By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
SONOMA, California — In 223 NASCAR national touring starts, with 155 in the Cup Series, Matt DiBenedetto has never scored a top-five. That all changed Sunday as a fourth-place result in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway capped off a career-defining afternoon.
Through tremendous strategy and a solid all around car, DiBenedetto and the entire Leavine Family Racing kept working on the No. 95 Procore Toyota Camry all afternoon, and it paid off as he’s now 25th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings after 16 races.
An emotional DiBenedetto couldn’t express how thankful and humble he is of delivering the run he and LFR believed they were capable of doing this season when he was announced as the new driver of the No. 95 team last October.
Even thanking former Cup Series driver and fellow Californian A.J. Allmendinger, and Darrell Waltrip, which he dedicated the race to him as not only it was his final broadcast with Fox Sports, but also drove a throwback paint scheme commemorating Waltrip’s early days when he drove the same exact car number.
“I cannot explain how thankful and glad I had a good run that we deserved,” said DiBenedetto. “It’s been a tough year. We just haven’t had the results we deserve and have had fast cars. Man, I literally can’t explain how thankful I am to have this opportunity and how desperate I was to get a run like this for my team and how many people took a chance on me to drive this thing this year.
“I can’t explain how many people all said yes, including the JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) teammates. All the drivers, everybody from Toyota TRD, sponsors, and everyone on the team.
“I’m telling you, it took every one of those people to say yes because my path to get here is pretty unorthodox. I haven’t had the funding to get here. I’ve been doing it the old school way and I don’t know how to thank him and my buddy A.J. He’s helped me so much. Hours on the phone and I just can’t thank him enough, and DW – this one’s for him. This race was definitely for him.”
DiBenedetto commented that Waltrip has been extremely supportive of him last year when he was driving for Go Fas Racing, and by pulling off an incredible drive at the 2.52-mile road course, it was bittersweet.
“I wanted this one so bad to get a good run for him,” DiBenedetto on Waltrip. “He’s done so much for me in my career. He personally helped me out last year. Always been so supportive and telling me to smile. He’s such a great person and friend. I’m lucky to have gotten to know him. My career-best finish in his throwback car is a memory I’ll never forget.”
Drivers, teams and fans alike witnessed a captivating charge from the Grass Valley native as his passes for position involved racing legends. With 11 laps to go, DiBenedetto was running in sixth heading into Turn 4 until he went by seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson to crack the top-five.
From there, his car kept cutting down the gap between he and fourth-place Kevin Harvick. Then with just five laps to go heading into Turn 11, the No. 95 Camry passed the former champion on the top lane with ease and was able to bring home LFR their third-ever top-five finish.
Once out of the car, Joe Gibbs congratulated DiBenedetto for a job well-done as the driver thought about Joe’s late son, J.D. Gibbs, who he and Steve de Souza gave him an opportunity to run their driver development program back in the late 2000s.
Joe reflected on how the JGR deal with DiBenedetto came to be during the post-race press conference after one of his wife, Patricia Gibbs’, friends sent J.D. a letter to see if he was willing to give him an opportunity to run in NASCAR.
“She said there’s a kid out here that’s just killing it in race cars and would love to have a chance,” said Joe. “J.D. took that and at that time, (him and) Steve were looking for young guys, and J.D. told Steve, ‘Let’s get him back here.’ That kind of started Matt being out here and getting a chance to race at different places.
“I was thrilled today and everybody over there at LFR to see them up there and running the way they did, I thought it was just great. I went to the car and told him, ‘Hey Matt, awesome job.’ I think about things like that all the time when I hear stories about J.D. and how he helped somebody because he did a lot.”
This season has been an absolute learning curve for the veteran as results haven’t gone his way after many believed the LFR were poised at a possible playoff run. More so after leading a career-high 49 laps in the Daytona 500 in February before being collected in the first big one late in the race.
Not only that, the rules package doesn’t showcase much of the driver’s capability of how they can make a difference on car performance.
However, DiBenedetto felt that Sonoma was one of those races that allows a competitor to take action as it was one of three notable tracks he’s circled off as circuits he knows he can succeed. The others being Bristol, where his previous best finish of sixth from 2016 took place, and ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
“This year has been tough because the rules are so different. It makes it a little tougher for the driver to make a difference at some of those bigger racetracks,” DiBenedetto on the rules package. “It’s a lot of car speed and track position, so it’s been mentally tough and challenging. These places where you can get on the wheel and show the strength of our team and how we can execute. That’s the ones we circled off and I’m so glad. I knew we can get a good run here.
“We had the good strategy and had good tires. I’m happy with our finish. We were driving through the field, and that was so fun. Picking them off one at a time. Guys I have so much respect for and to be racing around them and passing those guys. I’ve learned a lot from them, so it’s real special.”
Furthermore, DiBenedetto knew a run like he had at Sonoma, will be a race he’ll never forget and continued thanking his team, as well as reflecting on the things he’s learned throughout his NASCAR career that’s got him to where he is this season.
“These ones mean a lot because it shows our strength as a team. Not only me, I can’t do this without my team. I’ve been in underfunded equipment and thankful for that, and it’s taught me a lot,” said DiBenedetto. “I’ve made the most of what I’ve had in years past with those teams. When you get in this kind of equipment and have amazing crew chief, engineers and people surrounding you. Then you come to a driver’s track where we can out there and wheel it. Save the tires and execute in the race – those are special.”