In the last two weeks, Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine has been crucified on social media, especially Twitter, for the decision to let Matt DiBenedetto go from his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race team.
DiBenedetto has given LFR more top fives in one year than it scored in its previous eight years of existence (the team has been in a new alliance this year with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it is not like the assistance Furniture Row Racing was receiving from JGR). But in the end, Leavine had to make a business decision that was best for all 30-some employees at LFR rather than what would make the NASCAR fandom happy. And as a result, he’s getting lambasted from numerous sides.
Before we delve into this too far, let me start by saying that I have almost zero knowledge of the inner workings of LFR, JGR or Toyota Racing Development. I have knowledge of the sport and some of the contracts that are in place. I know the rumors and backstories that have swirled around. For all intents and purposes, this is an opinion column, and the items stated here are purely my own and do not reflect anything from any of the major parties to this whole controversy.
LFR has been a back-marker team for the vast majority of its existence. Prior to 2018, it had one top five and five top 10s in seven years. For 2018, it booted Michael McDowell and put Kasey Kahne in the seat with the promise of some help from Hendrick Motorsports. By the end of the year, Kahne was out for health reasons; Regan Smith filled in for 11 races and managed a top five and two top 10s.
For 2019, DiBenedetto rolled the dice on himself, walked away from Go FAS Racing (although rumors were he was going to be let go) and threw his helmet out there for anyone that wanted to hire him. Leavine brought in DiBenedetto and inked a deal for the help from JGR. It also brought over longtime JGR employee Mike Wheeler to be crew chief. The two hit it off and, as of this writing, have three top fives and five top 10s this season.
Those are awesome results for LFR, and you’d think it’d want DiBenedetto around for a long time. The problem comes in with Christopher Bell. Bell is ready for Cup. The only major Toyota organization in Cup is JGR. The problem is that it has Denny Hamlin, who is a perennial championship contender, Kyle Busch, who is one of the best drivers in the sport, Martin Truex Jr., who is a champion one year removed, and Erik Jones, a budding star. NASCAR rules limit owners to four cars, so there is no place at JGR for Bell.
That leaves the team that has an alliance with JGR. LFR has one car. Either Bell or Jones is going to go in that car, which left DiBenedetto on the outside looking in. A reminder, I have no knowledge of the contracts with TRD, JGR and LFR, but there is some technical alliance with Gibbs and TRD is providing assistance. Leavine had to make a decision that probably was contingent on the fact that if he kept DiBenedetto, he was going to lose all of that support. Leavine has made commitments to 30-plus people to provide for their well-being. If he loses that support, he’s probably not going to be able to keep all of those employees.
Remember, Kyle Larson was a Toyota development driver. When he was ready to come up to Cup, there was no room at the inn at JGR or Michael Waltrip Racing, who were the two Toyota teams at the time. Larson didn’t want to wait for a seat to come open, so he jumped ship to Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi Racing. TRD was none too pleased and has vowed to never let that happen again if it ran across another generational talent. Enter Bell, the latest phenom who is unquestionably ready to move to the top level of the sport. In order to have a place for him, it had to either fund a second car at LFR, which is struggling to fully fund one car, or let DiBenedetto go. The latter was, unfortunately, the only prudent business decision.
The reason for all of this backstory is that since the announcement, Leavine has been getting eviscerated on Twitter by everyone who has ever clapped for DiBenedetto. The great thing has been that Leavine has responded to many of them. While he has not divulged details of what went into the decision, he has made it abundantly clear that the health and well-being of all of his employees was paramount in his mind and that he made this tremendously difficult decision because of that. It has been incredibly refreshing to see the owner of an organization — not the general manager, not the PR staff, not another higher-up, the OWNER of the organization — responding to people on social media.
Leavine has reiterated countless times that he loves DiBenedetto and truly appreciates all that he did for the team. He has continually pointed out that he doesn’t have the ability to field a second car. He has also been open and honest about what he has and hasn’t said and has corrected those who are misquoting him. He pointed out a couple of weeks ago he couldn’t make it to the race because he had to work.
Can you imagine Rick Hendrick or Joe Gibbs sitting down and responding to hundreds of fans about a major business decision? Sorry, there is just little chance that they’d spend the time or effort.
Leavine is a real person who genuinely cares for his employees, including DiBenedetto. The sport would be a lot better off with more guys like Bob Leavine in it.
We need more Bob Leavines.