The business side of racing sucks sometimes, and that was certainly the case on Thursday morning (Aug. 15) when Matt DiBenedetto announced Leavine Family Racing was not bringing him back for a second season.
It was an unpopular move, as DiBenedetto is loved by many fans. But it was an equally impossible situation, as there were pros and cons with whichever choice LFR and Toyota Racing Development made.
Performance was not the reason for DiBenedetto losing his job. He’s had just as many top fives this season as LFR has had through its first eight years of existence. He has the team at its best average finishing position and the highest it’s ever been in points.
But all signs point to Christopher Bell taking over the No. 95 Toyota in 2020. Bell, a TRD driver, has been dominating the past two seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and probably should have moved up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season, but there were no available Toyota seats. Well, there was one, but how could Joe Gibbs Racing put Bell in the No. 19 over Martin Truex Jr.?
So Bell has patiently waited another year in the Xfinity Series, and if TRD didn’t get him to Cup this year, I’m sure Ford or Chevrolet would’ve pounced on the opportunity to do so. TRD would be crazy to let Truex, Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin go in favor of someone with no Cup experience, and Erik Jones is still an up-and-comer, so the odd man out was DiBenedetto.
Obviously, TRD doesn’t want to lose Bell, who many consider to be the best prospect in years. Ford had a similar situation back in 1992 with a young talent named Jeff Gordon, who was driving for it in the Xfinity Series at the time. Instead of offering Gordon a Cup ride, the top Ford teams employed the likes of Derrike Cope, Hut Stricklin, Brett Bodine, Wally Dallenbach Jr., Sterling Marlin (before he started winning) and Morgan Shepherd (who was over 50 years old at the time). Ford lost Gordon to Chevy, and that list of Ford drivers combined didn’t win as many races and championships as Gordon went on to win.
But that was just one situation, and Hendrick Motorsports was a lot more competitive than LFR will be for Bell next year. There have been plenty more situations in just the 2000s alone where a smaller team, similar to LFR, displaced a veteran in favor of someone winning a lot in Xfinity and it backfired horribly badly.
Ricky Craven won Cal Wells his first races as an owner. One year after Craven won in the greatest finish in NASCAR history, Wells replaced him with Bobby Hamilton Jr., who had won four times and almost scored an Xfinity championship in 2003. The duo didn’t even score a top 10, and Wells’ team was gone after the 2006 season.
Johnny Benson scored MBV Motorsports its first win in 2002 but was replaced with four-time Xfinity winner Scott Riggs in 2004. After going through myriad owners, the team ceased to exist after 2007.
Ward Burton won Bill Davis Racing all five of its Cup wins and was replaced with five-time Xfinity winner Scott Wimmer late in 2003. The team’s Cup program went into a steady decline after that and closed its doors after the 2008 season.
So this isn’t the exact same situation as any of those, but the history shows that the odds are against LFR in this move. The team will get more support from Toyota and JGR than the other teams I mentioned got, but just because a driver was great in Xfinity doesn’t mean they will carry that success to the Cup level. Look no further than Casey Atwood.
The No. 95 was on a positive trajectory with DiBenedetto, and all that progress will be lost when the rookie Bell gets in the car. The team will have to start from scratch again as far as chemistry and momentum are concerned.
The rumors say that Jones and JGR are going to do a one-year extension to stay together in 2020. Well, if Jones is terrible next year, what’s to stop JGR from putting Bell in the No. 20 and forcing LFR to find its fifth driver in five years? The team could be used by Gibbs to develop Bell, and afterward, Gibbs could jack up the price of technical support and run LFR out of business like Gibbs did to Furniture Row Racing.
But of course, those are all hypothetical, worst-case-scenario situations. At the end of the day, it comes down to DiBenedetto vs. Bell, and I’d bet good money anyone criticizing TRD’s and LFR’s decision would likewise choose Bell if they had to choose one.
You can hate the move and the business of it all you want, but don’t fault Bob Leavine for going along with it. The team is getting the most manufacturer support it has ever gotten. Any logical car owner would go along with this move if it is what one its biggest supporters wanted. People are mad he didn’t expand to a second team for Bell, but the Gen 7 car is coming in 2021, and the changes to that are estimated to cost teams over $4 million a car. That essentially makes next year a lame-duck year for owners. No sane person would start another team next year only to have to spend even more money the following year.
And you can’t hate Bell for taking the ride — he’s earned it.
The only thing anyone can be mad at TRD about is that it won’t step up and support another Cup team. It signs anyone who can hold a steering wheel to a development contract, yet it only has five Cup teams. DiBenedetto is not the first or last driver to be a casualty of that; he’s actually fortunate enough to get burned by it twice. Hopefully, Toyota will expand its teams come 2021.
But my advice to everyone angry about this move comes from the legendary Dr. Seuss; “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
DiBenedetto was never supposed to drive the No. 95. Kasey Kahne was supposed to be the guy again this year until his health issues. Leavine and TRD gave DiBenedetto a break and let him drive the best equipment he’s ever driven in Cup for one season.
Because of that, he will land a ride elsewhere — maybe even a better one, who knows? He got a shot to showcase his talent that many drivers don’t get, and as a result, I doubt we’ve seen the last of Guido.
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