Matt DiBenedetto was a driver that many did not expect to be a true contender in 2019 in the NASCAR Cup Series, but the expectation was for a much-improved season compared to his last few at the top level of NASCAR.
Throughout the season, he proved himself to be a great driver and showed what he was made of.
DiBenedetto was hired over the offseason to drive the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing after its newly formed alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Expectations were high for the driver going into the season; he had to go out on the track and prove that he could run with the top guys in the series.
The Daytona 500 was the start the team needed to prove it could make some noise in 2019. Not only did the No. 95 have one of its best runs of the season — DiBenedetto also started off the season leading the most laps in the Daytona 500, before getting caught up in a late-race wreck, leading to a poor finish. It was the first time he had led the most laps in a Cup race, and it was the first time he had been in contention to win for most of the day.
Even with the disappointing ending to the season-opening race, that was just the start though of what would be a career year.
Still, DiBenedetto struggled during the early portion of the season, leading to questions as to whether or not the alliance with JGR was going to do anything for the team. It was not until the summer months, starting at Sonoma Raceway, when he started to run strong. With a fourth-place finish at Sonoma, DiBenedetto showed he had the ability to win at this level. This led to several strong top-five and top-10 runs throughout the next few months.
Eventually, it led to a near-win in the Bristol Motor Speedway night race in August. After a late-race battle with Denny Hamlin, DiBenedetto finished a career-best second after leading for much of the end of the race.
That proved to be the high point in the season for the team, and it nearly led to a playoff berth. With an eighth-place finish at Darlington the next race, the team was carrying a lot of confidence. With a consistent end to the season, DiBenedetto remained just outside the top 20 in the points standings and wound up 22nd, the best points finish for the team in its history.
Matt DiBenedetto, who was 300-1 as of Friday to win the Bristol Night Race, led the most laps tonight and lost his lead with 12 laps to go 🤮pic.twitter.com/CP2x1AYAP6
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) August 18, 2019
The strong run at Bristol led to one of the biggest sponsorship-related storylines of the season. Barstool Sports partnered with DiBenedetto and the No. 95 team for two races in the playoffs, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. This was the first time the company had sponsored a driver, with 2019 being the first season that the organization was involved in the sport. Even though the finishes were not very good with the sponsor, with a 21st at Las Vegas and a 30th at Talladega, DiBenedetto had a chance to put it in victory lane at Talladega, running up front near the end before a late-race wreck.
LFR announced that summer that Christopher Bell would take over the No. 95 car starting in 2020, leaving DiBenedetto without a ride. It did not last for long, though. With the announcement of Paul Menard stepping away from full-time racing, Wood Brothers Racing hired DiBenedetto as the new driver for the No. 21 car for 2020.
The only what-if that can be asked here from 2019 is if DiBenedetto scored that win at Bristol and made it into the playoffs. Would he have contended? Statistics say he would have been close to the Round of 12. Regardless, it would have been the feel-good story of the season and put him on the map as one of the top drivers in the series. After an emotional post-race interview, coming in the week it was announced that he would not be back with the team, he stated how grateful he is to be in the sport and how he wants to win. He nearly did it that night, and he can and should be able to win for many years to come.
In 2020 being with the Wood Brothers and its Team Penske alliance is going to be a huge boost to DiBenedetto’s performance. His runs with LFR were stellar at times, but all signs point to 2020 being a new career year for him. Can he score a win? Some believe so. Is a playoff berth without a win possible for him? Certainly.
Expectations are going to be even higher for him than they were with the No. 95 team. The pressure is going to be on, but if he performs the way he did in 2019, do not be surprised at all if he wins a race, gets into the playoffs and contends to make a deep run. Success in 2020 is going to be key to his future, and who knows, maybe he will in fact be the driver the get Wood Brothers its 100th win.
36 starts, zero wins, 3 top fives, 7 top 10s
Best finish: 2nd – Bristol (August)
Point standings: 22nd
Driver Grade: B