Bob Leavine was in the middle of answering a question about realistic expectations for his organization next season when he let out a breath.
“We’re not Furniture Row,” Leavine said, knowing there will be comparisons.
LFR confirmed Wednesday it will be running Toyotas beginning next season with manufacturer support and in alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. With Furniture Row shutting down at the end of the season, the No. 95 effectively becomes the fifth Toyota team alongside the Gibbs group. When Furniture Row aligned with Gibbs, it elevated their performance into consistent race winner and 2017 champions.
So, yes, Leavine knows people are going to bring up Furniture Row.
“We haven’t been racing as long as Furniture Row did when they got their win and got their championship,” Leavine said. “We want to get better, we want to progress, and if we put unrealistic expectations on us, we ain’t going to have no fun, and it still has to be some fun. It’s tough, but it’s still got to be some fun.”
The 2019 season will be just the fourth full year for the No. 95 team. The group started part-time in 2011, split the car between multiple drivers before Michael McDowell assumed control for the 2016 and ’17 seasons and began compiling company milestones. This season probably hasn’t gone according to plan with the ups and downs of Kasey Kahne, and his sudden departure because of lingering health issues.
The hiring of DiBenedetto is about building the program around a younger driver and working long term. DiBenedetto has a two-year deal in place as a start.
But, getting back to that question about expectations for next season?
“Always been honest – 16 is going to be really difficult,” said Leavine about making the playoffs. “The number we looked at … is 18. So top 20 because you beat a lot of good cars to get there. So yeah, we are going to a superior engine program and great body and chassis, but still, you’ve got to put it together with the people and the car, crew chief, engineers, it’s a changeover.
“[We did] that with Chevrolet, of course, we had a body change in there, so that was very difficult. It’s progression. It’s going to be a progression.”
Asked the same question, DiBenedetto said he wasn’t putting a specific number on performance.
“I just know in general with the switch to Toyota and being a part of the TRD group, being with Leavine Family Racing, who is a team that I’ve seen done nothing but dump their heart and soul into [this], and they want to be better, you can tell these guys want to perform at the highest level, I think we’re going to go out there and really shock some people next year. Show everybody what we’re made of, and I’m lucky to be a part of a growing team.”