The saying goes “it’s better to be lucky than good”, but Matt DiBenedetto would love if his No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team were both.
Being good isn’t the problem. Crew chief Mike Wheeler & co. have been giving DiBenedetto cars capable of running where the team is aiming for – inside the top 15. Except the stat sheet only shows race results, in this case, those are deceiving .
That’s where the “very poor luck”, as DiBenedetto labels it, comes in.
“Obviously Daytona (set) the bar really high,” says DiBenedetto of his 49 laps led. “The thing that sucks is that we haven’t reflected at all where we’ve been just due to the little things. Phoenix, for example, running between ninth and 13th and we would have finished probably 13th at worst, so that’s great for our team. That’s at or exceeding our goals. And then the battery died with 33 to go.
“Then we go to Fontana, and we were running around 15th and ended up 18th, which wasn’t where we wanted. We got tight the last run, but were racing around the top 15. Martinsville, we drove up to 12th, but we weren’t where we wanted to be. Atlanta, we had a top-15 car, got hit on pit road, got damage, and we had to pit under green and lost two laps. Couldn’t recover.
“It’s just been little random stuff. It’s frustrating when you don’t get the finishes that you feel like your team deserves. Speed-wise, performance-wise, I feel like we’re close around where we want to be. Finishes, no way due to random stuff.”
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway with DiBenedetto 24th in the standings. It is the highest an LFR driver has ever sat in the points at this time in a season. DiBenedetto’s average finish is 22.6.
For the single-car team to be trending upward is reason for optimism, considering the wholesale changes made coming into the year regarding manufacturer (Toyota) and alliance (Joe Gibbs Racing). Wheeler told RACER recently having satellite teammates – his former employer, no less – has worked out fine. Just as a reminder, the LFR/JGR association is not a full technical alliance with shared meetings and notebooks.
“But when we have trouble, they have made a phone call to see where they can help us out,” says Wheeler. “Yeah, there are some moments where I wish we had more, but I know this is part of the program and it’s a learning curve for all of us, and it’s going fine.”
Ultimately, said Wheeler, while there have not been any significant screw-ups by the team, there are areas that need to be addressed.
“We haven’t hit the milestones we’ve been looking for, we have moments of that,” he said. “There’s definitely been bright spots, which keeps you going. But we don’t have the finishes or our points position to be proud of yet. A lot of times we had a good weekend or good run, and I know ownership has been proud of some of the cars we’re putting on track… but there’s a lot of things to clean up and not fall short on so we can actually finish as well as we can.
“I think some people would be like, yeah, you guys are showing signs of being better than you should be at this point. I’m kind of proud of that. I’m proud of moments like Martinsville where we ran inside the top 12 and you cut Kyle Busch a break. That’s a good stat. But then you have a couple hiccups like Phoenix and even Texas that, ugh, we need to be five spots better than that, and not have mechanical issues to work on.”
Both DiBenedetto and Wheeler agreed they are striving for top 15, and then hopefully top-10 finishes, by the end of the year. DiBenedetto has three top-20 finishes entering this weekend’s GEICO 500, and confidence should be high for the team after what DiBenedetto was able to do in Daytona.
“I just want things to start getting on track and clicking off finishes that we deserve,” said DiBenedetto.