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We Need More Bob Leavines

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.

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About Mike Neff

Mike Neff
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    To the point of the headline, as a vendor to LFR, I have found Bob Leavine to be very approachable, enthusiastic, a true gentleman. Every time I went there, he and I would have a warm conversation on the news of the day and he always made the time to make me feel a valued Friend of the Team.

    “We need more Bob Leavines”.

  2. Avatar

    Really, this has gone from a racing chat to a religious one?

    • Avatar

      It’s not a chat about religion, it’s about how being a shrewd businessman often conflicts with religious doctrine (i.e., how a Christian is supposed to behave and the values they are supposed to live by). This often leaves Joe looking like a hypocrite because he, or the media, have always played up how religious he is over the years. The other owners may be religious and just as hypocritical but, when people think of them, they don’t think “religion” as they do when they think about Gibbs. I wish Joe (and the media) would stop even talking about “how religious Joe is”. His actions prove differently. He’s no different that the rest of the owner so stop propagating the myth that he is.

      • Avatar

        Thank you. Christians don’t claim to be perfect or better than others. I have never heard Joe Gibbs claim to be Saintly, but I have heard him admit to being a sinner. We all are.

  3. Avatar

    Before we go too far bashing Reverend Joe let’s remember where he came from. Joe was a very successful coach in the NFL. A routine part of his job was having to tell big, strong (and sometimes mean) young men that their life-long dream of playing professional football was essentially over. Coaches who are too sentimental don’t last very long in the job. And Joe’s ability to make those tough decisions was good enough to help him be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    Joe brought the same mentality to NASCAR and has been very successful. He made the tough decision to ditch Chevy and Rick Hendrick (who helped set him up in the sport) to become Toyota’s #1 team. It could be argued that without Joe Gibbs, Toyota probably would have followed Dodge out of NASCAR. He quickly moved on from popular young sprint car drivers, JJ Yeley and (the late-) Jason Leffler when they floundered in his Cup cars. But he stuck by Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch even when their tempers threatened to overshadow their considerable talents. As a result his teams have won championships and many, many races.

    Were there mistakes made by Joe? Of course, every leader screws up now and then. He was forced to bring up Joey Logano up to Cup too early and gave up on him too soon. He let both Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte leave while they were still at the peaks of their careers. He might have paid too much to Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards to lure them away from Roush. As expected, the departures of Kenseth and Edwards from JGR were messy and in the case of Edwards, was shrouded in mystery. He began to accept paid drivers who have (or had) less-than-elite driving talent. Jacking-up the cost of the support contract to Barney Visser helped force Barney out of NASCAR, depriving Toyota of a top-quality team. And I think Joe’s farming out Christopher Bell to LFR will also turn out to be a mistake. LFR is too small and under-funded to showcase the Bell’s potentially-elite talent in Cup.

  4. Avatar

    I don’t get all the attacking of Bob Levine. Sending nasty tweets to him is not going to magically make the money he needs to keep DeBenedetto appear. Anyone of us in the same situation would make the same decision. He’s getting stronger support from JGR/TRD and getting one of the hottest NASCAR prospects in a while to drive his car. My gripe is more with Toyota who could probably fund a second car for LFR if they wanted to. I really like Matty D and he absolutely deserves a top tier ride, but I can’t fault Bob Levine for making the smart business decision.

  5. Avatar

    Actually, the Bob Leavine’s and Joe Gibbs of NASCAR and their “business decisions” are the exact reason why the stands at virtually every track are empty. NASCAR as an organization and the teams that make these types of decisions can’t seem to understand that the “product” they are selling has to be sold to someone……the fans. If the fans aren’t happy, they don’t buy tickets, they don’t buy merchandise, and they don’t watch on TV.

    We all understand that these team alliances and contracts with various manufacturers and sponsors are complex. But no matter how hard the media tries to spin an unpopular decision, if the fans don’t like it, they aren’t going to be tuning in or spending the money at the track. It is that simple.

    Wake up NASCAR. Fans don’t care what the back story is, if they like a driver, they want to see them on the track. What happened when Gordon, Edwards, Jr., and Stewart left the sport? Many of their fans left also. Some latched on to a new driver possibly. But others simply left the sport behind them when their driver moved on. What should be happening behind the scenes right now is NASCAR sitting down with the teams and figuring out how to keep a popular driver in the sport. Trust me, they can’t afford to lose any more fans.

  6. Avatar

    Anyone else find it interesting that Holy Joe has had 2 jobs…both of which run on Sunday? Just sayin.

  7. Avatar

    I don’t think this mess is entirely Bob Leavine’s doing as much as it is Joe Gibbs. Look at Saint Gibbs’ last few years. He didn’t hesitate to kick Joey Logano to the curb when he knew he could get Matt Kensth. He then turned around and stabbed Kenseth in the back for the sake of holding onto Eric Jones. Then he stabbed Carl Edwards in the back for the sake of sponsorship dollars in giving Edwards’ ride to Daniel Suarez. Then he didn’t hesitate to boot Suarez out of his ride for the sake of keeping Truex in the Saint Gibbs fold when Furniture Row folded. Now, Matt DiBenedetto has been victimized the staunch Christian Gibbs for the benefit of keeping Christopher Bell before someone else (Hendrick maybe?) steals him away. Everyone praises Saint Gibbs for his so-called strong Christian principles, yet time and again he proves that he is a big slimeball. but then again, from what I see around me and read in the news, being a slimball seems to be THE trait of being a staunch Christian. Well, given the other drivers Saint Gibbs has and the way they behave (Ky. Busch, Hamlin, Truex), DiBenedetto really doesn’t fit into the Gibbs Organizational style of driving and behaving. Ask Joey, Carl, and Daniel about that.

    • Avatar

      I will take your comment one step further regarding Reverend Joe Gibbs. A good friend of mine worked there for awhile and they have some form of a chapel at JGR for all the employees every Monday and have a service since the cup races were on Sunday. You didn’t have to attend, however I was told it was very “frowned” upon if you didn’t go. I have nothing against religion but as an employee, I don’t think you should be forced to go if you don’t want to.

      • Avatar

        I was standing at a reception counter at JGR waiting to see someone and I noticed a clipboard with a sign-up sheet where employees were encouraged to select and pray for specific “safety at the track, ingenuity of the crewchiefs, successful results” etc. That struck me as a little wacky as a company culture…

    • Avatar

      Hey Ken, Joe is a good man, did you ever figure he is looking out for the guys that.put together the cars together for the drivers that make 10 fold what the mechanics make. Step up and own a team and race against him instead 9f playing keyboard jockey and slamming a man trying to take care of his race team and partner teams.