The 61st annual Daytona 500 was both an “amazing and heartbreaking” day for Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto.
In his first race with the LFR-Joe Gibbs Racing alliance — and crew chief Mike Wheeler, who worked with Denny Hamlin last year — DiBenedetto put on a career performance. A performance that not only included pacing the field, running much of the day inside the top 10 and smoothly working the draft, but also being the driver that led the most laps (49).
“Unbelievable how fast my car was,” said DiBenedetto. “I’ve never had a piece under me like that, so that’s amazing. I have really great teammates. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit helping me dealing with all of the questions I ask. Kyle Busch is obviously a great one to lean on and I’ve been bugging him.
“So, it’s heartbreaking but it’s really neat to lead that many laps, have that many things going and I’m so appreciative to all of my fans. I’ve had so much support it’s overwhelming. They’ve been a big part of getting me to where I am. I’m just appreciative for this opportunity.”
Yes, the heartbreak. That part came when DiBenedetto was spun by Paul Menard on Lap 192, triggering the “big one.” He was one of 23 cars collected in the accident, which was the biggest crash of the afternoon. Unfortunately, it ended DiBenedetto’s day with a 28th-place finish when he appeared strong enough to contend for a top finish.
“It was just a racing deal,” DiBenedetto said. “Nothing intentional. I have a great relationship with Paul. I think he was trying to sneak to my outside but wasn’t quite there and when he bumped me it just clipped my right rear and turned me in the wall. Just a racing deal. Nothing we can do about it. We had one hell of a day going, I’ll tell you that.
“The car was fast and I’m so darn thankful that Toyota, Procore my sponsor, Leavine Family Racing — I don’t know if everyone understands how big of a chance they took on me and I will be forever thankful. I have an amazing crew chief with Mike Wheeler and great people around me. We showed what we are here to do so we accomplished a lot. Led the most laps, had a fast race car so I’m thankful for that, but I’m not going to lie I’m pretty heartbroken.”
DiBenedetto’s performance drew praise from his alliance teammates, as well as NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell.
“I wasn’t surprised at all having Wheels over there and having JGR equipment and stuff like that and being an affiliated team,” said Kyle Busch. “I feel like they did a really good job, and Matt did a great job behind the wheel. He was fast, he was smooth, he looked really good. Was just disappointed that he wasn’t able to kind of be there at the end.”
Joe Gibbs said the No. 95 is an important partner for his organization and he was “thrilled” to see LFR run the way they did. Race winner Hamlin said DiBenedetto did a great job in the draft.
“Obviously, ‘Wheels’ has a lot of notes from what we were successful here with and that car was super, super strong,” he said. “It’ll be very important for us to have that car running strong, and to gather more information because as an organization we don’t want to lose a car, and by losing Furniture Row last year, hopefully that 95 team can kind of pick up where they left off.”
Prior to Sunday, DiBenedetto had led just one lap at Daytona in seven starts. With 49 laps led, he also led more laps in a single race than in his previous four seasons combined (23).