After a very eventful Daytona 500, Leavine Family Racing and driver Matt DiBenedetto left with a wrecked racecar, but one that was very fast all day long. DiBenedetto led 49 laps, a career high for him, and was on his way to what looked like a career day until being caught up in a very late-race wreck.
Heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway, this is when most teams say the real season begins and we see who the contenders will be. Now with Joe Gibbs Racing equipment and a new manufacturer with Toyota, LFR is ready to have its best season yet. The question is, how will the organization fare and what are some realistic expectations this year?
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin broke a winless streak of 47 races with a Daytona 500 victory this past Sunday. There are many candidates for the next driver to break their winless streaks such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. One driver who is ready to end theirs though is Jimmie Johnson, though he did score the victory in the Advance Auto Parts Clash to open the season.
After going winless in 2018 for the first time in his career, he is poised for a huge season. Will Johnson have a legitimate chance to compete for an eighth title? Can he be back to his old form this year?
Q: Even though it was the Daytona 500 and a restrictor plate race, we saw Matt DiBenedetto lead the most laps and run very strong. What are your expectations for that 95 team this year? Jason H., Grand Rapids, MI
A: Leavine Family Racing has put a lot into the effort for DiBenedetto this season. Switching to Toyota and having an alliance with JGR sets the No. 95 team up for major success. It is still way too early to even tell what that success level will be, but leading 49 laps and having a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500 until a wreck late in the race is a very strong start.
DiBenedetto and LFR themselves have not had the strongest seasons in the past. Last season, LFR hired newly retired Kasey Kahne to lead its program and only had one top-five finish all year, which came at Daytona International Speedway in July. It was the last season with their Richard Childress Racing alliance, after switching to Chevrolet back in 2016.
We have seen flashes of major talent from DiBenedetto in the past, with lower budget teams. The best race of his career and probably most impressive run came in 2016 at Bristol when he finished sixth for BK Racing, the team’s best-ever result.
He previously ran the No. 32 for Go FAS Racing and had a few solid runs for a team with a lower budget than most. Now he is getting his big chance at NASCAR’s top level. He has stated how excited he is about this upcoming season, and after the strong start at Daytona, it gives him more hope that the team will have their best season.
This is not DiBenedetto’s first time in the Gibbs stable, though, as he ran some Xfinity races for the team during 2009 and 2010 but did not have much success. Nearly 10 years later and with plenty of experience under his belt, it’s easy to expect he’ll outperform any previous starts.
In fact, I’d expect to see top-15 runs on a regular basis and perhaps a stolen win to go along with it. The new aero package is very unpredictable but based on how good JGR equipment is, and how the No. 78 team performed the last three seasons, LFR and DiBenedetto should have a very good season. A playoff berth is very possible too, and for this team, that would be a huge accomplishment after the past struggles. It is going to be exciting to watch this team grow all season long and they will have results show up as the season progresses.
Q: With Denny Hamlin scoring his first win in a year and a half in the Daytona 500, who is the next driver in your opinion to break a long winless streak? Judy T., Albany, NY
A: There are several candidates for this, and as we have stated, the new package makes it unpredictable. However, the best candidate to do it first, which might come as a surprise to some, is Johnson.
Hendrick Motorsports has come out this season and already shown speed, even if it was a plate race. Taking the top four spots in single-car qualifying, and then running very strong this past weekend, even with the late-race wrecks, the organization is poised to have a big season with all four cars.
It is no secret the team as a whole has struggled the past two years or so. Even though Chase Elliott won three races last season, the other three cars struggled to run consistently up front and none won any races. But Johnson is going be the one to break through very soon.
Yes he caused major chaos during Speedweeks, but aside from that, he is still a seven-time champion and you will not keep him down for a long time at all. With a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering, a new sponsor in Ally and a whole new attitude, it seems like Johnson is going to have a big year.
If Hendrick gets back to form with all four cars running near the front on a consistent basis, we can expect Johnson to be very competitive once again. There is just this feeling that he is going to have a year where he wins maybe two to three races and makes a deep playoff run. He has a load of confidence in his team this season, and it is going to show as we get to Atlanta in a few days.
This is currently the longest winless streak of his career, as last season was the first year in his career where he did not score a single win. That will not happen again this season.
It is definitely important for Johnson to get his season off to a good start, and with a top 10 at Daytona, he already is on the right track.
There are many Johnson haters out there and even he knows this, but he is out to prove himself once again this year. This is when we will start to see the Jimmie Johnson that we have known for many years.
Entry Lists for Atlanta: