASCAR’s premier series and current Late Model Stock Car team owner, never qualified for the ValleyStar Credit Union 300’s feature race, despite multiple attempts in the 1990s. When asked if he could ever make another appearance as a driver, Earnhardt Jr. said “you never say never.”
“I certainly wouldn’t mind going back and trying to do a little better job than my past experiences there. It just tells you how difficult it is to race when you’ve got 80-120 cars showing up for an event, you know you’ve got your work cut out for you to make it into the show,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We’ll see how it goes, I really enjoy owning the Late Models. I enjoy being able to be a part of that series and race against the guys that have been in that series for a really long time across the Southeast. I take a lot of pride in it and respect those guys a lot. I hope to continue to have a car at Martinsville (as an owner) for a really long time.”
They ValleyStar Credit Union 300 open test session will take place Thursday, September 14 with the grandstands open for spectators to enter for free.
The ValleyStar Credit Union 300 is NASCAR’s biggest, richest and most prestigious Late Model Stock Car race. Race day – Saturday, September 23 – starts with three 25-lap qualifying races to set the field, followed by a 25-lap “last chance” qualifying race. Tickets for the event are on sale now and can be purchased by calling 1-877-RACE-TIX or online at www.martinsvillespeedway.com.