Matt DiBenedetto and Leavine Family Racing started their season off with a bang. In his first race piloting the No. 95, DiBenedetto emerged as a surprise contender in the Daytona 500. Unfortunately, he got wiped out in a crash on lap 191 that collected half the field.
Nearly four months have passed since the Great American Race, and DiBenedetto and LFR have been practically invisible since then. The No. 95 team’s best finish is currently a 12th-place result at Bristol Motor Speedway. That is the only race where the organization has placed in the top 15. Any momentum that LFR could have capitalized on from its strong performance in NASCAR’s biggest race is gone.
DiBenedetto is likely still getting used to his new surroundings. The California native opted to leave Go FAS Racing once the 2018 season ended, hoping to land a spot with a more competitive team. His deal with Leavine, announced in October of last year, was part of whole new look for the team. In addition to hiring DiBenedetto, LFR switched from Chevrolet to Toyota, established a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and eventually brought in Mike Wheeler to be the new crew chief. DiBenedetto may have moved from one single car team to another single car team, but he did appear to have found a team with a higher ceiling than where he was before.
But if LFR’s ceiling is higher than Go FAS, it is not by much. Heading into Monday’s rain-delayed race at Michigan International Speedway, DiBenedetto is 26th in points, four positions better than he was last year. He is also ahead of five other points-eligible full-time Cup Series drivers. Last season, he was 30th in points at this time. While he climbed to 29th by the end of the year, he placed last among all drivers who started all 36 races. DiBenedetto has improved, albeit modestly, which suggests that the move to the No. 95 was a good one for his career.
However, LFR has not yet established exactly what its relationship with JGR will be. Their current alliance is not on the level of the one that Furniture Row Racing had with Gibbs, so it is unrealistic to expect FRR’s level of performance from the No. 95 at this time. Yet there is one question that is going to hound JGR for at least several more months, a question that could have serious implications for Leavine and DiBenedetto. Where will Christopher Bell race in 2020?
Bell, one of JGR’s development drivers, spent much of 2018 lighting up the Xfinity Series. Although he lost the championship to Tyler Reddick, Bell won seven races and forced a lot of people to take note of his abilities. Some suggested that he was ready for the Cup Series, including Bell himself. But with Furniture Row closing and no room for a new driver on JGR’s Cup team, Bell returned to the Xfinity Series this year. He has won three times in 13 races and will likely challenge Reddick and Cole Custer for the championship.
Since the end of last year, there has been no shortage of theories about how and when Bell will arrive in the Cup Series. Having invested a significant amount of time and energy into his development, losing Bell to another team would be a significant blow to Gibbs and Toyota. Yet there is still no open seat at JGR. Some fans speculated that Denny Hamlin was on the hot seat after going winless last year. Yet with two wins to his name in 2019, including the Daytona 500, criticisms of Hamlin have quieted.
Erik Jones has also been floated around as a potential odd man out at JGR. He is the only winless Gibbs driver heading into Michigan and is in a precarious spot in terms of the playoffs. However, Jones is only in his second season with JGR’s Cup team after a run of success in the lower divisions similar to what Bell has enjoyed. Losing a promising driver like Jones or a proven veteran like Hamlin would be a hefty price to pay to get Bell to the Cup Series.
If Toyota is intent on keeping Bell, Leavine is the only other option. From DiBenedetto’s perspective, that could be either really good or really bad news. The best-case scenario is that LFR expands to a two-car team opening a seat for Bell, complete with more investment from Toyota and a closer alliance with JGR. The more money and technical support that Leavine receives, the better chance DiBenedetto has of improving and making a serious run at the playoffs in 2020.
On the other hand, if LFR expands for Bell without much additional investment, the team could stretch its resources too thin. In that scenario, all of the team’s focus would shift away from DiBenedetto, leading to poorer results. Even worse for DiBenedetto is the threat of outright replacement by Bell. If Gibbs and Toyota really want Bell in the Cup Series, but cannot sacrifice any of JGR’s current drivers, DiBenedetto may be the one deemed most expendable. DiBenedetto’s contract with LFR reportedly runs through 2020, but contracts do not equal a guarantee in NASCAR today. Just ask Trevor Bayne.
If DiBenedetto has seemed like the Invisible Man since Daytona, he may not be much longer. His future in NASCAR is tied to how LFR, JGR and Toyota address their long-term plans. The scary thing for DiBenedetto is that he will have little control over decisions that could drastically affect his career. In the next few years, he could just as easily be competing for wins as he could be out of NASCAR entirely. It would not be the first time a driver got shuffled out of the Cup Series before reaching his true potential.
That said, DiBenedetto has shown remarkable resiliency in his NASCAR career. By toiling to improve back-marker teams and building a sizeable following on social media, he has worked hard on and off the track. Whatever the future brings for DiBenedetto, he will no doubt have the will to face it.
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