When it comes to Bristol, it is usually a story of hot tempers that trumps out whoever it is that won the race. Surprisingly, though, the biggest storyline to come out of Saturday night’s event was instead one of heartbreak and admiration in regards to Matt DiBenedetto’s performance in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, as he managed to not only lead the most laps (93) but also narrowly missed taking the checkered in a battle with eventual winner Denny Hamlin.
Despite Hamlin’s fourth win tying teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for most wins this season, the entire NASCAR community was focused on DiBenedetto’s performance as the 28-year-old Californian had a career night not only in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series but in his entire NASCAR national touring series career. Fans, media, and peers all reached out to DiBenedetto to congratulate him and offer him support, as earlier in the week it was announced that he would not be returning as driver of the No. 95. A lot of backlash was aimed at team owner Bob Leavine despite it being made clear that the decision was purely business related.
Although the loss and DiBenedetto’s post-race reaction were heart-rending, something a lot of people are neglecting to realize is that the 2019 season isn’t over. DiBenedetto still has plenty of racing to do this season, and if anything, his Bristol performance may be the momentum his team needs to contend for more wins before the checkered flag flies at Homestead.
One thing to note about DiBenedetto’s recent surge in performance is that he’s gotten to be strong on tracks where he must muscle the car. All three of his top-fives this season have come on such hard-driving tracks, as he finished fourth at Sonoma, fifth at Loudon, and second at Bristol. Going into Darlington he has an average finish of 29th, but with the way his team has performed recently that may be a statistic worth disregarding. Darlington is also a track where a driver has to drive hard and muscle the car around, and DiBenedetto is big enough to get the job done.
Similar tracks where the No. 95 may shine include Richmond, the Charlotte Roval (where he finished 13th a year ago), Dover, Martinsville, and Phoenix. None of those tracks are handled with finesse; if anything they’re tracks where a driver has to manhandle their car to get the results they want. However, DiBenedetto has also shown himself to be an adept restrictor plate racer. He led the most laps in the Daytona 500 earlier this year (49) and has three top-10s at Daytona, including an eighth in July. He’s yet to score a top-10 at Talladega, but he has momentum from a string of strong runs in recent weeks, and that could very well carry on for plenty of weeks to come.
It’s true that the revitalized LFR organization is without a question the best Cup team that DiBenedetto has driven for in his young career, and it’s likely that his previous averages at the upcoming tracks can change for the better. He’s still learning and growing as is LFR, and it is likely that there are other top-20 Cup teams who are currently eyeballing DiBenedetto for their seats. The general consensus it that he’ll end up in a race car in 2020 for better or worse.
At this point in time, there’s no need to fret. If Alex Bowman can go from BK Racing backmarker to race-winning Cup standout, then DiBenedetto’s trajectory may not be all that different. He’s got it all: Charisma, talent, passion, and a strong relationship with the fans. He’s a humble driver who knows his worth in the sport and he has the drive needed to make it work at the top level. Team owners will get their money’s worth by hiring him.
But more importantly at this moment, he’s got the final leg of the Cup season to race through, and he’ll have plenty of racing and plenty of opportunities to build off of his Bristol performance. His season isn’t over by a long shot, and with Mike Wheeler on the pit box anything is possible. He’s got plenty of good runs left in the No. 95 this season. That’s where his focus and the NASCAR community’s focus should be lying right now.