SONOMA, Calif. – Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota proved to be the pleasant surprise of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, as DiBenedetto converted a stirring drive at Sonoma Raceway into a career-best fourth-place finish.
The Grass Valley, Calif., native and crew chief Mike Wheeler sacrificed any thoughts of stage points right from the start of the day, instead choosing to put their focus on the end of the race and chasing a win.
As such, DiBenedetto hit pit road a few laps from the end of both the first and second stages, setting him up with track position at the start of the final 50-lap run to the checkered flag.
He then split the final stage in half – coming down for service for the final time with 25 to go – and methodically, if not surprisingly, began picking off cars one at a time down the stretch.
DiBenedetto cracked the top five with 11 to go after dispatching seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in the Carousel section of the 2.52-mile, 12-turn course, then ran down another former titlist – Stewart Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick – from eight seconds back.
Inside of five to go, DiBenedetto finally caught Harvick and passed him with relative ease, driving away from the No. 4 Ford down the home stretch en route to a popular and emotional finish.
Sunday’s result topped DiBenedetto’s previous best of sixth place, earned at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2016 with the now-defunct BK Racing organization, and he immediately deflected credit to the Bob Leavine-led team that took a leap of faith by signing him prior to this season.
“This is a team effort,” said DiBenedetto. “I am just so lucky to be doing this. I know I say it every time I get interviewed, but my path to get here has been so out of the ordinary and old school, and I’m so thankful.”
The 27-year-old was previously a part of the Toyota family, coming up the ranks as a Joe Gibbs Racing development driver a decade ago, but returned this year as part of the new satellite team to JGR.
In the wake of his stellar run, DiBenedetto had nothing but thanks to give to everyone who made it possible for his career to continue and reach the level it did on Sunday.
“I can’t tell you how many people took a chance on me to let me have this opportunity,” continued DiBenedetto, who was driving a Darrell Waltrip tribute paint scheme. “My sponsor Procore, TRD, Joe Gibbs Racing, Dumont Jets, Bob, Sharon Leavine and Michael. My crew chief Wheels — he was crew chief for Denny [Hamlin] for the past few years. All those people had to say yes and approve me getting in this car and take the chance on me. I don’t know how to explain how thankful I am.
“It was so much fun,” DiBenedetto added. “My home state. My wife Taylor couldn’t be here — Babe, I love you so much. Thank you for supporting me through the hard times.”
DiBenedetto also had two extra shoutouts to give, as well. One went to the former Cup Series driver who shared his road-course knowledge with DiBenedetto, and the second went to a retiring broadcast personality whose 1973-74 colors graced DiBenedetto’s car on Sunday afternoon.
“This one is for my buddy AJ Allmendinger, for helping me so much,” noted DiBenedetto. “And DW, this one’s for you too, brother. I’m glad we got you a good finish. You’ve done so much for me; you’re the best.”
Just saw the results at Sonoma. So pumped and beyond happy for my friend @mattdracing for finishing 4th and more importantly for @TayDiBenedetto since she has to deal with him. Hopefully Matt and @LFR95 can build from here.
— AJ Allmendinger (@AJDinger) June 23, 2019
It was a day to be thankful for and a day to give thanks back, and DiBenedetto certainly did both.