It’s hard to put Matt DiBenedetto’s Saturday night in non-NASCAR terms. DiBenedetto is a veteran driver on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit who has displayed flashes of talent while never truly working with the best equipment. His resiliency has earned him a solid following and calls to see more. If he had an Ivy League degree that was referenced every five laps, he would perhaps be the auto racing version of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
DiBenedetto currently drives the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing. The team isn’t among NASCAR’s richest and is undoubtedly a step up from the “start-and-park” squads (field fillers that enter a race knowing they likely won’t complete it) DiBenedetto spent the earlier portions of his career with. The team has hosted several notable veteran drivers on the tail-end of their careers like Kasey Kahne and Scott Riggs.
DiBenedetto is in the midst of the 95 car’s most successful streak since it began racing a full-time schedule in 2013. He has finished in the top 20 in each of the last seven races. Four of those endeavors ended in the top 10. He’s worked his way up to 22nd in the standings and has led more laps this season than current playoff drivers Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, and Ryan Newman.
The latter-most driver on that list has gone on to become the most hated name in NASCAR thanks to DiBenedetto.
With LFR ready to go young in 2020, welcoming in Xfinity Series standout Christopher Bell, DiBenedetto is set to be dropped. He received the news earlier this week and will begin his final dozen races in the 95 in next weekend’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington.
DiBenedetto nearly defied the odds in last Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. It was the first race since hearing the brutal news.
Bristol was already home to one of DiBenedetto’s proudest NASCAR moments. In 2016, he piloted the No. 83 Toyota of micro-budget squad BK Racing to a sixth-place finish in spring’s Food City 500. It was one of three top-10 finishes BK posted prior to their 2018 liquidation.
DiBenedetto was emotional and grateful in an interview with Fox Sports’ Vince Welch after the race. The emotions were kicked into maximum overdrive on Saturday.
The No. 95 car ran consistently for most of the night before magic came on the 396th of 500 laps. DiBenedetto’s machine passed the No. 20 Toyota of Erik Jones, he of Joe Gibbs Racing, a de facto NASCAR superteam.
To the cheers and delight of a Bristol crowd known for being some of the most passionate in NASCAR, DiBenedetto took over the field. Lapped traffic ahead of him appeared to pose a challenge, but DiBenedetto worked through them like a veteran. Another Gibbs Toyota, Denny Hamlin’s 11, chased down DiBenedetto, but the possibility became strong with each passing lap.
And then, as Jerry Seinfeld famously exclaimed…”NEWMAN!”
Newman’s No. 6 Ford was racing well most of the night, and was running a respectable 11th when his rearview mirror became full of 95. The veteran has gained a reputation of daring to prevent drivers from passing him on a racetrack, no matter the stakes. Newman lived up to that billing in Bristol’s final stanzas.
Desperate to stay on the lead lap, Newman blocked DiBenedetto from passing him, and even made contact. Dealing with Newman took precious time away from the leader’s interval, and Hamlin was soon on his tail.
Newman lost his lap. DiBenedetto lost his lead.
The pass was officially completed with 12 laps to go, and Hamlin went to victory lane as perhaps the most reluctant winner in NASCAR history.
“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto,” Hamlin said in an NBC Sports interview with Rutledge Wood after the race. “I hate it. I know what a win would mean to that team. But I’ve got to give 110 percent.”
Immediately after Hamlin’s on-track comments, the camera cut to DiBenedetto. It took everything he had to hold back tears as he declared, “I’m not done yet”. Additionally, he confirmed that the battle with Newman got the car “tight,” thus rattling his comfort with the car in the final stages.
Immediately NASCAR fans found a new enemy. NASCAR fans targeted Newman with social media hatred, blaming him for denying a shot of history.
The sports-loving public loves upsets. But at the same time, we forget that every upset requires heartbreak on someone’s other end. The examples are endless…the 1968-69 Baltimore Colts. The 1984-85 Georgetown Hoyas. The 42 drivers that finished behind Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500.
Newman was simply doing what he had to do to avoid becoming the co-star/antagonist in DiBenedetto’s fairy tale. First of all, his actions were, by all means, league. NASCAR will often wave the blue flag to order slower cars to get out of the way for faster competitors. By all accounts, that flag didn’t come out for the 6.
It’s not like Newman’s car was slow. In fact, the 6 has been one of the hottest cars on the circuit. He has completed all but nine laps on this year and he has the fourth-best average finish over the past 10 races. How dare he try to keep that streak going for an unlikely playoff spot, right?
Winless and on the cusp of a playoff spot, Newman needs every single point he can get. With two races to go, he’s currently 14 points ahead of 17th-place in the standings…a.k.a. elimination…so he need to race for every point he could get.
A win was more likely out of the question for Newman, but what if he got a caution? Bristol has somewhat tamed, but a late yellow flag at “The Last Great Coliseum” was far from out of the question. With the field packed up and only a dozen cars (at most) on the lead lap, the hypothetical flag was a prime opportunity for Newman to build a bigger cushion on the playoff bubble.
Furthermore, let’s assume, for a moment, that Newman had a vendetta against DiBenedetto. Frankly, if anyone in the garage does, it would be the No. 6 driver and his group.
NASCAR’s complicated, if not intriguing, playoff system would allow a win to put DiBenedetto in the postseason, because a leap to 16th is mathematically out of the question. But if the 95 went to victory lane, Newman’s margin for error is microscopic as is. Had DiBenedetto won, it would’ve become non-existent. He would’ve shifted to the final playoff slot (DiBenedetto’s loss still places him in the penultimate seed). He did what he had to do.
Newman was doing whatever he could to stay on the lead lap, going all out to compete. Isn’t that what NASCAR fans want from their drivers?
NASCAR fans are a passionate bunch, but can sometimes be a bit fickle. They LOVE when drivers break the mold. That’s one of many reasons why the late Dale Earnhardt continues to be canonized to this day. But when a driver they don’t like benefits (i.e. Kyle Busch) or a driver they find rare unanimous approval with suffers because of abnormality, they’re quick to create a new villain.
Newman doesn’t deserve that title. He may be a relic of racing…he’s one of two active drivers to run a race alongside
Hopefully for a strong competitor like DiBenedetto, a team seeking to fill a seat next season took notice and will ensure he can race competitively. During Bristol’s raucous driver introductions, DiBenedetto emerged in a robe resembling one the eponymous character from Rocky wore in the climactic scene of the 1976 film. His Saturday fate resembled Rocky’s all too well…losing the event, but winning over the crowd en route to a potentially bigger opportunity.
There’s no need to turn Newman into Apollo Creed or Ivan Drago.