Nobody has had a more emotional few months than Matt DiBenedetto.
The current driver for Leavine Family Racing recently announced his move to Wood Brothers Racing for 2020, coming a year after his “leap of faith” from Go FAS Racing that led him to LFR.
The support for DiBenedetto came pouring in during Bristol week, when he found out he wouldn’t be returning to LFR next season, and followed that up by coming oh-so-close to winning at The World’s Fastest Half-Mile, only to be outdone by Denny Hamlin.
Frontstretch spent some one-on-one time with the unofficial people’s champ at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to discuss a variety of topics and get his thoughts on a whirlwind few weeks.
Davey Segal, Frontstretch: You announced some exciting news recently about your 2020 plans and joining the Wood Brothers. What were your emotions like when you got the call?
Matt DiBenedetto: The journey has been such an emotional roller coaster that it makes you appreciate things like this so much more. A perfect example would be when my wife found out, she just burst into tears. The emotional roller coaster. When this news did come out, she was just crying because we’d been through so much together and it makes it that much more special.
Segal: How quickly did things come together after you found out in Bristol that you wouldn’t be returning to LFR?
DiBenedetto: I found out about not being able to return to LFR four days before Bristol. And then I got a phone call about two days after Bristol from the Wood Brothers team inquiring about having me come in to chat with them. It all came about very quickly.
Segal: Did you anticipate that happening this quick?
DiBenedetto: Not at all. Most of my career has been the total opposite of me having to wait painfully long, so this was the opposite of what’s happened in the past.
Segal: One of the people in your corner was Paul Menard. He’s the one who told the Wood Brothers. What does it mean to you to have Paul in your corner?
DiBenedetto: It was huge. I can’t even figure out how to express thanking Paul properly. He’s impacting my entire life and everything I’ve worked for since I was a kid. Me and my wife and family, he’s impacting all of us in a way you can’t possibly thank anybody enough for. That, and giving me the opportunity to drive for the most legendary team in NASCAR. It’s all just so amazing and I’d love to see Paul get the 100th win for the Wood Brothers. That’d be really cool for them, and if he doesn’t, I’ll definitely plan to and would love to get that win for them. But it’d be cool for him to finish up a long and successful time in the Cup Series.
Segal: Have you been friends with Paul for a while?
DiBenedetto: When I was driving for Ford, there’d be some team events that we’d all do. Some fun team building events and things. That’s actually how I got to know Paul better. Got to know him as a person, know him as a family man, how basic and genuine he is and humble. He likes doing stuff like changing his oil in his own vehicles. He’s just a very basic guy, it’s was nice to get to know him and how basic he is.
Segal: I don’t think there’s a single person who’s not in your corner. Are you surprised by how much attention you’ve gotten the past few years and especially recently?
DiBenedetto: I’ve been really surprised because I’ve really done nothing but be me. I don’t think I’m that cool or anything, I’m a regular guy. I just go home, chill with my wife and dog and that’s about it, and I love driving race cars. It’s crazy just being me, nothing special, but people embrace the journey so much and how much positive feedback there is and how in a world of social media that can be tough. I keep looking on this news that’s been happening and our good runs with LFR, and all that is nothing but love and support which is crazy, especially in today’s world.
Segal: You were very emotional at Bristol, and that’s because you got so close to your career goal …
DiBenedetto: That’s exactly it, all my life work laid out right in front of me. To come so close, it just broke me down. I know I’m definitely going to win, but you want it so bad and you want it now. I wanted it for not only me but my team, Bob Leavine to give LFR their first win, for Wheels (crew chief Mike Wheeler) coming over to this team. So many reasons, that’s my entire life’s work. It just really made it hard for me to get words out because I wanted it so bad.
Segal: You shared a really cool moment in Victory Lane with Denny Hamlin too.
DiBenedetto: That just shows what kind of a person Denny really is. I’ve gotten to know him. Not only is he a great person, not only does he care about people in the sport and the sport in general, but he’s impacted my career too. He sponsored my car at Go FAS Racing. Him, Kevin Harvick, DW (Darrell Waltrip) and Whisky River were on the race car.
Denny started that trend and then it blew up into a big story and got us a six-race primary sponsor at a small team, which was huge for us. He actually impacted my entire career. It’s amazing what kind of a person that shows he is. He took his own money to sponsor me, a competitor. That was very cool. It was amazing to get that kind of respect from him and have that moment in victory lane. He was racing against me, but he was also pulling for me at the same time and us as a team. A cool moment you’ll never forget for the rest of your life.
Segal: What is it with you and being ballsy? You keep betting on yourself and keep moving up the ladder.
DiBenedetto: What made it clear for me to make all those ballsy decisions was that I’ve worked my entire life since I was a kid with a dream of winning in the Cup Series. And I wasn’t going to settle for anything short of that. I want to win in Cup, and I can live with myself going 100% all-in on that, but I could never live with myself settling and not getting the chance to win. That’s where all these decisions were clear and why I was so relentless on climbing the ladder to win and not settling.
Segal: No disrespect to LFR and the other teams you’ve raced for, but this is the real deal. The Wood Brothers are a playoff-caliber team. How do you get amped up for that while staying focused on the here and the now?
DiBenedetto: The focus now is finishing out the rest of the year while still trying to sneak out that win for LFR, which is a growing team. We have our strengths and weaknesses as a team. The short tracks and road courses are our strengths, we’re very open to that. That organization is so established and incredible. A lot of good people, fast race cars, the alliance with Penske, all of that expectation for me is to go win. It’s that simple.
Segal: Social media is a cruel place. There’s been lots of hate for Bob Leavine and LFR. But you’ve been supportive of them, it’s part of the business.
DiBenedetto: I was real outspoken about sticking up for them because the opportunity for next year and my career wouldn’t have continued without LFR and them giving me the opportunity go out there this year, shine and be in the best situation I’ve ever been in, run up front, compete for wins, top fives, top 10s. All this is thanks to them taking a chance on me for this year. They deserve nothing but praise. The opportunity for next year came about because they gave me this opportunity. It’s all credit to Bob Leavine, his wife Shannon and everybody for putting me in this car.
Segal: You always say you don’t want to change the path you’ve been down because now you get to appreciate it more. Rocky roads are better than smooth ones.
DiBenedetto: Exactly. I’d never change it because it made me the person I am in general in life, it’s made me appreciate it more and made me a better driver because of how tough the journey has been. I couldn’t appreciate it as much without the path I’ve had to go about it.
I always say one day I need to write a book when this journey is all over. One day, it’d be cool to do that, I feel like I’m still getting started and it’s still all so crazy. I don’t know if people would believe it if I put it all out like that one day.
Segal: How did you and your wife come to name your dog Brian?
DiBenedetto: Tay and I love Family Guy. We rescued Brian. He’s a white-colored mutt, a male, we were trying to figure out names. Tay said “BRIAN!” and I said, “Oh my God, done. Definitely Brian.” And I think human names for dogs are funny anyway. People remember him because of his name. Something different than the typical dog names.
Segal: What are realistic expectations for you guys for the rest of 2019?
DiBenedetto: I think because we have a lot of 750-horsepower tracks remaining on the schedule [Dover, ROVAL, Richmond, Martinsville, Phoenix], all those places I’d mark off as realistic shots to win. We’ve had two races where we arguably controlled a large portion of the race and had as good of a shot to win as anybody. That’s no fluke. The 550-horsepower, 1.5-mile tracks are not our strength. We try to improve on those and get better, but we have different goals for those. We don’t go into a Vegas and think, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna win this week.” We know it’s not our strong suit.
We go into short tracks and road courses where we get that off-throttle (time) back, using the brake pedal back and the horsepower, all that. That puts it way more in my wheelhouse, me as a driver, us as a team, to be able to work on older setup stuff. A goal is to win one of those, and I think that’s realistic.