Bristol becomes a lesson in how to win at losing

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 17: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #95 Toyota Express Maintenance Toyota, is introduced prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 17, 2019 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

He’s a lame duck, a soon to be former employee of Leavine Family Racing. He’s been given his pink slip and will soon race for what could be the last time in the NASCAR Cup series.

Matt DiBenedetto most likely doesn’t have some sort of severance package, no ‘golden parachute’. But it’s a position he’s been in before.  In 2018 he left the Go Fas Racing team announcing that he wanted to find a more competitive ride.  It worked out for him as he landed a spot with Leavine which has a bit better funding, and thus is a bit more competitive. However, that gamble was a choice he made.

This time around he had no choice. Leavine announced this past week that DiBenedetto will be out of a ride at the end of season. Forces behind the scenes involving younger drivers and bigger teams leave the nearing 30-year-old driver facing an uncertain future.

Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto conducted one hell of a job interview.  He drove his Toyota, which had been fast all weekend, to the front and took the lead with just over 100 laps remaining.  He would keep that lead for 93 laps, more than anyone else in the race.  With a little bit more than 10 laps to go however, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin caught and got past DiBenedetto and went on to win. It was somewhat ironic twist given that Leavine has an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing (the car DiBenedetto raced Saturday night was an older generation JGR Toyota once raced by JGR) and that if rumors are true it is JGR behind the moves that will put one of their young up and coming drivers in the seat being taken from DiBenedetto next season.

That would be all the more reason for a soon to be employee to rant about the powerhouse team that is kicking him out of the door. DiBenedetto didn’t do that. Instead he held his head up high and kept his emotions in check, mostly.

“I don’t even know what to say,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m so sad we didn’t win, but proud, proud of the effort. I got tight there from the damage from trying to get by (Ryan) Newman and that immediately flipped a switch and got tight.

“Man, this opportunity has been – that’s what I want everybody to know, how thankful I am that I got this opportunity and to work with great people like (Mike) “Wheels” (Wheeler), my crew chief. I am so thankful everyone on this team gave me this opportunity – all of our sponsors, ProCore, Dumont Jet, Anest Iwata spray equipment, Toyota for backing me this year, everybody at Leavine Family Racing.

“I want to try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week and I want to stick around and I want to win. That’s all I want to do is win in the Cup Series and we were close. It’s so hard to be that close, but it’s neat to race door-to-door with Denny Hamlin, someone who I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid.  It’s amazing. Great day, but this one is going to hurt for sure.”

The driver who just beat him seemed to actually feel bad.

“I am so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and Mike Wheeler,” Hamlin said while standing on the start-finish line. “I hate it. I know how much a win would mean to that team.”

That bad feeling started before Hamlin made that final pass.

“I knew I was going to get him,” Hamlin said. “I just was thinking about it the whole time.  There’s a lot of people at home, a lot of people in the stands that don’t want to see this happen, but it’s going to happen.”

Hamlin once supported DiBenedetto after a plea to the masses from DiBenedetto on social media a few years ago.  Hamlin had been in a similar situation early in his career, getting support from an unlikely source, a rival team owner who gave Hamlin a late model ride. Hamlin finished second to his rival’s driver, but it got him noticed and led to a fulltime ride the following season.

“Someone gave me that opportunity, kept my career going,” Hamlin said. “Just trying to pay it forward.  I think a lot of people have a lot of respect for him.  He’s humble.  This is not a story of he’s just going to go away.  This is only the beginning for him.  He’s writing his résumé on TV every weekend.”

That résumé certainly got some nice new bullet points Saturday night. DiBenedetto used one of NASCAR’s biggest stages to show any potential employers just how much he has to offer.

“There’s a lot of people that believe in Matt,” Hamlin said.  “Yes, he’s been clawing and clawing these last few years.  But you would also argue and say that he’s gotten better and he’s gotten better rides year after year.  I would hope that trend would continue next year.”

Saturday night, DiBenedetto gave a lesson in humility and professionalism. He also scored the best finish of his career, at least to date.

“I’m not done yet. Something will come open,” he said. “It’s going to happen. I’m here to win. Something’s going to come open…. It’s been a tough journey, a hard week.”

Greg Engle