Denny Hamlin snatched the trophy and checkered flag on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but there’s no debating that Matt DiBenedetto snatched our hearts.
It’s almost too Hollywood for the 28-year-old journeyman (what an oxymoron that is, by the way) to win his first career Cup race while delivering that same accomplishment to Leavine Family Racing the same week he’s told he’s losing his ride.
Here’s a guy who’s risked it all, moved from California to North Carolina to pursue his dream of making it in NASCAR, has gotten grade-A opportunities, has been kicked around with smaller, less competitive teams, paid his dues, has enough confidence to bet on himself, lands on his feet in the best situation he’s been in, performs, only to be told he’s being replaced.
Heartbreaking. Here we go again.
Sure, most drivers make the trek to North Carolina at some point and have experienced an ounce of failure/disrespect/heartbreak in racing. But DiBenedetto is the poster child for all those drivers.
And he is for you, too. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in some form or fashion has experienced hardship in life to a varying degree.
Here’s the bottom line: DiBenedetto is a damn good race car driver who also happens to be a genuinely nice person. He’s been kicked around and hasn’t been provided that top-tier opportunity that people long for, whether in racing or not.
Many fans see a little bit of themselves in DiBenedetto and want him to succeed.
He’s always been the underdog who’s outperformed his equipment and is on the short list of drivers who could perform at a high clip if given that opportunity.
This past weekend at Bristol reignited the Guido fanfare that’s been sweeping NASCAR for a couple years now. Coming out in driver introductions in a boxing getup, signaling ain’t nobody going to knock me down, preceded his improbable Bristol run, resulting in a second-place finish.
The fans let him know how they felt about it.
This was a moment that I won’t forget in my career. I was trying myself not to get emotional the entire time.
— Hannah Newhouse (@HannahNewhouse) August 18, 2019
Besides the genuine factor, DiBenedetto can probably drive just as good, if not better, than anybody. Dating back to his days running for The Motorsports Group and TriStar Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, BK Racing and Go FAS Racing in Cup as well as LFR, his results speak for themselves.
I found myself explaining DiBenedetto’s story to one of my non-NASCAR friends. I mentioned his climb, his performance this year and specifically this week. Then he asked me the obvious question.
“Well, then why aren’t they (LFR) keeping him? Or why doesn’t anybody else want him?”
There’s the biggest factor in this whole situation. Where DiBenedetto ultimately lands will be the next and possibly most important chapter in the book titled NASCAR’s Business Model. Ross Chastain and DiBenedetto will be the two most important chapters in that book.
Another debate is whether or not to go down to Xfinity for a year, run in competitive equipment and presumably compete for a championship vs. running 25th every week in Cup. Of course, that situation arises only if opportunities do.
Most Cup drivers have said once you make it to the top of the mountain, there’s no reason to go down. Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier did so, but that wasn’t until their Cup careers had come and gone. DiBenedetto isn’t anywhere near his prime statistically speaking (39 is a driver’s peak age).
DiBenedetto has 12 races left this season to try and prove to team owners at NASCAR’s top level that he belongs (as if he hasn’t already). Look no further than this pair of quotes.
“If you’re a team owner and you’re not calling Matt DiBenedetto, that’s a mistake,” Jeff Burton said.
“Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his résumé in front of everyone,” Denny Hamlin added. “So he doesn’t need to type it out. He’s going out there and performing. He will land as good or better on his feet, I am certain of it, after this year.”
If there’s any justice in this world, Burton and Hamlin’s comments will ring true in 2020 and beyond.
If so, the people’s champ will inch a little closer to his ultimate goal of winning in the Cup Series and becoming a NASCAR champ.