Matt DiBenedetto had every right to be upset Saturday night.
Days earlier, he and the rest of the NASCAR world found out he is not returning to Leavine Family Racing in 2020. Then, in his very next race, DiBenedetto came agonizingly close to scoring his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. It was the first time since the Daytona 500 that the DiBenedetto/LFR pairing looked like a potentially winning combination.
However, DiBenedetto could not hold back a late-race charge from Denny Hamlin, who denied the Californian a life-changing win at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It would have been understandable if DiBenedetto had gotten out of his car and exploded in a volcanic eruption of anger. He could have blasted Joe Gibbs, Bob Leavine and Toyota for moving forward with a plan that will likely put Gibbs’ Xfinity Series driver, Christopher Bell, in the No. 95 car next year. He could have railed against Ryan Newman for interfering with the race for lead in the closing laps. DiBenedetto could have cursed anything and everything related to the unfortunate set of circumstances in which he found himself.
Indeed, DiBenedetto gave an emotional post-race interview, but not an angry one.
“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, for them giving me this opportunity,” he said. “I’m just thankful that they gave me this opportunity, Toyota, Procore, Dumont Jets… I’m so thankful, but man I’m sad. We got tight after the deal with Newman, when he came up into us, and all the sudden it got really tight after that.
“But congrats to Denny, he raced really hard. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door-to-door with him at Bristol, and in front of a great group of fans–I try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week.”
Racing with LFR, a team newly-aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, has been a solid opportunity for DiBenedetto. The No. 95 team got off to a slow start this year, but four top 10s in the last eight races suggest that DiBenedetto and LFR is beginning to hit their stride. Now, with DiBenedetto set to leave in November, that good opportunity may never realize its full potential.
The split between DiBenedetto and LFR is not a surprise, even though the team’s performance is on the upswing. Bell has been rumored to be heading to the Cup Series for months, and while nothing is confirmed yet, Toyota Racing Development officials have not been shy about their desire to keep Bell in-house.
But with only five seats available between Gibbs and Leavine, Toyota’s options were limited. Most of the rumors over the last few months surrounded someone being let go, and DiBenedetto wound up being the odd man out through no fault of his own. Sometimes, the business of NASCAR can be cruel.
Even with DiBenedetto on the way out, JGR and TRD still have not addressed the root of their problem.
There are too few Toyota teams in the Cup Series to account for all the manufacturer’s development drivers. Sooner or later, Toyota will have to invest more in LFR or acquire another team with additional charters. Jones is reportedly close to signing a new contract with JGR, which will keep him in the No. 20 car, but this contract is supposedly for only one more year. With this arrangement, Jones’ long-term future with JGR is still murky, as is Bell’s.
Toyota’s probable plans for next season feel less like a solution and more like the manufacturer and its teams kicking the can down the road.
But getting back to DiBenedetto, he and LFR will make the most of their remaining time together, if Saturday night’s race is any indication. The No. 95 was fast all weekend, and the car ran in the top 10 for the vast majority of the race. On a night when no single driver was able to hold the lead for long stretches of time, DiBenedetto took the lead on lap 396 and held it for longer than anyone. For the next 93 laps, he looked like the man to beat.
Unfortunately for the No. 95 team the race had 104 laps left, and things came unraveled for DiBenedetto in the final few circuits. Jeff Burton, calling the race from NBC’s broadcast booth, predicted that DiBenedetto’s lack of experience in leading races would make negotiating lapped traffic his biggest challenge. That prediction came to fruition when Newman, fighting to stay on the lead lap, slid up in front of the No. 95 at the exit of turn 2 with about 20 laps to go. DiBenedetto hit Newman’s No. 6 in the rear bumper, resulting in damage to the No. 95’s left front fender. Judging by DiBenedetto’s post-race statements, the damage had a negative impact on his ability to hold the lead.
There will be a fair amount of debate in the next week about how much blame, if any, Newman should shoulder for how he raced DiBenedetto. The optics of a car about to be lapped blocking and damaging the leader’s car certainly look bad. Yet it is important to remember that the stakes were high for Newman as well.
If DiBenedetto had won, he would have locked himself into the playoffs, leaving one less spot for Newman, who would’ve been pushed down to the playoff bubble. Additionally, if a late caution had come out, Newman would have been in a better position to gain points by staying on the lead lap. Given those circumstances, Newman had every right to protect his position.
It is really unfortunate that the battle with Newman resulted in problems for DiBenedetto, but it clearly wasn’t an intentional attempt to damage the No. 95. Fighting for the preferred groove is a huge part of racing in Thunder Valley. If fans want to see hard-nosed short track racing, sometimes damage is going to occur. And if nothing else, Newman is consistent about how he races.
Ask Chase Elliott how difficult it is to pass Newman in the closing laps of a race. Ask Kyle Larson what Newman will do to muster even one more point for the playoffs.
The truly frustrating thing about DiBenedetto’s week is that he has been the victim of people and organizations acting in their own best interest. Whether it is Toyota, LFR, JGR, Bell, or Newman, none of them met any malice toward DiBenedetto. His career goals, in the short and long term, just reached a point where they happened to diverge with a lot of other peoples’ all at the same time. That is what makes his loss on Saturday night so heartbreaking.
Yet to circle back to the original point, DiBenedetto himself did not express any anger or bitterness post-race, instead reiterating his thankfulness for the opportunity. That is an indication of a driver who is aware of his own agency, of his own ability to act in his best interest, and that new opportunities for success in NASCAR are not beyond his reach.
Slouches don’t contend for wins at Bristol. After Saturday night, everybody in the NASCAR industry has a clearer picture than ever of DiBenedetto’s skill in the car and admirable character outside of it. LFR will not be his last good opportunity to showcase his talents in NASCAR. And until that next opportunity comes along, DiBenedetto will keep fighting.
“I’m not done yet,” he said after the race. “Something will come open. It’s gonna happen. I’m here to win; something’s gonna come open.”