Matt DiBenedetto came dressed to fight at Bristol Motor Speedway. Literally.
He walked out at driver introductions Saturday night in a boxing robe and gloves, with the theme song from “Rocky” playing in the background. The Leavine Family Racing driver then put up a real fight for his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, but was KO’d by Denny Hamlin with 11 laps to go.
A heartbreaking ending to what DiBenedetto had called a “devastating” week. He was informed Tuesday he would not be back in the No. 95 Camry.
“We tried. We gave it everything we had,” said DiBenedetto. “This team gave it everything they had. I’ve been an emotional basket case here the last little bit, I’m not going to lie. I hope I’ve gotten it together in the last few minutes, but, God, I wanted it so bad. We were so close.”
DiBenedetto took the lead from Erik Jones on Lap 396. Building a comfortable cushion on Chase Elliott, who took the runner-up spot when Jones bounced off the wall, it wasn’t until Hamlin made it to second that things got dicey.
DiBenedetto navigated traffic near-perfectly until inside 15 laps to go. The lead was already shrinking when DiBenedetto made contact with Ryan Newman, crinkling the left front fender.
“After the damage with Newman there trying to get around him, I got tight,” said DiBenedetto, who didn’t blame Newman for costing him the race. “It flipped a switch, and I got too tight.
“Denny was strong. I thought before that I could hold him off, but after that I got tight. But man, I’m thankful for this team. I want everyone to be thankful for my team and for Toyota, and all my sponsors. … Without them I wouldn’t have been able to have this performance. I wanted to win, but it’s coming. It’s coming. I think we’re just getting started.”
Swarmed at his car by reporters and other interested parties, DiBenedetto was in near tears as he did an interview over the track’s public address system. The crowd ate up everything he said, continually reacting with loud cheers. Even four-time champion Jeff Gordon — the driver DiBenedetto rooted for as a kid — stop stopped by to chat.
Hamlin first challenged DiBenedetto for the lead with 14 laps to go by trying the bottom lane. DiBenedetto held him off, but then Hamlin again dove down low with 12 laps to go, and, side-by-side off Turn 2, the two drivers made slight body contact on the backstretch before Hamlin pulled clear.
“Just hard racing,” said DiBenedetto. “That was Bristol. That’s hard racing. Denny was strong, and that’s a guy that, one, I’ve asked advice from; and two, I’ve been a fan of since I was kid; and three, to be racing door-to-door with him for the win at Bristol with a few laps to go — crazy. I’m sad I didn’t win, but still something I’ll remember and build on.”
Once he lost the lead, DiBenedetto lost touch with Hamlin. Over the radio after the checkered flag, crew chief Mike Wheeler told his team that while it was disappointing now, they had come a long way and to enjoy it.
“I try and race respectfully, but for the win at Bristol, I’d do anything possible for this team to get me the win,” DiBenedetto said. “Bumping and banging is a part of racing at short tracks, and that’s why I love short tracks; so if I could have gotten to him .. I mean, I wouldn’t wreck him; but yeah, I would do anything in my power to give this team the best shot at us getting to victory lane. Move him. Whatever I’d have to do.”
In addition to earning his career-best finish Saturday night, DiBenedetto has racked up five top-10 finishes in the last month.