Matt DiBenedetto can’t bring himself to relive what has thus far been the most significant moment of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
“It’s still heartbreaking,” says DiBenedetto of the August 17, 2019 race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I can’t watch it. I still haven’t watched it on TV. I won’t. I just can’t stomach it, because it still hurts that bad.”
Bristol was to be the site of NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series action this weekend. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has pushed the Food City 500 to a new date sometime later this year, leaving the Tennessee bullring sitting empty like many arenas and stadiums around the country, and temporarily sparing DiBenedetto from having to face questions and replays from his last trip there.
DiBenedetto, then driving the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, drove to the race lead on lap 396. He led the next 93 laps around the concrete half-mile, which turned out to be a race-high. But on lap 489, Denny Hamlin caught, passed, and drove away from DiBenedetto for the victory.
For DiBenedetto, there was little solace in earning his career-best finish in the Cup Series. Having been so close to an improbable victory, one that would have come just days after learning LFR was not bringing him back for 2020, was too much to handle. Plus, winning at Bristol has always been a top bucket list item for DiBenedetto, who now competes for the famed Wood Brothers Racing.
“It’s still neat though, and to look back and know everything happens for a reason, and as badly as I really wanted to win, and it’s going to hurt forever, it will sting for a long time… it was meant to be,” says DiBenedetto. “Because it ultimately led to this opportunity, and much greater things.”
As heartbroken as DiBenedetto felt on pit road that night, he also felt the love. It enveloped him from the grandstands as fans reacted to his every word over the public announcing system. In one night or 93 laps, DiBenedetto became a fan favorite, and the crowd reaction is still hard for him to comprehend.
“There are defining moments in your life that you’ll never forget that always stand out. For the rest of my life (that) will be one that for me and my wife and family will always remember,” DiBenedetto says. “The crazy week of emotion, lots of heartache, and losing that thing. Then to have that support is what broke us down, so that’s just a moment we’ll never forget that also captured the attention of everybody.
“That’s just a crazy moment that I always say one day I should write a book [about], because no one would believe the whole story, and that’d be a very key thing in there that’s hard to even believe.”
Bristol is one of DiBenedetto’s favorite racetracks. Describing its atmosphere as old school with a focus on a good handling car for a classic short track battle. And, fun fact, DiBenedetto is the youngest winner at Bristol through a triumph in a May 2008 UARA-Stars event when he was 16 years old.
“So, it goes all the way back to that,” says DiBenedetto, “that I have a lot of memories at that place. Bristol has impacted my whole career more than any other racetrack on the circuit, so that’s why I’m very partial to it, and it means the most to me.”
If DiBenedetto’s optimism for the 2020 season turns into results, he may well earn redemption at Bristol – whenever the series gets there. With 100 percent confidence, DiBenedetto believes his No. 21Ford Mustang is capable of not only making the playoffs, but winning races on par with its Team Penske alliance teammates Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney.
“This is the best opportunity I’ve ever had in my racing career,” says DiBenedetto.
Going into his sixth full season, DiBenedetto exudes confidence in improving upon his 11 career top-10 finishes and the three top-five finishes he earned last season. Four races in, the momentum’s building with three finishes of 13th or better, and another impressive runner-up finish when DiBenedetto wound up second behind Logano in Las Vegas.
“This is obviously an amazing team to be with,” DiBenedetto says. “I’ve got great teammates to lean on, obviously pretty experienced guys, so I think I can lean on them good. We’ll go out of the gate fast and go win some races.”