By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Halfway through last season, Matt DiBenedetto made the choice to bet on himself if he was going to have any future in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
The Grass Valley, Calif. native announced he was leaving Go Fas Racing, the team he had been with for the two seasons prior, without a place to land for the 2019 season. That gamble could pay off in spades if this season goes to plan.
Not long after he made the decision to look for a new team for this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign, Leavine Family Racing came calling with an offer he couldn’t refuse – a chance to return home to Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, the place he got his racing career started at.
A Chevrolet team for the past three seasons, LFR has formed an alliance with JGR for 2019, similar to the one Furniture Row Racing had with JGR in their final seasons. In turn, DiBenedetto will have the best equipment of his four-year Cup career and a crew chief that knows the JGR system in Mike Wheeler, who moves over to helm the No. 95 car after leading Denny Hamlin to five wins – including the 2016 Daytona 500.
“Relieved and excited for sure,” DiBenedetto said. “Now it’s stressful because it’s time to go to work and make the most of it. My whole career has been make or break every single year and moment of my life so none of that has changed. But, yeah, definitely just thankful and makes me appreciate it so much more.
“Amazing opportunity. I know that we will all together make the most of it and it’s comforting having such good people like Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief) and all of the people surrounding our team. You’re only as good as the people around you and that’s what makes me feel good.
“It’s just crazy. That’s why you never burn any bridges and always keep good relationships because yeah, look who would’ve thought nine or 10 years later I’m back with Toyota, which luckily, I’ve maintained a great relationship with them. I’ve always felt really comfortable with them. Back with an alliance and affiliation with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing). I walked in their shop just a couple weeks ago and it was just odd eight or nine years later to be walking back in their race shop. Glad to still have good relationships with all of those people.”
With two of his four best finishes in the Cup Series coming at Daytona, DiBenedetto has made people stand up and take notice of his skills on restrictor plate tracks, in equipment that wasn’t always top notch and without teammates to lean on. In this race last year, he was in the top-five in the closing laps before getting caught up in a crash that relegated him to a 27th place finish.
Now that he is a de-facto teammate to the JGR drivers and some of the others in the Toyota family, the 27-year old noted that he feels like he has a legitimate shot at breaking through and scoring his first career Cup win on Sunday with the equipment he now has at his disposal.
“I feel like I’ve actually become a much better plate racer over the last couple of years,” he said. “I had a lot to learn. I went to work on it, really studied, and learned from some of the guys that are really good at it. That’s where I feel like we always put ourselves in a position.
“Even though I’ve been in underfunded equipment that may not have had the speed of others, we still put ourselves in a position to have a shot at winning or have a shot at a top-five or top-10 at the end of most all these things. Now having even better equipment this is the best opportunity that I’ve had. There’s no reason that we don’t have a very legitimate shot at winning it.”
In addition to his optimism over his chances on Sunday, DiBenedetto also has another reason to be excited with this week’s prospects as he will have another high-performance machine that he will get to experience as he will strap into an F-16 Thursday morning when he goes flying with the Air Force Thunderbirds.
“That’s like a bucket list item that I would give up a limb to do so it’s pretty amazing that I’m getting the opportunity to do it,” DiBenedetto said. “They asked me if I wanted to do it and there was no way I was turning that down. Doing that first thing in the morning and hopefully I make it through it without puking or anything like that. It should be really fun.”