This past week at Loudon was not only the coronation of Joey Logano as the youngest driver to ever win a Cup race, it was also the chance for New Englanders to see who very well could be the next great sensation to move into the ranks of the racing elite.
On Friday, Matt DiBenedetto battled door-to-door on the last lap of the Camping World East race, fighting his way to his second victory in four races this season by out-dueling Ryan Truex to the finish line. DiBenedetto is a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing and is a very bright 17-year-old talent who will have a very good chance at making it to the Cup level, considering he is following in the footsteps of Mr. Logano.
DiBenedetto has been racing since he was seven years old and came to the attention of this writer three years ago when he was running in the limited late model division at Hickory Motor Speedway. He was 14 at the time, running in a series where there are lots of drivers trying to make a name for themselves that will often drive far over their heads to win a race or gain positions.
That was never the case with DiBenedetto. At 14 he displayed incredible patience and wisdom running on a very tight, difficult racetrack. More times than not, he brought his car home without a scratch on it, while all of the cars around him looked like they’d been in a 500-lap night race at Bristol in the old days.
Being a smart driver does not mean he is not fast. When he turned 15 and was allowed to run in the late model division at Hickory, he finished fourth in his very first race. This wasn’t just any race mind you, this was the Fall Brawl. They call the race a brawl for a reason: It is an all-out battle to the finish. Whether because it is so late in the season or just because of the race’s hype, there are more torn-up racecars in that race than you will see in almost any other event short of a demolition derby.
DiBenedetto ran the entire race near the front of the pack, mixing it up with guys who have been running in the late model series at Hickory for years. With five laps to go, he didn’t have a mark on his car and was poised for a shot at the win. Unfortunately, that’s when the brawl part really took over. DiBenedetto ended up getting run over by another competitor and struggled home to a fourth-place finish, still a very impressive debut in the senior division at the historic track.
The following year he ran in the UARA series and won the Rookie of the Year and finished fourth in the series standings. He also won two UARA Stars races that season, but he wasn’t done yet. He then took his car to Martinsville and ran in the Bailey’s 300. Longtime readers of this column have certainly heard of this event, which routinely brings in over 100 late model stock cars from all over the country east of the Mississippi to chase after a big payday and a coveted grandfather clock.
DiBenedetto went up against the best of the best as a rookie in the event and came home in fourth place. Last year he was running in the top five coming to the finish line when he got dumped by another competitor and rolled home in seventh place. He was also a winner at Bristol Motor Speedway this past year which made him the youngest driver to ever accomplish that feat as well.
This year finds him in the Camping World East Series, as well as doing testing and R&D work for JGR. He is going to make his debut in the Nationwide series this fall in a JGR car at Memphis, which should afford him a chance at a pretty good run considering how strong those cars tend to be. DiBenedetto might not be getting the same publicity that Logano did at 17 years of age, but don’t be fooled, this kid is the real deal and could very well be the answer when the time comes for JGR to fill a fourth seat in the Cup Series.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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