SONOMA, Calif. — In Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, some drivers had solid runs. William Byron finished 19th but scored his first career stage win and left the race with the fifth most points accumulated. Erik Jones started from the rear and clawed his way up to finish eighth. And Daniel Hemric, who finished second in Saturday’s K&N Pro West race, crossed the line 15th at Sonoma in his rookie year with the Cup Series.
But the highlight of the day belonged to Matt DiBenedetto who earned his first career NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series top five finish at Sonoma Raceway when he crossed the line fourth.
“I cannot explain how thankful I am,” an emotional DiBenedetto started out after celebrating with his team and receiving multiple congratulations from other competitors. “I can’t tell you how desperate I was to get a run like this for my team and how many people took a chance on me to drive this thing. It took so many people to say yes, including my JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) teammates, all the drivers, everybody at Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development), the sponsors like Procore and Dumont JETS, team owner, ‘Wheels’ (nickname for crew chief Michael Wheeler).
“I’m telling you, it took every one of those people to say yes.”
The final laps were anything but easy for DiBenedetto. Not only does passing get tougher as you climb through the field, but who he passed included veterans and champions of the sport such as Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman. His fourth place result gave the Leavine Family Racing team their third career top five and tied their best finish in team history.
“Yeah, we had good forward drive, were on a good strategy and had good tires,” he continued when asked about a potential final restart to challenge the win after running a couple of lap times similar to leaders Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. The K&N race had three overtime attempts on the previous day. “I mean, I’m happy with our finish. We were driving through the field, and that was so fun, picking them off one at a time, guys that I have so much respect for too, guys like Kevin (Harvick), (Ryan) Newman, and racing Denny (Hamlin) at the end. (I have) so much respect for them, and to be racing around them, and to be passing all those guys.
“I’ve learned a lot from them, so it’s real special.”
Being from Green Valley which is a two hour drive northeast of the track, DiBenedetto had friends and family at Sunday’s race witnessing his best career accomplishment in the top touring stock car racing series.
“Yeah, my family’s here. I hate that my wife couldn’t make it since she had some conflicting things in her schedule, so that stinks, but she’ll be home so her, my friends and our neighbors will be waiting on me to get home to have a good night and hang out and have some fun.
“Yes we did (record the race on the DVR). I’m going back to watch that dang thing!”
DiBenedetto turned to a recent road course ringer for some advice on turning some quicker lap times. He was quick to give credit to A.J. Allmendinger, always a front runner at road courses with one career victory at Watkins Glen International. Allmendinger’s resume shines when it comes to road courses. He has a Rolex 24 at Daytona victory in the Daytona Prototype class of the NASCAR Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, two NASCAR Xfinity Series victories in 2013, five victories in the Champ Car World Series, and a podium finish in the 2018 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the Weathertech SportsCar Championship.
“My buddy, A.J. Allmendinger,” DiBenedetto exclaimed. “Told him I’d give him a shout-out if I did good. He helped me so much, hours on the phone. I don’t want to give away all his secrets (laugh), but it was just how to execute through the weekend and what I need to feel in the race car to race good. I’ve always felt confident in my ability to drive the car around the track and wheel it, but that’s only a small fraction of the game when you’re racing against guys that are so good and so experienced, so he helped me to make sure I executed throughout the weekend and get my car right.”
Jumping Off the Diving Board and Hoping There’s Water in the Pool
Last year, DiBenedetto made an announcement that caught many off guard. Most drivers would be satisfied with any full-time ride, but after getting shout-outs from many competitors, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. saying that he was one of the most talented drivers in the garage, he took a leap of faith in hopes of securing a more competitive ride. His former team, GoFas Racing, offered their full support after a great relationship with their driver of three years. Young up and coming drivers hold sponsorships that help secure top-tier rides with successful teams, but DiBenedetto has had to prove himself from the ground up by aggressively learning, holding nothing back and displaying a gritty performance on the track.
“I’ve worked so hard my whole life the old school way, been through the trenches, that’s for sure. I’ve been so lucky to get these opportunities, and it makes you appreciate it and makes you dig so much deeper knowing that you’re fighting for your life and your career. We’ve deserved some runs like this for a while, just haven’t had the luck and this shows the strength of our team. I’m happy for our guys finally.”
CrossFit Pays Off for DiBenedetto During Caution-Free Race
NASCAR drivers are known more as endurance athletes, such as Jimmie Johnson entering the Boston Marathon earlier this year. So for DiBenedetto, his focus is with CrossFit workout sessions, primarily with CrossFit Catawba Valley in Hickory, North Carolina.
“I almost forgot, I gotta thank my CrossFit family, CrossFit Catawba Valley. It was frickin’ hot today. Training came in handy. It was terrible in the car. Couldn’t drink for that whole second stage. There was no time; it was green (for the whole run). It’s what makes it tough physically and mentally, so I’m glad those guys have pushed me so hard. That really helped today.
“The Carousel was cool. It made this track feel so much different, a lot more treacherous, and it reminded me a little bit like Mid-Ohio (Sports Car Course). It was really fun to set them up for Turn 7.”
With all that training, preparation, unique talent and ability of his dirt racing background, he has had a lot of focus on short tracks, technical courses and races where he has the chance to show off his adroitness.
“I’ve had this one circled,” he proclaimed. “Places like Bristol, Phoenix, here. I’ll be honest, this year has been tough because the rules are so different where it makes it a little tougher for the driver to make a difference at some of these bigger race tracks. It’s a lot of car speed and track position, so it’s been tough and mentally challenging. So these places where you can just get on the wheel and show the strength of your team and how we can execute, those are the ones we circled off. I was so glad, I knew we could get a good run here.”
A Tribute to Darrell Waltrip’s Rookie & Early Racing Years
Three drivers in Sunday’s race elected to run a unique throwback paint scheme in honor of Darrell Waltrip’s final broadcast with FOX Sports. As the driver of the No. 95, he found the paint scheme that Waltrip raced as a driver/owner back with Terminal Transport as his sponsor for three years between 1972 and 1974. So his Leavine Family Racing team, along with full support from his primary sponsor Procore and their Toyota manufacturer, brought the classic orange and white car to Sonoma Raceway.
To hold his best career finish in a Waltrip throwback car added much more to the great memory of DiBenedetto’s strong day.
“This one’s for him,” he shared with a tear in his eye. “I wanted so bad to get a good run for him. He’s always been so supportive, just telling me to smile. He’s such a great person and friend. I’m lucky to have gotten to know him. To get my best career finish in his throwback car is a memory I’ll never forget.
“He’s done so much for me and my career, things that people may not know about for me personally with helping me out last year.”
That thing was stepping up to sponsor DiBenedetto for one race. Last year while racing for GoFas Racing in the No. 32 car, their team was prepared to race in Phoenix with a bare car. While the team wasn’t faced with any financial issues, DiBenedetto took the initiative to head on Twitter and post a video to inform fans about the sponsorship opportunity on a tight deadline. So drivers like Denny Hamlin who was the first to reach out, helped sponsor his ride. Darrell Waltrip was a big contributor to giving him a funded ride in the 2018 Spring race.
Remembering Where He Started and Where He’s Headed
The late JD Gibbs was recently inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame. He was also the one who made the phone call to BK Racing that placed DiBenedetto in the No. 83 car for most of the 2015 season, and the rest has worked in his favor.
“God, I miss him so bad,” DiBenedetto shared when asked about Gibbs. “He was one of the greatest people I know. I learned so much from him as a person more than anything. I literally would not be standing here without him today. He had so much to do with this. I wouldn’t have gotten a Cup ride without him, I wouldn’t be here today, and the relationship with all those guys. Gosh, I can’t explain how much I miss that guy.”
DiBenedetto has a humble and grassroots background when it comes to his NASCAR career, but rumors hold uncertainties about his future with Christopher Bell performing strongly in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Toyota Racing.
“I’ve learned to become mentally tough,” he said when responding to those rumors. “My whole career, I mean every single year of my life and career—at a point where we pulled it up as a family and sold all our stuff and quit, and then I had to do it year by year my whole life to this point—I’ve always had to perform.
“I don’t let it get to me, and I always say that to my wife (Taylor) because she worries all the time for me. I tell her, ‘If I perform, the rest will take care of itself’”
Whatever the rumors may be, DiBenedetto plans to take the time to let this finish sink in before heading to Chicagoland Speedway.
One reporter asked, “Are you gonna blow that air horn when you cross the line playing the race back on your DVR?”
DiBenedetto’s response was as light-hearted as he could be: “Yeah, I probably should!”