BRISTOL, Tenn. – Even those who were trying to beat Matt DiBenedetto on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway couldn’t help but appreciate the run that the Grass Valley, Calif., native put on.
DiBenedetto used a fast car and some nifty moves on the night’s final restart to jump from fourth to second, then took the lead from Erik Jones with 105 to go and began putting on a show.
Driving the Leavine Family Racing-prepared No. 95 Toyota Camry, DiBenedetto opened up a lead of nearly two seconds at times during the final 50 miles of the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race and was the fastest car on-track for much of that period.
As impressive as that was, it was equally as important for DiBenedetto on more than one level.
DiBenedetto was notified during the week last week that his contract option would not be picked up to continue driving for Leavine Family Racing in 2020, making him a free agent.
As tick after tick went off the scoreboard, and contender after contender was lapped by DiBenedetto in the process, it suddenly began to look realistic that he might put an immense week of turmoil behind him with a statement victory – the first of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.
However, contact as DiBenedetto was trying to lap Ryan Newman inside of 40 to go unraveled the fairy tale ending. The handling on DiBenedetto’s Toyota went away after the left-front fender was knocked in and as quickly as DiBenedetto had run away from his closest pursuers, Denny Hamlin was right there.
Hamlin dogged DiBenedetto for nearly 20 laps, before with 12 to go, he finally jumped to the inside of DiBenedetto’s ailing machine and made the race-winning pass.
Though DiBenedetto was left with a heartbreaking second-place finish, he exited his car to an immense roar from the Bristol crowd, as well as a few surprised smiles from the competition as well.
“We were getting lapped there at the end and I was like, ‘Who is leading?’” recalled Ryan Blaney, who finished 10th, one lap down. “And my guys said, ‘The 95 (DiBenedetto) and the 11 (Hamlin) is right there.’ I’m like, ‘No way, man.’ I know the 11 got by him, and that’s tough. That would have been a pretty cool story. He just announced that he’s not gonna be in that car next year and I think he does a great job. He really drove for that one.
“It stinks he couldn’t get it done, but he’s a great driver and I hope he lands somewhere good.”
The driver who beat DiBenedetto to the checkered flag was actually the first person to tip his cap to the Golden State wheelman when he climbed out for his winner’s interview on the frontstretch.
He went so far as to offer a sincere apology, as well.
“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (crew chief) Mike Wheeler. I hate it,” said Hamlin. “I mean, I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I had to give it 110% for FedEx and my whole team. I’m just sorry.
“I know those guys really wanted to win and Matt deserves a win, but … I was watching him do an interview, and I got emotional for him because I hate it that I had to take it from him.”
Even those who would have been most disadvantaged by a DiBenedetto victory – those on the bubble of making the 16-driver playoff field on points – recognized how impressive his drive was and were, in small part, hoping to see him hold on in Thunder Valley.
“He did an amazing job,” said Daniel Suarez, who moved into 16th in the playoff standings by two points Saturday night, of DiBenedetto. “I feel like he deserved the win, but you never know how things are gonna work out. … I will tell you that in a way, I’m kind of lucky that he didn’t win, but I wish he would have won the race because he’s an amazing driver. He deserves that ride and he’s been doing a very good job this year.”
“I hate that for that guy,” added Clint Bowyer, who left Bristol 17th in the postseason rankings and on the outside looking in. “He’s racing for a job and everything else. You know those Gibbs cars are fast. You knew he was gonna have a rocket and he did. Man, that last run those cars took off like crazy. I was just too loose to go with them.”
While Saturday night’s end result was one spot short of what DiBenedetto came in hoping for, it could still go a long way in securing his future at NASCAR’s top level.
After all, to have the race winner apologetic that he beat DiBenedetto in a competition sport was a clear sign amid the Bristol night that the 28-year-old is doing plenty right as he fights to remain in the game.
It was also a powerful mark of respect – respect that DiBenedetto has duly earned.