Putting a grade on the first half of the season for Leavine Family Racing and Matt DiBenedetto wouldn’t be fair.
Many of the reasons why will be familiar: DiBenedetto joined the team as its new driver with Mike Wheeler moving over for Joe Gibbs Racing to assume crew chief duties. The organization went through a switch in manufacturers. Most of the season, according to DiBenedetto, had been spent playing catch-up. People were spread thin, and they were still getting acclimated with each other.
The second half of the season has been a much better story, though. DiBenedetto has shone in the No. 95 Toyota with the team running former Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin cars. Since June 23, they’ve earned three top-five and seven top-10 finishes. In all, DiBenedetto has led 152 laps this year.
“The second half of the year, I would give us close to an A for all the top 10s and top fives, and fast race cars everywhere,” says DiBenedetto.
It goes without saying this has been a career year for both DiBenedetto as a driver and in the history of LFR. Now with two races to go before DiBenedetto moves on to Wood Brothers Racing and LFR takes its next step with Christopher Bell and an elevated alliance, there is still something to shoot for. Sitting 21st in points, there is a concentrated effort to break into the top 20.
“We were right there, and we’ve just been making a huge surge the second half of the year because everything has been going so great,” says DiBenedetto. “Then Talladega sucked, for a lot of people including us. The normal [of] ending up in the care center after the race; that hurt us in points.
“We did have a big goal of getting in the top 20. We were right there just climbing, climbing, climbing and then Talladega, boom, and then we end up on the wrecker. But we’ve still got a few races and a lot of momentum, and really good cars.”
Running up front in a NASCAR Cup Series race is a different animal than being mired in traffic and mid-pack. The best of the best run up front and they know how to win races and what it takes to compete at a high level consistently.
“This year has allowed me to hone in more on the finer details of putting a race together.” – Matt DiBenedetto
DiBenedetto has gotten a taste of that a few times this year. Of his top-10 finishes, take the season-opening Daytona 500 when DiBenedetto was able to set the field’s pace for 49 laps. Or Bristol in August, when he drove past eight-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch, took the lead from Erik Jones, and stayed in command for nearly 100 laps while navigating lapped traffic and trying to hold off a charging Hamlin.
“This year has allowed me to hone in more on the finer details of putting a race together,” says DiBenedetto. “I’ve always felt like I’ve raced smart and didn’t tear up equipment, don’t make dumb mistakes that I couldn’t afford to. I was always in that situation where I had to race smart and finish races.”
Previous situations would include racing for underfunded teams such as BK Racing and Go Fas Racing.
“This year is a different situation where it’s allowed me to focus executing perfect on pit road or pit road rolling times, and executing on restarts which is huge this year, and all the finer little things to position yourself up front and to outrace some of the best guys,” continues DiBenedetto. “It’s been a really great experience that propelled me and our team to the next level.”
A padded resume and new set of skills have been confidence-boosters for both DiBenedetto and LFR and will carry them through the end of this season and onward.
“I’ve always known and been 100 percent confident in my driving ability because you have to be, that’s the only way you can be successful is to believe in yourself, but it is nice to be with such a great team and great people,” says DiBenedetto.
“I’ve been with great people in the past, that’s what’s gotten me to this level, but yeah, it’s been awesome to be able to race up front and know, hey, when we do our jobs right when we’re on our A-game, we can go out there and compete for wins, run top five, top 10, and run against the best.
“[It] just reassures what I’ve known all along – that I belong here.”