Home / Cup Series / Did You Notice?: Matt DiBenedetto’s Late-Season Surge? Can It Pay Off For 2020?
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Did You Notice?: Matt DiBenedetto’s Late-Season Surge? Can It Pay Off For 2020?

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.
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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    Don’t think the Mike Wallace, Matty D comparison is very accurate but I fear the results will be the same. You also have to realize that no one else who drove for LFR had the JGR support.

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      That last sentence makes me wonder… is Matt’s recent success the last 10 or so races due to JGR bumping support to prep that team/car for Bell next year? Looking at Matt’s results this year, there is a pretty clear change around race 14 (Pocono). They finished 25th or worse in half the races prior to Pocono. Since, they’ve only finished that low once, while also notching ALL of their top 10 finishes (6 of them!). Qualifying has gotten better too. Coincidence? The team learning to communicate and coming together? Or is it increased JGR/Toyota help putting Matt in better cars than he’s ever had before?

      • Avatar

        I have wondered the same thing and we may never know. Bell will be in the car next year and as a rookie you can’t expect the same driving ability as a seasoned veteran. Then in 2021 we should be moving over to the Gen-7.

        Unless Matt gets a ride in mid tier equipment (no38?) we really may never know the answer. The no38 team has performed quite nicely this year as well with David behind the wheel.

  2. Avatar

    The only thing we can hope for is that behind the scenes NASCAR and the manufacturers are coming up with a car that puts mechanical grip back into the cars without ride height being an issue. Find a way to eliminate side force and make the cars look the same on the drivers side as they do on the passenger side.
    Lets put the driving back into the drivers hands.

    • Avatar

      Here is a question for you iceman related to the aero issues we discussed in the other article….

      Is it possible to totally remove the aero effect from the racing.

      If not, then who do you want the aero effect to benefit, the leader or the cars behind the leader (because someone is going to benefit from the aero effect)?

      If it benefits the cars behind the leader then you wind up with more passes for the lead but it’s largely manufactured lead changes which would be a waste of time because the same few cars will be swapping the lead back and forth. If it benefits the leader than we will have pretty much what we have now.

      The bottom line is, that as speeds go up, aero dynamics will play an ever larger role (that is why I prefer short track and road courses, aero is much less important).

      • Avatar

        There is a test car that NASCAR used that RCR ran called the X-3. This car has suddenly vanished and we have heard nothing since the test results were posted. Aero will never be eliminated, it is the dirty air (turbulent air and side force) that is the problem. Because of side force these cars rely on this force to keep the car straight in the corner. You essentially want a design that has 0 yaw angle without side force which creates mechanical grip and reduces aero grip. Then we have the air coming over the car. Because teams have sealed off the underneaths of the cars due to coil binding thus the splitter will most likely stay according to Childress. The splitter does little difference from a front facia and only provides 10% of the cars overall downforce. You have to have air flowing underneath the car to reduce turbulent air on the trailing car.
        So in short,
        Add an opening to the splitter by raising it a little in the middle you have cleaner air flow while eliminating the aero effect on ride height which reduces turbulent air.
        Make the drivers side and passenger side to match

        Right now with todays car you have teams maximizing side force ( I mean the panels on what would be a passenger door actually bow in by design to increase side force) and no air flow underneath the car. All this air coming off the side of the car missing the spoiler.
        I do think NASCAR did the right thing with the big spoiler and brake ducts but with this generation car, the side force is still a major problem. So what do we see with todays package?

        Well, when all cars are equal in dirty air they are unable to get optimum side force but still have air from the spoiler keeping the rear end on the track. This is why we see a lot of passing when cars are in packs. While it is hard to pass because because it is a one lane track (Sorry Kyle but you are going to need to get used to this) they are still able to run up beside someone and pass.
        Unfortunately when you get to the clean air vs dirty air, we still have a problem and this is not something NASCAR can fix with this generation car but certainly can with the next one and they have test data from the X-3 as evidence.

        Hope all or most of that above makes sense, this is information that I am still learning as I grow more and more frustrated with the dirty air problem I continue to research and learn as to why aerodynamically this problem exists.
        I too am a big short track fan, give me one lane tracks under 3/4 of a mile all day. Makes for hard passing, bumping, and hot tempers. But they must eliminate this side force problem to get back to good racing imo.

        • Avatar

          Wow, most of it does make sense to me but you have certainly given this a lot more thought than I have. Can’t say I had ever heard of the X-3 test car (or maybe I read about it and quickly forgot). Thanks for taking the time to explain all that.

  3. Avatar

    What is the definition of a “fix” for Indy? If it’s a sell-out and 250,000 grandstands packed, that is never going to happen again. The Brickyard 400 is what is now. The Indy 500 packs them in because its “the 500” mile race and a civic event in Indiana. NASCAR will never be that in Indiana. It’s still a big deal to the teams and packs a big purse. Hopefully, this package will produce on Sunday. This is the type of track where it should be the best. If they get to the point where they are thinking of using the road course, then just stop racing at Indy. If NASCAR can’t be on the oval, then it shouldn’t be at IMS at all.

    • Avatar

      They brought in almost 400,000 for the inaugural Brickyard race. 160,000 isn’t missing the mark. Be optimistic and maybe with that optimism, more fans will see that Nascar is still truly great motorsports action week in and week out.

      I have attended 254 races since 1988. And I watch every week. Nascar doesn’t need fairweather fans. It needs loyalty and less criticism. Let the executives calling the shots…call the shots. They’ve gotten rid of that “Big-4” sports guy in Brian France. Let’s see how the dice fall for a few years…I suspect that soon they will do away with the “playoff” format and return to consistency racing…shouldn’t that be how a champion is determined rather than one race? What if I were a driver and I went out and won 5 races in the first 26, but finished last in all the others? That doesn’t make me a “Good” driver. That just makes me lucky to have good equipment in the five races I actually was able to finish. Like Erik Jones…he WHEELED that car at Darlington but what else has he done on different tracks this season? What he did was the result of good equipment. Now take Kyle Busch and it doesn’t matter what type of track you are on, or where he qualifies…he ALWAYS (maybe 95% of the time) improves his spot…he can have a junk car and complain about it all day but STILL works his way through the crap back markers (from 28th on back these days) and still savages a decent finish. Or Harvick…it doesn’t matter where HE starts in the race, he always somehow manages to drive forward. Now take Erik Jones, unless he STARTS well, he generally doesn’t finish well. He’s a good example of an “equipment” racer, like Aric Almirola or Bubba Wallace. DiBendetto is another driver that takes absolute JUNK and makes something of it.

      In the old days of Nascar, those are the drivers that would be given the opportunities to succeed. Just as it should be now.

      The racing product itself is fantastic. I haven’t seen people catching leaders in the middle of runs since the late 90s. But that’s what we see week in and week out now…just because a car is fastest at the start of a green flag run NOW doesn’t mean it’s going to be fastest at the end…handling is a premium with this package and that makes for great racing. Would love to see stages go away so full race strategy could come back into play. Manufactured drama doesn’t make for good TV. As people grow tired of the the instant gratification that smart phones and smart technology provides, they will come back to “endurance” sports like Nascar-if you look, you will see that baseball is an example of this idea.

      Anyway. I’m done. For now.

      • Avatar

        Why are we making a big deal out of Indy? We know what it is and I watch cause of the history. It is an iconic track that is both hard to pass and drive. It presents a unique set of challenges and the team that can best prepare for all 4 corners most likely wins this race.

        I hope you are right that they do rid of both the chase and stages 🙂

        The racing has been good from 3rd through the pack, I am still disappointed with the dirty air effect but this is primarily a complaint with this generation of stock car since the CoT was introduced.

        I am optimistic that with the Gen 7, schedule changes, and who knows what else (removal of the chase, removal of stage racing?) that the new NASCAR leadership will get this right. Working with the manufacturers can only help as they can use their engineering resources to eliminate side force and dirty air *fingers crossed*.

        I am done talking the Gen 6 package….I do applaud NASCAR for what they did this year as I do feel they did as much as they could within this generations design constraints. Is it where it needs to be, no, but damn its closer than it was. Now lets get the Gen 7 car where it needs to be.

        Josalyn, I am confused by your baseball example. I have heard baseball is losing fans and are looking at ways to attracts younger audiences as attendance diminishes. And just to make sure this was not a local thing I decided to do a quick google, here is one article I found, I am from the Detroit area>

        https://www.thenation.com/article/why-no-one-watches-baseball-anymore-mlb-red-sox-yankees/

        They mention a study regarding favorite sports and NASCAR is not included in that study which is a bummer.

        I also believe attendance is down for all sports in regards to stadium attendance.

  4. Avatar

    Found this gem in Adam Cheek’s article “IndyCar, Richmond Raceway Looking Ahead to 2020” – you’d think someone at NASCAR would look at this and go, Hmmm….

    Quoted from that article (specific words in all-caps were modified by me to highlight them);

    “Frye elaborated on how the new LOW-DOWNFORCE, HIGH-HORSEPOWER car has changed the sport, particularly at Iowa Speedway, a track very similar to Richmond.

    “2 years ago, at Iowa, we had [around] 300 passes with a higher downforce car,” Frye said. “Last year at Iowa we had 995 on track passes, and then this year we had around 800, so we think the formula we got is really good. We’re very committed to making sure we have a spectacular show here for you all.””

  5. Avatar

    Unfortunately, there is just no place for Dibenedetto to land except another bottom tier team. What a shame that there isn’t more opportunity in the series.

    I’m not real happy with this package either so I wish more drivers would campaign NASCAR to make changes. I hate the fact that they can hold it wide open at so many tracks. It just cheapens the whole sport.

  6. Avatar

    The only ‘fix’ for Indy is to either move the race to IRP…ad great short track, of find another track to run on. The supposed ‘legacy’ Nascar tries to sell has nothing to do with stock cars. One the new wore off, the terrible racing was horribly apparent. Time to bail.

    • Avatar

      Bill B and sb said it almost perfectly. Unless Dibenedetto buys a jackpot winning Powerball ticket and brings his own cash, he’s not going to be racing cup next year. Damn shame.

      As for Indy – great nostalgic race for open wheel cars, snoozer for stock cars. IRP (didn’t they change the name like a decade ago?) would make for a great cup race! OR, they could run the figure 8 over in Anderson! lol