SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Matt DiBenedetto drove his way into the NASCAR Cup Series with meager funding and no glossy racing pedigree. He has spent 4 ½ years circling tracks in the back of the pack, attempting to will his underperforming, underfunded cars to unlikely results.
Every week, DiBenedetto feels like he has to prove his worth anew to a racing world that still seems determined to push him back down. Even 15 races into his tenure with his latest team, he was already hearing whispers about his tenuous future.
But DiBenedetto fought much too hard for this dream to give it up without another fight.
After he raced to fourth place Sunday at Sonoma Raceway for the best result of his career, DiBenedetto was overwhelmed by excitement and gratitude to all of the people who stuck by him.
“I’m just so lucky to be doing this,” he said. “My path to get here has been so out of the ordinary. I can’t tell you how many people had to take a chance on me for me to get here, or how desperate I was to have a run like this.”
While his team celebrated and his hometown Northern California fans clamored for his autograph, DiBenedetto’s mind flickered with thoughts of his father, of the late J.D. Gibbs, of mentor A.J. Allmendinger — of everybody who believed in an unknown driver with not much more to his name than hunger and skills.
“I’ve had every odd in the world stacked against me,” DiBenedetto said. “I’ve just had to do it the old-school way. Driving for small, underfunded teams, and just had to perform every time I strapped in the car. It’s taught me a lot. That’s the reason I’ve learned to hone my skills and be where I am today.”
For one beautiful afternoon on Sonoma’s rolling road course, he got to show off everything he learned back there in the pack.
Although he didn’t threaten Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch up front in their vaunted Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, he still roared up through the field during the final stage. Passing superstars Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick along the way, he masterfully guided his Leavine Family Racing Toyota into a comfortable fourth place in his 156th career Cup start.
The 27-year-old DiBenedetto sees himself in all the blue-collar racers over the years who scrapped their way into a Cup ride and then spent years hoping for a miraculous burst of speed.
“I’ve learned to become really, really mentally tough over the years,” DiBenedetto said, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s been a tough journey. My whole career, every single year of my life and career … I mean, we’ve folded it up as a family and sold all our stuff and quit. My whole life, I’ve always had to perform. Every single race. … I always say that to my wife. She worries all the time for me, and I tell her, ‘It’s hard to stay calm, (but) if I go out there and I perform, the rest will take care of itself.'”
J.D. Gibbs, the former president of his father’s racing team, promoted DiBenedetto early in his career by talking up the young driver to smaller teams. Joe Gibbs took time out from celebrating Truex’s victory Sunday to visit DiBenedetto’s car, personally congratulating the driver on fourth place.
“God, I miss him so bad,” DiBenedetto said of J.D. Gibbs, who died in February. “He was one of the greatest people I’ve known. I learned so much from him as a person. I literally would not be standing here without him.”
DiBenedetto caught a break this season when he landed with Leavine, which partnered up with Toyota Racing Development for its engines, technology, data and technical assistance. Leavine also gets its chassis and other help from Gibbs, theoretically putting DiBenedetto in much the same car as Truex, Busch and Hamlin are driving.
But Leavine has a fraction of JGR’s overall resources, and DiBenedetto’s first season with Leavine has been inconsistent: He led a race-high 49 laps of the Daytona 500 before getting wrecked, but he also finished 10 of the first 15 races outside the top 20.
“It’s been a tough season,” DiBenedetto said. “We’ve had speed, and just no luck. I don’t let it get to me.”
What’s more, DiBenedetto has been beset by speculation about his job security for months now. Promising Gibbs youngster Christopher Bell is more than ready for a full-time Cup Series ride, and DiBenedetto’s seat at Leavine could be a logical place for him — or for Erik Jones, the fourth driver in Gibbs’ Cup stable, if Bell were to gain immediate promotion to the big team.
But DiBenedetto isn’t ready to move over.
He made one of the race’s latest pit stops in Sonoma, going in with 25 laps to go. Sitting on fresh tires and feeling good in the car after earlier adjustments to the tight steering, DiBenedetto roared back up into the top 10 just five laps later.
He passed seven-time champion Johnson with 10 laps left to move into the top five. He caught Harvick for fourth place on the 86th lap, and he held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin.
After the race, DiBenedetto wondered if he could have been in position to win on a restart with the freshest tires. It didn’t happen in the caution-free race, but it didn’t dampen the thrill.
“These are just memories,” DiBenedetto said, his smile broad and warm. “Nobody should ever forget how special these memories are. I’ll be able to tell my kids and hopefully grandkids about these types of things one day.”
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