Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Matt DiBenedetto’s Career-Saving Moment

Tears flowed down 24-year-old Matt DiBenedetto’s face just seconds after crossing the finish line at Bristol Motor Speedway in mid-April. Competing for a team that considers a top-20 finish a victory, finishing sixth during the Food City 500 helped the young man realize that dreams can indeed come true.

DiBenedetto landed a part-time slot with BK Racing in the Sprint Cup Series last year, originally scheduled to split the schedule with multiple drivers. However, the part-time ride became one spanning the entire year. Piloting the team’s No. 83 Toyota Camry, he finished his first full year in NASCAR’s premier division with an average finish of 32nd, putting him 35th in the standings after DNQ’ing for two events.

The former Joe Gibbs Racing development driver once wondered if he would race again. After losing his job with JGR due to a lack of sponsorship, DiBenedetto was jobless. “Guido,” as his rooftop signature says — indicating his middle name — eventually landed with The Motorsports Group in the XFINITY Series. Eventually, he got the call from BK Racing team owner Ron Devine, reviving a career that once appeared to be dissolving.

We sat down with DiBenedetto at Dover, discussing his season with BK Racing, the low-downforce package, the team’s major changes over the off-season, lessons learned from the past and more.

Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: You’re entering your second full year in Cup. How have you matured as a driver?

Matt DiBenedetto: I’m definitely a lot more comfortable this year. It’s made a big difference because this year, we can focus on all of the little details, really making sure that I can do the best possible job that I can. As a team, being with them for a second year, it is more comfortable. Walking in the garage and being in the Cup garage feels more natural. It just slows everything down and it makes it a lot easier to do your job.

Wolkin: You started working with Gene Nead near the end of last year. What is the biggest difference between him and Doug Richert?

DiBenedetto: They have both accomplished a lot. They are both great crew chiefs and veterans. Everyone has their own styles. Gene and I have a very special relationship. He has taught me a lot. What I like best about him is he is a diehard racer, and he’s very competitive. He puts that into me as well. He keeps me on top of my game. He watches and sees everything. You can’t slack off for one lap with him on the box, which is good. He’s a good motivator.

Wolkin: What makes that relationship so special? Was it like that right off the bat?

DiBenedetto: From week one, I worked really well with him. When he came over here, I knew of him, but I didn’t know him personally. The first week I worked with him, we worked perfectly together. Ever since, he has taught me a ton and I owe a lot of our success to him. He is a great guy.

Wolkin: How has he helped improve your performance this year compared to last?

DiBenedetto: The whole team has done a good job. We hired some good folks, got new cars and our team owner, Ron Devine, really invested a lot in the off-season to try to improve our performance. Shrinking down to two teams has helped. My crew chief and everybody else on the team has been working really hard on these new cars to maximize performance, and that is really what has made us better.

Wolkin: The MWR equipment has been a game-changer for the team this year. What exactly is it about it that has changed everything for you guys this season?

(Photo: Anthony Lumbis, Sr.)
Last year, Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 83 car featured Burger King and Dr Pepper, signaling team owner Ron Devine was funding the car out of his pocket. (Photo: Anthony Lumbis, Sr.)

DiBenedetto: It is a little bit of everything. The cars are definitely better quality than we had before. That’s helped some of our speed. Hiring some good people from MWR. We have a lot nicer bodies. Shrinking down to two teams made a difference. We are just able to apply a lot more focus on our teams, which – all of those things put together – improved us.

 

Wolkin: With the better equipment this year and the lack of a third full-time team, what needs to be done to stabilize your performance and increase it compared to the other teams?

DiBenedetto: We just need to keep taking steps in that direction. We made big strides in the off-season and we have to keep going in that direction. It’s hard to compete with the top teams. They have so many more resources than what we have to work with. If we keep on digging as a team together and doing the same things that we’ve been doing, continuing to improve the equipment that we have, continuing to test different things, that is what’s going to take us to the next level.

Wolkin: You guys have more sponsors this year. How has that improved things for BK Racing?

DiBenedetto: We couldn’t do it without our sponsors like Cosmo Motors and Dustless Blasting, and with Toyota’s support. Everyone combined has made a big difference for us to be able to buy more parts and pieces and things we need to be better prepared.

Wolkin: How has Toyota stepped up this year? Now that MWR is gone, do you feel like you guys have replaced them on the Toyota spectrum of teams?

DiBenedetto: I don’t know about that, but they have definitely made a big impact on our performance. They’ve helped a lot and are continuing to help us more the better that we run. We couldn’t do it without the support of Toyota. If we didn’t have them, we would be in big trouble.

Wolkin: With the low-downforce package in effect this year, how has it coincided with your driving style?

DiBenedetto: I would go 100 times more in that direction if I could. We love it. The direction that NASCAR is going in is great, and I think all of the drivers couldn’t be any happier with the direction that we are going in, taking downforce away. It puts it a little more in the driver’s hands. You still need to have a great car and you can overcome some of that. In race situations, it makes it a little more racey, you can pass easier, move your line around a little more and slide around more. So it is definitely a lot better for us.

Wolkin: What is the biggest difference between the cars this year and last?

DiBenedetto: They still drive similarly, but you can tell Goodyear’s tire package is just as important as the downforce package – if not more. They have been bringing some good tires that have more fall-off. Instead of us running the same times through a run, we are falling off more, more strategy comes into play and you’re sliding around. This year, it’s a little bit more of an old school feeling, where you start sliding around on a long run. You need to start saving your tires on some tracks.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
Come 2016, DiBenedetto has a secure ride for the first time in his career, and has an average finish of 29.5 through the first 13 races of the Sprint Cup season. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Wolkin: Does it make it more fun to drive like that?

DiBenedetto: Oh, a thousand times more fun. The farther we can go in that direction, I think all drivers would be good with it. Less downforce and less grip is better. That is what stock car racing is all about.

Wolkin: As you mentioned before, BK Racing brought in not only cars from MWR, but employees as well. What do you notice that is different at the shop?

DiBenedetto: You are only as good as the people you have working with you. Having some good quality people makes a big difference. We have a small group of guys, but we’re lucky to have a good group.

Wolkin: How has the adversity of going from Joe Gibbs Racing to start-and-park teams and eventually find your way to Cup helped improve you as a driver?

DiBenedetto: I believe everything happens for a reason. When I was at JGR, I didn’t have enough experience. I was too raw. I didn’t do a good job. I guess I just wasn’t ready. I only had a few races once every couple of months, so it was tough. Without sponsorship, they couldn’t afford to do it, which is completely understandable. They’re the ones that got me in the doors in NASCAR.

I had to regroup. Then, by start-and-parking and by getting a chance to race for Curtis Key in the XFINITY Series and Vision Racing with Adrian and Tanner Berryhill, they gave me the opportunity to keep on going. Actually, the Berryhills are the ones that got me back going after being done after Gibbs [in 2013]. I owe a lot to them. Through them and Curtis Key and getting to race, it got me the seat time that I needed. I was ready when this opportunity came about. I had so much seat time by that point that I was mentally prepared.

Wolkin: You were competing for top 20s with Curtis Key, and I remember a few times you had some very strong runs.

DiBenedetto: Yeah, some of the road courses we finished 11th and 13th. We got some good runs with them. I had plenty of seat time by then. When the opportunity to this came about, I was more ready than I was when I had my opportunity with Gibbs.

Wolkin: When looking back, do you ever feel like you could have made more out of your opportunity with Gibbs?

DiBenedetto: Oh, absolutely. If I were able to hop into their stuff now, I feel like I would be winning races and running up front at every single one. I feel 100 percent sure that I can go in there and win races. But it all worked out how it was supposed to. If I had the experience that I have now, if I were able to redo it and use the knowledge from that and the mistakes I made there, which there were a lot of them, I would definitely redo it. I feel like things could have turned out differently. But it all happened for a reason, and I’m happy the way things turned out. I’m in the Sprint Cup Series.

Wolkin: During that time of uncertainty, what was your backup plan? Did you figure out any other careers that suit you besides being in a racecar?

DiBenedetto: I just wanted to make sure that I put in every effort to focus on my racing career, so that I knew I didn’t leave any stone unturned. If there was an opportunity, I didn’t want to miss it, which I’m glad I didn’t. If it wouldn’t have worked out, I would have had to regroup and figure it out from there. But I would have figured something out. I’m ambitious, and I probably would have started out something on my own. I just couldn’t give up on racing.

Wolkin: What were some of the mistakes that you made?

DiBenedetto: Driving conservatively and just trying to get experience. I would have rather gone out there and ran at 110 percent and been running up front, even though I didn’t have the experience. I would have been running harder and crashing some cars along the way, rather than trying to just take care of the equipment, running 10th in a car that maybe now I could be running first. That was a big mistake, but it made me learn, though.

I had to learn that way because now, every time I hop in a racecar, I go 110 percent no matter what it is. I will never live a day of my life again – ever – getting out of a racecar, knowing that I didn’t go all out. Even if I wreck one here and there, that is the only way I am going to drive for now on. It’s changed who I am and how I’ll drive for the rest of my life.

Wolkin: Before your deal with BK Racing, where did you think your career was heading?

DiBenedetto: I thought I was done multiple times for sure. If you told me I was going to be racing in Cup full-time a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. It was all just about done. To be here is beyond lucky.

Wolkin: With the positive vibe on the team, what are your expectations for the rest of the year?

DiBenedetto: A top 20 is a really good run for us. Running in the top half of the field is great. We just want to shoot for some of those. When we have good cars, take advantage of it and try to shoot into the top 20. I feel like we can do that from time-to-time. Top 25s are what I want to shoot for, at least every week. Finishing in the top 25 – I feel like if we don’t do that – we’re missing something. We have the capability to run up there in the top 25. We just need to keep putting together good runs like that for the rest of the year, finishing in a good position in the points.

Wolkin: You touched on keeping up with the competition earlier. How can the team keep improving given that you guys don’t have as much funding as most teams out there?

DiBenedetto: It’s hard. My team could answer definitely better than me. But without some of the resources, it makes it tough. They still go to TRD [Toyota Racing Development] and test some things on the cars. They’re always doing some engineering work to see where we can improve. It’s on a smaller scale than the big teams, but we still do what we can with what we have.

Wolkin: After your top 10 at Bristol, plenty of people were talking about you. What is the next step for you in your career?

DiBenedetto: I just try to focus on what’s at hand right now, and that’s trying to run the best I possibly can and do the best job I can with my team because they’re the ones that have given me this opportunity. That’s my only focus right now: working as hard as I can to run as well as I can. Hopefully, I can earn my keep in the garage and stick around for a long time.

Wolkin: Even though it’s still early, have you begun negotiations to return to the team next year?

DiBenedetto: I’m just happy to be here and be with the team. I’m happy to have a ride. I’m going to do the best job that I can so I can stick around.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
BK Racing went from three full-time Sprint Cup teams to two in 2016, putting former MWR driver David Ragan behind the wheel of the second car. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Wolkin: Working with David Ragan this year, how has the chemistry developed between the two teams?

DiBenedetto: Really good. All of us on the [Nos.] 23 and 83 work together really well. David is a great teammate. I couldn’t ask for any better. We work together great. We’ve helped each other a lot, and he’s helped me a bunch.

Wolkin: Outside of racing, what is life like for you?

DiBenedetto: Pretty calm. I go to the shop every Tuesday and hang out. I workout every day. I hang out with my wife, and that’s about it. I live a pretty calm life style. I’m not a partier or anything like that, so I’m pretty low key at home.

Wolkin: A lot of people considered you a long shot at Bristol, even though you’ve had strong runs there in the XFINITY Series. What is it like to be treated as an underdog?

DiBenedetto: It’s cool that everybody understands the situation that we’re in and understands that we’re a smaller team. It’s neat because I feel like we’re the underdog story. Everybody shares that with us and knows the situation. I like it a lot.

Wolkin: After Bristol, you started crying after the race. Have you always been that humble?

DiBenedetto: Yeah. There are people in the world that are starving and don’t have homes. When we’re lucky enough to do what we do and drive racecars for a living, you have to appreciate it every single day, every step of the way. That is the most important thing. You can’t ever forget where you came from.

Wolkin: Do you associate yourself with the “Guido” culture since it’s your middle name?

DiBenedetto: Yeah, it’s my middle name. It was my grandfather’s first name. My father and his side of the family are all full Italian. The name has become popular over the past few years from Jersey Shore and stuff like that. I do have a very Italian family, and we definitely embrace that.

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