Did You Notice? … The strength of Matt DiBenedetto’s late-season surge? In the last six Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, DiBenedetto’s earned four top-10 finishes. That matches his career total through 140 Cup starts before joining the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing this season.
The recent spurt has caused DiBenedetto to jump to 22nd in the season standings. It’s not close enough to earn a postseason spot without a win in this weekend’s Brickyard 400; he’s still 150 points behind Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman in 16th. But it’s easily the best this single-car team has run during its decade-long existence in the sport.
Consider LFR didn’t have more than two top-10 finishes from any of its drivers in a single season before DiBenedetto took charge this year. His 143 laps led are more than double the total accumulated by LFR’s wheelmen from 2011-2018. And his three top-five finishes have set a new record for a team that never earned one top-five result outside of Daytona International Speedway.
As you might expect, DiBenedetto’s recent run of success has elevated him into rarified air.
BEST AVERAGE FINISH – LAST 6 CUP RACES
Denny Hamlin 6.3
Kyle Busch 6.8
Martin Truex Jr. 7.1
Erik Jones 8.3
Brad Keselowski 9.0
Kyle Larson 9.5
Matt DiBenedetto 9.7
Kevin Harvick 9.7
Sitting seventh on that list, just a tick behind his four Toyota “teammates” at Joe Gibbs Racing puts DiBenedetto in pretty exclusive company. And success has come at all different types of racetracks: Darlington’s egg-shaped superspeedway, Bristol Motor Speedway’s .533-mile bullring and the road course at Watkins Glen, to name a few.
So does this late-season push put the 28-year-old in position to save his career, just weeks after learning he won’t be retained for 2020? Would owner Bob Leavine, loath to start a second team, be willing to crack under popular pressure? Surely, at the very least DiBenedetto’s audition will get top-tier owners to pay attention… right?
Mayyyybe. The closest example that matches DiBenedetto this century is Mike Wallace. Back in 2001, Wallace was tapped as a super-sub when Jeremy Mayfield got released by owner Roger Penske. For the first time in a journeyman career, he had top-tier equipment and resources to showcase some talent.
The last eight races of the year brought Wallace two top-10 finishes, including a career-best second at Phoenix International Raceway. He equaled the laps led total (60) Mayfield had in the car during the year’s first 28 events and provided a spark to what had been an underperforming team.
Fans quickly pushed for Penske to keep that car heading into the 2002 season rather than consolidate sponsorship into a smaller operation. But the famous owner chose to disband the team instead, releasing Wallace into free agency.
You’d think that performance would have put him on the shortlist elsewhere. Instead, Wallace’s late-season audition never translated into another golden opportunity. The 42-year-old earned just one more top-five finish over the next decade-plus in Cup, struggling through most of it with single-car, underdog operations.
Wallace is, of course, significantly older than DiBenedetto. You’d think, at age 28, Matty D would have a bright future ahead of him. But the world of NASCAR is wildly different, younger and sponsorship-dependent these days. Just look at what happened with Erik Jones for proof. He went from the hot young prospect at age 21, just two years ago, to potentially disposable once Christopher Bell found himself in line for a promotion.
DiBenedetto also isn’t benefiting from a below-average Silly Season. Kurt Busch appears likely to re-sign with Chip Ganassi Racing; if he does, just about every playoff-caliber ride is already spoken for. Front Row Motorsports, whose drivers sit lower than DiBenedetto in the standings, remains the only middle-tier Cup team or higher with a confirmed opening. Other programs that could, in theory, have a slot available (like Stewart-Haas Racing or Richard Childress Racing) employ Xfinity Series regulars ready to move into those rides.
So for the sport’s current Cinderella story, the clock may indeed strike midnight. And that’s no matter how many sixth-place finishes he gets down the stretch. So for DiBenedetto, there may be only one way to create a future path for himself: win. And by win… it may take multiple races for someone like Toyota these days to go, “OK, you know what, we’ll spend the money and keep him.”
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- I wrote at length about Jimmie Johnson’s postseason chances last week. He remains a seemingly insurmountable 18 points below the cutline heading to Indianapolis. But also consider he’s been involved in wrecks for three straight races: Michigan, Bristol and Darlington. That’s your deficit right there. Even matching a 15th-place finish from MIS in June would have done the trick. (Johnson wound up 34th instead). I guess the golden horseshoe fell out of his pocket at some point?
- Expect the crowd size to be scrutinized like crazy this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The weather forecast looks perfect (no rain, highs in the mid-70s) while the Cup Series offers an actual playoff battle for the first time in forever. Can those conditions do enough to cause an uptick in ticket sales? With NASCAR merging its track operations arm, International Speedway Corporation, and rumors swirling they’d consider a merger with Speedway Motorsports, Inc. over the long-term it’s increasingly difficult for independents like Indy to remain on the schedule. The time to fix this race is running out, especially with an awful scheduling date ahead in 2020 (July 4th weekend).
- Clint Bowyer only had one top-10 finish at Darlington in 13 starts before this Southern 500. What a time to grab your career-best performance (sixth) at your worst track. Bowyer, now on the right side of the cutline, may have his contract extension hinge on a postseason bid. Otherwise, it’s a lot harder to re-sign a 40-year-old with limited sponsorship when Cole Custer waits in the wings.
- Call me crazy, but I feel like Kyle Busch dislikes this package. It started in January. It flared up at Dover in May. And it even happens when he finishes second. “You just can’t get there with this package,” Busch said. “It’s just such a one‑lane racetrack. There’s not enough options, there’s not enough grooves that you can get enough air on your car to close that gap and make that pass.” But what’s interesting is the sport’s most visible, successful veteran driver this season can’t make NASCAR listen no matter how much he squawks. If this were Dale Earnhardt, don’t you feel like the handling package would already be different?
- Don’t look now, but Larson has five straight top-10 finishes for just the third time in his Cup career. Keep an eye on him as a solid group of tracks await in the playoffs.
- What’s wrong with Aric Almirola? He’s been all but invisible the past month and doesn’t have a top-five finish since Phoenix in March. March! Consider this guy was one good break away from making the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year.