Leavine signs DiBenedetto to replace Kahne, switches to Toyota

Image by Kinrade/LAT

Leavine signs DiBenedetto to replace Kahne, switches to Toyota

NASCAR

Leavine signs DiBenedetto to replace Kahne, switches to Toyota

Leavine Family Racing confirmed Wednesday the team is moving under the Toyota banner beginning in 2019 with Matt DiBenedetto as its driver.

DiBenedetto is signed to a two-year deal with LFR and will succeed Kasey Kahne, who joined LFR team this season but has been forced to accelerate his plans to retire after failing to solve severe dehydration issues.

Regan Smith, who has subbed for Kahne since Indianapolis, will finish out the season in the No.95.

As for the decision to switch manufacturers, team owner Bob Leavine felt  his organization’s goals align with Toyota. The process of arriving at the decision, announced Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, started back in March as both sides felt each other out.

Support from Toyota will include building the team’s engines and providing technology as well as data and technical assistance. The agreement between the two sides is a two-year with a third-year option.

“We’re really proud to be the second team they’ve taken in; Furniture Row was first and then us,” Leavine said of Toyota. “We’re really proud of that, that they selected us.”

In addition to changing manufacturers, Leavine Family Racing will enter a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, receiving chassis for the No. 95 car.

Last month, DiBenedetto revealed he wasn’t going to return to Go Fas Racing and the No. 32 team because he wanted to explore other opportunities to further his NASCAR Cup Series career.

Leavine playfully remarked that the 27-year-old has been in his ear for several years — respectful in continually letting the team owner know he would like a shot should LFR ever make a change.

“He became a friend before we hired him,” Leavine said. “Knew his family well from the garage and they fit [with us].”

Of his emotions, DiBenedetto said it was too much to describe.

“I’ve had a very up-and-down past few months, and my poor wife Taylor has had to ride the emotional roller coaster with me,” DiBenedetto said. “When I made the decision respectfully to step back from Go Fas Racing I knew I was taking quite the risk, but I wanted to bet on myself, and we were aware that I could be searching for a job next year and it could all very well fail as well it all worked out.

“Everything in my career and everything in my life I believe has happened for a reason. Everything does happen for a reason, so it just felt right to bet on myself, and he [Leavine] was right in saying I bugged him for a really long time.

“So excited to have this opportunity to be with Leavine Family Racing, they’re such a great group. Amazing to be a part of helping elevate the team. They’re doing all the right things, being back in the Toyota camp feels like home to me, and it’s amazing my career started at Joe Gibbs Racing [as a development driver] and how everything comes around full circle and how I’ve been so fortunate to build these relationships.”

Leavine was heartbroken over Kahne’s August announcement that he was choosing to step away, especially because at that time Leavine had a contract offer for him. When Kahne spoke to the media at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was a sad morning for Leavine, who couldn’t bring himself to go to the media center and instead stayed at the team’s hauler.

“Matt came up to me, first one that caught me that Friday morning and grabbed me and said, ‘I want to drive to drive for you, I can make your team better,’” said Leavine. “I really like his desire and determination. Good kid. I said you’ll be in the process because I didn’t want to commit. So, he was in the process and obviously sitting here he came out on top. We think the world of him, his ability.”

Sponsorship for the No. 95 is still be worked out, although Leavine confirmed the return of Procore and Dumont Jets.

Personnel for the team, such as a crew chief and engineers, is also still to be determined.

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