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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

The Underdog House: DiBenedetto of the Desert

Top of the Class

For the second week in a row, Matt DiBenedetto is the top underdog in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. This time, it was his 13th-place finish at ISM Raceway that earned him the highest spot on our underfunded pedestal.

As the season winds down, it’s easy to forget just how successful this team has been in 2019. The year began with DiBenedetto leading the most laps in the Daytona 500, and things only got better from there. A handful of top 10s and a near win at Bristol Motor Speedway in August had one of the more popular underdogs in the garage at the forefront of the conversation. With the championship battle taking most of the headlines, it’s not terribly surprising that the spotlight has shifted away from the Leavine Family Racing Toyota, but their performance certainly hasn’t faltered.

Honorable Mention

The only other dogs to join DiBenedetto in the top 20 were Chris Buescher in 16th and Ty Dillon in 20th.

For Buescher, Homestead will mark the end of his time at JTG Daugherty Racing as he returns to Roush Fenway Racing in 2020. RFR was where Buescher scored his NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2015, so it will be a bit of a homecoming for the Texas native.

Otherdogs

The Xfinity Series race on Saturday (Nov. 9) was devoid of any top 10 finishes for the underdog competitors, but Gray Gaulding managed a 12th-place showing. We’ve called out either Gaulding or his teammate, Ray Black Jr. more times than I can count in 2019, and it is a testament to how well that team has performed. Black finished 14th last weekend at Phoenix. Sandwiched between the SS Green Light Racing cars of Gaulding and Black was Ryan Sieg in 13th, and Josh Williams rounded out the top 15, scoring consecutive top 15s for the first time in his career.

Meanwhile, Friday night (Nov. 8) saw the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series drivers make their rounds in the Arizona desert. There wasn’t a lot to be excited about for the underdog crew in that event. The Niece Motorsports team of Ross Chastain and Ty Majeski landed in the ninth and 11th spots, respectively, but that group is stretching the term underdog for sure. After those two, only Tyler Dippel in 15th wound up in the top half of the field.

History Lesson: 1996 Jiffy Lube Miami 300

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway since 1999, but not all of today’s fans realize that the Xfinity Series started competing at the South Florida track four years earlier. One of those prior races saw another NASCAR underdog ride to glory.

In 1996, Kevin Lepage was a relatively unknown racer from Vermont. He began the year with a total of 44 career starts in the then-Busch Series, and had exactly zero top-five finishes. Lepage drove his own family-owned car in nearly all of those 44 races and continued doing so into 1996.

Then, prior to the eighth race of the year at Hickory, Lepage signed on to drive for David Ridling. Ridling was relatively new as a NASCAR owner, with only a few races prior to that year. Suddenly, the Vermont wheelman who had never finished better than eighth in two years finished eighth and seventh in his first two races for Ridling.

Lepage gathered several more top 10 finishes, including a runner-up spot at Michigan in August. But it was the season finale at Homestead that saw the No. 88 Hype Energy Chevrolet reach the pinnacle. Lepage started 10th and was stout all race long. He led 94 of 200 laps, including the final 25 en route to his first career win.

Lepage would win once more in the Xfinity Series in 1998 at Bristol before calling it a career in 2014 after 350 starts. Ridling earned one more victory as well with Mike Skinner in 1999 before shutting down his operation in 2001. But for one day in south Florida, the two underdogs had their moment in the sun.

Here ends the lesson.

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About Frank Velat

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Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

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