BRISTOL, Tenn.—Matt DiBenedetto won the hearts of race fans with his valiant effort at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The driver affectionately known as “Guido” was racing for his life on Saturday, but that’s how it has always been for the 28-year-old from Northern California.
DiBenedetto just wanted a chance—the opportunity to prove what he could do in a stock car. And after receiving the news earlier in the week that his contract with Leavine Family Racing would not be renewed after this season, DiBenedetto continued to use his opportunity to put his talent on full display.
“I try racing respectfully, but for the win at Bristol, I’d do anything possible for this team for the win,” said DiBenedetto, who finished second to Denny Hamlin. “Bumpin’ and banging is part of racing at short tracks. That’s why I love short tracks. If I could have gotten to him, I wouldn’t have wrecked him, but I would have done anything in my power to get this team to Victory Lane. Move him, whatever I had to do.”
In his first and only season in the No. 95 Toyota, DiBenedetto is enjoying his best year since graduating to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2015. Under the direction of crew chief Mike Wheeler, who also joined the team this year after he was replaced on the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in favor of Chris Gabehart, DiBenedetto has blossomed.
In the last nine races, the driver has earned three top fives and five top 10s—more than he had posted in his previous 155 starts. His average finish over that same period is 11.6. DiBenedetto’s 143 laps led also eclipsed his previous time spent at the point.
Sure, great cars win races. But great racers win on road courses and short tracks in NASCAR, where the driver makes the difference.
“They give me great race cars and me as a driver and us as a team, I’m back to using my feet to drive which we don’t do as much on some of the big tracks—the mile-and-a-halves,” DiBenedetto said after finishing sixth at Watkins Glen. “You’re using your feet to drive, you’re wheelin’ the heck out of the car—a stock car, old school. It’s just kind of my style. I grew up short-track racing. Slip-sliding around in a stock car.”
As DiBenedetto gathered his composure on Saturday night, following a career-best second-place, the reception line of his peers grew. When the driver appeared on the mega screen for his post-race interview, the crowd exploded—infinitely louder than when Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag or rolled into Victory Lane. The outpouring of support overwhelmed the humble racer.
“That’s huge,” DiBenedetto said. “We have to race against these drivers every week and you can’t go out here and be bulldozing through the field and not be racing smart. You have to earn the respect of these guys like Denny Hamlin, who I have looked up to since I was a kid, and Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Suarez, Clint. It was hard to hold it together when all these drivers kept coming up.
“It’s amazing to earn that respect from them because they can be your biggest advocates, too, when you’re in the situation I’m in. You have to have the respect of those guys. So I was lucky to race smart around those guys and earn their respect.”
Four-time NASCAR Cup champion and fellow NorCal native Jeff Gordon lingered with DiBenedetto on pit road.
“Who wasn’t pulling for him other than maybe the 11 car?” Gordon said. “That was an amazing effort knowing all he’s been going through and that announcement. You know there’s a lot of passion and driver there and he did such an amazing job. Gosh, to come up that short, but what a day for him and a great day for the sport.”
DiBenedetto held back tears as his accomplishment set in against the weight of the recent events.
“This journey has made me strong, and I would not change it,” DiBenedetto said. “I would not change it for the world, because it makes you appreciate being here a thousand times more. This journey has beat me down into the ground more than I can possibly explain—having all the odds stacked against me. But I would not change it because it’s made me so much stronger.
“It’s hard. It’s been really hard but I’m glad it’s been hard. I don’t want anything easy and I want to appreciate it as much as I possibly can. I want it to make me fight, claw and dig as hard as I possibly can, and that’s what this journey has done.”
Where DiBenedetto’s journey might go next remains to be seen. But with the heartfelt response he received on Saturday night, it’s clear Guido’s home is in NASCAR.