Matt DiBenedetto can’t stop smiling

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 13: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto (95) Leavine Family Racing Toyota Camry speaks with the media on September 13, 2019, prior to practice for the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The smile hasn’t faded from Matt DiBenedetto’s face and there is an unmistakable extra zip in his step. The 28-year-old has hardly been able to walk more than two feet at a time in his Las Vegas hotel lobby this week without a fan stopping him to ask for an autograph or pose for a photograph.

The warm reception is fresh off some career-changing news. On Tuesday, Wood Brothers Racing announced that the popular Californian will drive the team’s famous No. 21 Ford in 2020. DiBenedetto will replace veteran Paul Menard, who is retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season.

The reaction from both fans and his competitive peers has been equally effusive – both for DiBenedetto’s recent work driving the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota and for the big news about his future.

“The support has been crazy,’’ DiBenedetto said. “I can’t believe how much my phone and social media has blown up just after [a runner-up finish at] Bristol (Tenn.) and then with this announcement this week and the success our team has had.

“We’ve been running well. All these things compounded and it’s been interesting walking around the track or at South Point [Casino] getting stopped, to an extreme I’m not accustomed to that at all – even walking through the garage.

“It’s definitely been interesting and crazy how in a couple weeks how much support you can gain and it’s amazing how much people have gravitated to the this story and how much positive feedback there is in such a world where it can easily be negative. It’s amazing and heartwarming to see on how social media of all places, be super positive.”

Certainly DiBenedetto is in the midst of a career year performance-wise. He’s had four top-10 finishes in just the last six weeks, highlighted by that career best runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin at Bristol, Tenn. three weeks ago. He also led a race high 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 only to be collected in a late-race accident.

The three top fives – fourth place at Sonoma, fifth at the New Hampshire and runner-up at Bristol – are the first top-five finishes in his five-year career. His six top-10s – with 10 races remaining still – are triple his previous best single season effort (two).

FRIDAY MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES PRACTICE

Las Vegas native Kurt Busch led the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Friday afternoon. The No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driver was followed by March winner Joey Logano and his Team Penske shopmate Brad Keselowski, the defending September race winner. Eleven of the top-12 speeds in the final Cup practice were occupied by Playoff drivers.

Clint Bowyer put the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford on the top of the opening practice, while fellow Playoff qualifier William Byron placed his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy second on the speed chart. Four-time Vegas winner Jimmie Johnson was third fastest in the day’s opening session.

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