Joe Gibbs never lets a driver without a seemingly exceptional level of talent pilot one of his cars. The former NFL coach for the Washington Red Skins has a keen eye for talent.
Every now and then, things just won’t work out. It happened to Brad Coleman. It happened to JJ Yeley. It happened to Drew Herring. And it almost happened to one driver that made waves in the NASCAR realm at Bristol Motor Speedway this past weekend.
Historically, once cut from the Joe Gibbs Racing line of equipment, drivers seldom recover. However, that is not what occurred with this driver.
His eagerness to excel behind the wheel propelled him to NASCAR’s premier division. After two years of scattered start-and-park rides in the XFINITY Series, this man landed with a job that featured 12 full races with 15 start-and-park deals, an engine failure and a crash.
For Matt DiBenedetto, the journey to the top of the NASCAR world was much more difficult than expected. It appeared as if he was on the way to landing a ride with a premier organization, showcasing skills similar to that of his teammates in top-tier equipment in a limited schedule spanning 2009 to 2011. Throw in a full season in the K&N Pro Series East with a victory, finishing fourth in the standings in 2011, and it would appear he had a solid resume to back up his hopes of moving up with the team.
Sponsorship was scattered for DiBenedetto. He ran a total of seven XFINITY Series races for Joe Gibbs Racing, with a best finish of ninth in 2010 at Iowa. He never led a lap with the team, and could not find funding to race on a consistent basis, arguably the difference maker in his attempt to return to the team.
But eventually, DiBenedetto found a home.
After multiple impressive efforts with The Motorsports Group in 2014, DiBenedetto was on the job hunt. Finishing in the top 15 twice that season, he showed that he could do a lot with lesser equipment. The team was moving to the Sprint Cup Series part-time, and he knew that if he wanted to move up, that was not the place to be.
Being introduced to Cup Series team owner Ron Devine by one of his close friends, Ryan Ellis, DiBenedetto began to negotiate his way into a ride. His smooth personality, mixed with his eagerness to get back behind-the-wheel of a racecar was enough to sign him to a part-time deal in 2015.
Preparing for his stint with BK Racing, DiBenedetto was guaranteed a handful of races, but nothing was solidified. Johnny Sauter ran the team’s No. 83 car in the Daytona 500 last year, warming up the seat for the former JGR developmental driver.
Heading into Atlanta for the second race of the year, it was DiBenedetto’s time to take a seat in a Sprint Cup Series car for the first time during a race weekend. Though he had tested Sprint Cup cars with JGR, he had never done so in race conditions and more importantly, with BK Racing.
Missing that race at Atlanta, the California native could have lost all of his confidence. Returning the next weekend at Las Vegas, once again, he missed the race. Things were looking down for the team, which was led by veteran crew chief Doug Richert, who nearly won a Sprint Cup title with Greg Biffle in 2005.
Come Phoenix for the fourth race of the year, DiBenedetto finally raced his black-painted No. 83 into the field. He had it his way, as the Burger King slogan goes. After that, he qualified for all of the remaining races on the calendar.
While learning the cars and competition, the struggles were quite noticeable for the Rookie of the Year candidate. As the results began to pile in, DiBenedetto’s part-time ride eventually became a full-time one. He began receiving sponsorship dollars from companies such as Dustless Blasting, VooDoo BBQ & Grill and Cosmo Motors.
Things were looking up for a man that had just spent the majority of three years with start-and-park rides.
Come Bristol for the eighth race of the year, DiBenedetto was geared up for a solid run. The smaller teams usually have a better shot at a respectable run at short tracks given the nature of the competition focusing on handling and not pure speed. He qualified 22nd that weekend, and ended the race in 21st, which was his best result at a non-restrictor plate track in his rookie year.
The rest of 2015 featured an 18th-place finish at Talladega in May, with an additional 12 top-30 results for the No. 83 team. When the season was completed, DiBenedetto had a team-high average finish of 32nd, compared to Jeb Burton’s 36.3 and Yeley’s 34.5.
When the off-season came around, BK Racing went under a massive overhaul. The team shrunk down to two full-time cars, and picked up David Ragan as the driver of the No. 23 car. Additionally, it kept DiBenedetto, who for the first time in his career, had a full-time ride secured before the season began.
As Michael Waltrip Racing shut its doors, one of the lowest funded teams in the Cup Series garage took advantage of the discounted equipment. Purchasing 17 MWR cars and hiring nearly a dozen employees from a team that won seven races since 2009, the team has a chemistry that has not been there since it purchased the assets of Red Bull Racing in 2012. With the employees from MWR working on familiar equipment, BK Racing now has the resources it needs to succeed.
Starting out the season, Cosmo Motors and Dustless Blasting announced they would return to fund DiBenedetto’s efforts. He swapped over to the No. 93 car for the Daytona 500 as Michael Waltrip took the helm of the No. 83 car. While he qualified for the season-opener, he finished 40th after wrecking on Lap 91.
However, switching back to his regular car number, DiBenedetto has since improved from last year.
With two charters for the organization, both cars are locked into every race. Thus far into the season, both drivers have an average finish inside of the top 30.
Ragan had a stretch of three straight top 25s spanning Phoenix to Martinsville. Meanwhile, DiBenedetto finished 20th at Phoenix, going back to the track for the third time in a Sprint Cup car, showing great strides from last year.
But come Bristol, things were different for the man that has “Guido” written on his car.
Starting 30th, it appeared as if he would have an average run for the team. He was 25th out of 30 cars in the second practice of the weekend in the 10 consecutive laps category, and in Happy Hour, he was 20th out of 38 cars.
But something was different on Sunday at Bristol. The driver of the white and black No. 83 car was circling the half-mile short track just like his days in the K&N Pro Series East. Methodically working through the field, DiBenedetto settled into the top 20 by the halfway point of the race.
As the second half of the event featured nine caution flags, DiBenedetto began working his way toward the top 10. By the time of the penultimate caution, he settled into the 10th position. Taking advantage of being on the high line for the final restart with five laps to go, he rapidly went from 10th to sixth, even pressuring Trevor Bayne for fifth on the final lap.
The outstanding result had DiBenedetto in tears, and rightfully so. It is not everyday that a lower level team can compete with the larger organizations that have multi-million dollar sponsors.
“That’s unbelievable for a team like us to be growing this much and for us to get a sixth-place run,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m sorry I’m so emotional. It’s just this is like a win for us. I’m so excited. I see my family back here — my wife, Taylor, my brother is in town from the military and I’m so glad he got to experience this. This is just… this is incredible. I’m so blessed to be here.”
The result was not just one that he lucked into, either. He passed 2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick and even impressed race-winner Carl Edwards.
“They finished sixth?” Edwards asked. “Man that’s unbelievable. That’s probably tougher than what we did.”
And when DiBenedetto was on his way home from Bristol, he got pulled over.
“Why are you going so darn slow?” the officer asked. “If you can keep up with us, we’ll escort you to your house.”
And that’s exactly what they did. As he pulled up to his house, DiBenedetto was welcomed by a crowd of people after a run that he called “a dream come true.”
Moving forward, one cannot expect DiBenedetto to finish in the top 10 on a weekly basis. It just will not happen. But now with the result, the confidence is there, and so is the momentum and ability to do so.
But do not be surprised by the great run. With respectable equipment and people in place, it is just a matter of time before DiBenedetto is picked up by a top-tier team.