Matt DiBenedetto will take to the high banks of Daytona International Speedway on Sunday (Feb. 17) to kick off his era with Leavine Family Racing. But the LFR organization is starting a new era itself with a new manufacturer for them: Toyota.
Entering its ninth season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2019, the organization has a fresh start as it looks to put an inconsistent past behind it.
In the past nine years, LFR has rotated through multiple teams and manufacturers. It’s had three major partnerships in its first eight years with Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Richard Childress Racing. It’s hoping a fourth change will finally be the charm that turns it from fringe team to yearly playoff contender.
What’s the difference thus far? Leavine noted during the manufacturer press conference at Daytona International Speedway on Friday (Feb. 15) that it’s being treated like an actual partner despite its single-car status, instead of an afterthought.
“We’ve actually gotten help this time,” Leavine said. “They are interested in us as a team and not just as somebody getting racecars. I say that in a kind-of-sort-of way, but I’ve been there and done that and I’ve seen it firsthand. Jeremy [Lange], our VP, and I, when we first started talking to Toyota in March of last year, we’d go away from meetings and look at each other and say these people really care about making our race team better.
“It’s the same with Coach [Joe] Gibbs [owner]. We talked to Toyota and then we started talking with Coach Gibbs, in fact, I think it was the weekend of the 600. We first started talking with them and it was the same feeling that they cared about helping us help ourselves and making our race team. The perspective and the attitude and then, also, Toyota is the best manufacturer in NASCAR. We watched it for years and said we want to be there. That is what made us go to them and say we want to be with them.”
Heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500, LFR has 184 starts in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Last season, the team tied its organization-best finish of fourth in the July race at Daytona with Kasey Kahne. A high-profile signing after being released from Hendrick Motorsports, hopes were high Kahne would grow LFR. But the organization failed to improve upon Michael McDowell’s average finish from the previous season; Kahne himself retired before the end of the year due to health issues.
With the change to Toyota during the offseason, LFR has big shoes to fill. It replaces Furniture Row Racing at Toyota as JGR’s major satellite operation. FRR grew into a championship caliber team with JGR’s help, winning the title in 2017 and contending for another before sponsorship woes forced a shutdown.
The LFR organization grabbed DiBenedetto from Go FAS Racing, a driver who has been building his own career with smaller teams. He’ll look to grab the best possible finish in his debut with the affiliation and is off to a solid start with a fourth-place finish in Thursday’s Gander RV Duel qualifier at Daytona.