By David Morgan, Associate Editor
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Matt DiBenedetto was 12 laps away from a lifelong dream being realized as he held the lead in Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Unfortunately for the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, that dream would not come true as Denny Hamlin passed him on lap 489, leaving DiBenedetto to watch Hamlin’s car pull away through his windshield en route to the victory.
A dejected DiBenedetto fought back tears on pit road after the race, as numerous drivers came by to offer him words of encouragement and the near-capacity crowd at The Last Great Colosseum cheered to show their admiration for the 28-year old Grass Valley, California native.
“I don’t even know what to say,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m so sad we didn’t win, but proud, proud of the effort. I got tight there from the damage from trying to get by (Ryan) Newman and that immediately flipped a switch and got tight.
“Man, this opportunity has been – that’s what I want everybody to know, how thankful I am that I got this opportunity and to work with great people like (Mike) “Wheels” (Wheeler), my crew chief. I am so thankful everyone on this team gave me this opportunity – all of our sponsors, ProCore, Dumont Jet, Anest Iwata spray equipment, Toyota for backing me this year, everybody at Leavine Family Racing.
“I want to try not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week and I want to stick around and I want to win. That’s all I want to do is win in the Cup Series and we were close. It’s so hard to be that close, but it’s neat to race door-to-door with Denny Hamlin, someone who I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid. It’s amazing. Great day, but this one is going to hurt for sure.”
Even as he celebrated his win, Hamlin was quick to show his respect for the drive DiBenedetto showed over the closing laps.
“Over a teammate, there’s not someone worse that I wanted to see in the front,” Hamlin said. “When I was marching through the field, I’m like hoping someone passed him so I didn’t take the win away.
“He was fast, he was marching there at the end. I knew I was going to get him. I just was thinking about it the whole time. There’s a lot of people at home, a lot of people in the stands that don’t want to see this happen, but it’s going to happen.”
After receiving the news that he wouldn’t be returning to the driver’s seat for LFR next season, DiBenedetto has kept a positive mind and continued to show what he can do behind the wheel on the high-banked half-mile this weekend, leading final practice and qualifying seventh for the race.
Throughout the night, DiBenedetto ran strong, but as the race entered its final segment, the No. 95 Camry came to life as he powered past Erik Jones following the final restart of the evening and set sail into the lead.
As the laps wound down, he made contact with Ryan Newman while trying to work his way through traffic. Though the damage wasn’t much, it was enough to hamper the speed of DiBenedetto’s car and allowed Hamlin to close the gap and eventually get by after he led a race-high 93 laps.
“I was screaming in the car,” DiBenedetto explained. “The damage got us tight. I hate to keep going back to the damage. It’s just racing. It’s Bristol. Everybody is trying to fight, whether it’s to stay on the lead lap or win. To see it slip away, oh, my gosh, I can’t even. The pain was like being stabbed 100 times in the chest. It was killing me, but it’s a sign of things to come.
“I’m not done yet. I hope, I know, I feel like a team is going to hopefully grab me and be glad they did because I’ll go out and do nothing but win and give them my all.
“I give 110% no matter what I’m doing. This is what I live for. Live, eat, sleep, and breathe every day of my life. Just ask my wife. I am dedicated every second of my life to this. I hope whatever team can scoop me up next year, I hope it’s a team where I can go out and win in the Cup Series. I’ll drive my heart out.”
Even though he couldn’t catch Hamlin to try and make something happen in the closing laps, DiBenedetto noted that if he could have caught back up, there would have been some fireworks. After all, it was a career-making win on the line.
“I try and race respectfully, but for the win at Bristol, I’d do anything possible for this team to get me the win,” he said. “Bumping and banging is part of racing at short tracks and that’s why I love short tracks. If I could have gotten to him, I wouldn’t wreck him, but yeah, I would do anything in my power to give this team the best shot at us getting to Victory Lane. Move him or whatever I had to do.”