Matt DiBenedetto finishing second at Bristol Motor Speedway was the feel-good story of the weekend, and another accomplishment for the determined Californian. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change anything about DiBenedetto needing a ride for 2020, or the reason that led Leavine Family Racing to make the decision to look elsewhere for next season.
So, stop hatin’ on Bob Leavine.
Leavine, the owner of Leavine Family Racing, has been the recipient of social media vitriol from the moment that Matt DiBenedetto announced that he won’t be the organization’s driver next season. Since DiBenedetto has become a fan favorite, Leavine, Toyota, and even Joe Gibbs Racing have all been getting blasted for sending him to the unemployment line after just one season driving the No. 95 Toyota Camry.
Even after DiBenedetto took the high road and expressed how appreciative he’s been for the opportunity. Even when DiBenedetto asked that no hard feelings be sent toward the folks who went out on a limb and put him in the car. All of that has fallen upon deaf ears.
The reaction to this news has been downright ugly. One might see it and think a driver has never lost a ride before in NASCAR, or that we’ve suddenly forgotten that NASCAR is, above anything else, a business.
Sometimes the business of racing can be cruel. DiBenedetto knows that better than most. And while most want to ignore the fact that sponsors and money run this sport, that sometimes, as DiBenedetto expressed, talent and passion just aren’t enough. That is exactly what is happening here.
It sucks for DiBenedetto. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote how the guy hasn’t been able to enjoy the best chance he’s gotten in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series because the rumors that he was only a placeholder for Christopher Bell have been swirling since the team rolled into Daytona in February. Check that; it’s been since LFR announced late last year it was aligning with Toyota and Gibbs.
Nothing has been officially confirmed by any of the parties involved, but Bell is likely headed to LFR. Money and support are tied to the 24-year-old standout and that’s going to make some driver, somewhere, expendable.
It’s not personal, it’s business. Harsh, but true.
Brett Moffitt won the 2018 Truck Series title with Hattori Racing, but neither he nor Shigeaki Hattori could find the funding to stay together. Many didn’t like that decision, either. But why would it have been fair for Hattori or any team owner to keep spending money out of his own pocket when another driver could lighten the load by bringing partners?
Moffitt and Hattori are one example. There are plenty of others to pick from – in all three NASCAR national series.
Take in this quote from Denny Hamlin over the weekend. When he was asked about the sport changing in regards to drivers getting rides, he said:
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m so blessed in my situation, I’m probably the last person you should talk to about that. Results mattered, and the thing is, when I came into the sport, there was five or six of us – me, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, JJ Yeley – it was essentially the top five in points from Xfinity all moved up to Cup in the same year, and all in race-winning equipment. Those days are dead. You look at the sponsors that were on our cars back then and it was like, these are huge companies that were taking risks on unknown and relatively unproven drivers. It’s just not that landscape anymore.
“I think that the costs of racing has gone up since that point. Income had gone down since that point. Teams are having to make more business decisions than ever today, but certainly – listen I don’t want to talk too much about it because I thank my lucky stars every day that I have this company [FedEx] on my chest and they’re there for 38 weekends of the year. I don’t know. It just doesn’t happen anymore. To have the loyalty of a company like FedEx that has spoken openly about how the impact that they see sponsorship does from their race car, they see the value times 10. If that company believes in it, I believe other companies should probably look at how FedEx is doing it and apply the business model accordingly.”
Leavine isn’t here to be irrelevant. He wants to take his organization to the next level, and to do that he aligned himself with folks who could help make that happen – Toyota and Gibbs. He also hired a very capable crew chief in Mike Wheeler. There’s a driver in the camp that needs a ride, so Leavine is not only going to work with his partners to make that happen, but is going to put someone in the seat who he knows has a resume capable of continuing to elevate his program.
Here’s a reminder of what Leavine said last year after the announcement was made about aligning with Toyota and Gibbs. Note the word “progression.”
And David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said this at the time: “[LFR] don’t have the same people that Furniture Row [had], and that can’t be understated. It’s one thing to have hardware, but in Furniture Row’s case, to have guys like Cole Pearn and Jeff Curtis and those guys, that’s a big part of it. … No doubt, it is a taller hill to climb and we’re starting from lower, in the foothills. And again, we’ve had very candid, honest conversation with Bob and they realize that, but as I said, Bob had that vision and the courage to raise his hand and say, I want to put myself in a better position, I want to take the next step competitively.”
What team owner doesn’t? This is a business, and there shouldn’t be any ill-will toward that.