Toyota Racing – Matt DiBenedetto
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS)
Daytona Media Day – February 13, 2018
Leavine Family Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto was made available to the media in Daytona:
MATT DIBENEDETTO, No. 95 Procore Toyota Camry, Leavine Family Racing
How has the transition been over to Toyota?
“Really good. It’s been a nice transition. Toyota is kind of home for me because that’s where I got my start in NASCAR with Toyota. Comfortable, good to be back working with a lot of the same folks there. New crew chief with Mike Wheeler coming over so pretty incredible leadership at the team. It’s all good, all the right people.”
How is your relationship developing with your new crew chief Mike Wheeler?
“Really good. I didn’t know him personally at all. I knew of him. I knew a little bit of his past because he had been at (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) for so many years. So, I knew who he was, but I didn’t know him personally, so I made a point to go to his house and we’ve been to dinner – me and my wife have been out to dinner with him and his wife. Just a lot of relationship building before the year and I think we clicked very well. He’s a very easy-going guy. Super easy to work with. Really smart, methodical and extremely detailed. Puts me to work and gives me a lot of homework so it’s good. I like the way he works.”
Would you have ever thought you’d be back with Toyota and have an affiliation again with Joe Gibbs Racing?
“It’s just crazy. That’s why you never burn any bridges and always keep good relationships because yeah, look who would’ve thought nine or 10 years later I’m back with Toyota, which luckily, I’ve maintained a great relationship with them. I’ve always felt really comfortable with them. Back with an alliance and affiliation with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing). I walked in their shop just a couple weeks ago and it was just odd eight or nine years later to be walking back in their race shop. Glad to still have good relationships with all of those people.”
What are your expectations for this season?
“I’d just say every year it’s so important. This is a performance-based sport and I have to do my job to the best of my ability, and I know I can do that so as long as I keep doing what I’ve been doing I feel like every year has been equally crucial in my career to get me to this point. Every year is kind of a make or break year and that’s how this sport is, especially in my situation being a first-generation guy and not having a ton of funding to bring with me and stuff. Amazing opportunity. I know that we will all together make the most of it and it’s comforting having such good people like Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief) and all of the people surrounding our team. You’re only as good as the people around you and that’s what makes me feel good.”
How beneficial is it for Mike Wheeler to have past experience with Joe Gibbs Racing?
“It’s neat that Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief) is in the role and can get all of the right information that he needs to maximize our stuff. Honestly, I’ll lean on him as much as anything. It’s nice to be able to lean on my Toyota teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones. Those are definitely not some bad guys to be able to lean on.”
How do you feel your superspeedway program is heading into this weekend?
“Really good. I feel like I’ve actually become a much better plate racer over the last couple of years. I had a lot to learn. I went to work on it, really studied, and learned from some of the guys that are really good at it. That’s where I feel like we always put ourselves in a position. Even though I’ve been in underfunded equipment that may not have had the speed of others, we still put ourselves in a position to have a shot at winning or have a shot at a top-five or top-10 at the end of most all these things. Now having even better equipment this is the best opportunity that I’ve had. There’s no reason that we don’t have a very legitimate shot at winning it.”
How many drivers have a good shot at winning the Daytona 500?
“I don’t know. That’s a tough question to answer. More than usual for sure. I would say you have at least 30 plus guys that can definitely have a very fair shot at winning it. What gets tough is in some situations – like what I found when you’re in an underfunded situation it’s very hard for people to work with you, so I had to force myself basically in people’s way at the end of the race to put my car in the middle. I had to do some interesting strategies to still get myself up there like we were running third with two to go last year. I just had to do a little different approach. Now, being in the situation I’m in having some Toyota teammates, good equipment, it’s going to make that stuff easier.”
How do you feel now that the season is getting ready to start?
“Relieved and excited for sure. Now it’s stressful because it’s time to go to work and make the most of it. My whole career has been make or break every single year and moment of my life so none of that has changed. But, yeah, definitely just thankful and makes me appreciate it so much more.”
Do you have a normal routine to keep things fresh during such a long race season?
“It does get long, but I’m a racer and that’s all I’ve ever done so life at the race track is kind of normal. My wife deals with it well. It’s a busy week at home so it’s not even a whole lot of time at home. I’m busy with doing stuff with TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and being at the race shop and you’re right back on the road and gone. Try to have a nice balance and maybe take one day that’s somewhat of a personal day I guess to spend time at home, but it’s quite a long grind and definitely can wear some people down. You’ve got to be a true racer to love it and live it.”
Do you feel comfortable with the new mile-and-a-half package?
“It will be interesting. I will have to adjust. The test at Vegas taught us a lot. I didn’t race Trucks, I jumped straight to Xfinity and then Cup so everything I’m accustomed to is more off throttle time, a little lower downforce, a little more horsepower and things like that. Everyone is kind of relating these a little more to Trucks, which I’ve never raced so it’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve. I think restarts are going to be crazy this year for sure.”
Are you excited for your opportunity to fly with the Thunderbirds tomorrow?
“That’s like a bucket list item that I would give up a limb to do so it’s pretty amazing that I’m getting the opportunity to do it. They asked me if I wanted to do it and there was no way I was turning that down. Doing that first thing in the morning and hopefully I make it through it without puking or anything like that. It should be really fun.”
Do you feel like this team can be as successful as Furniture Row Racing with their alliance with JGR?
“I think there’s obviously going to be a lot of building involved so we’re not starting in the same position as the 78 team did. They had a lot of building and they accomplished amazing things over the years. I’d say we started in a different position and hopefully we build it to what they did because obviously they did a great job and accomplished a lot of great things. That’s what we want to do but it’s going to take some time. We’re assembling some really amazing people so hopefully that’s what we do. That’s what we’re here to do.”
How is it working together with crew chief Mike Wheeler?
“Great. Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief) is awesome. He brings a lot of really good knowledge to our team so that’s neat. He obviously has a great relationship with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) so he can maximize all of the information that we do get from JGR and the race cars that we have. He teaches me a lot and he puts me to work very heavily as far as homework and things I need to do keeping me very prepared. I like how methodical he is, and his temperament is great and he’s easy to work with.”
How has Mike Wheeler adjusted to being at a new race team?
“It’s actually been neat to see how well he’s adjusted. I thought it would be a little bit – it’s a different situation for sure. That’s a big change for him and he kind of came in and it really hasn’t fazed him a bit. He came in taking control and has been an incredible leader. He’s been a great wealth of knowledge for everybody to learn from of what we need to do to get to that level.”
Do you feel you have something to prove this season?
“I think every year I have something to prove. My career has been an unorthodox path I always say. I’ve had to always overachieve and this year every opportunity I get it’s time to show what we can do all together and we always together have a point to prove and it’s going to be fun to do it.”