CONCORD, N.C. — Matt DiBenedetto is still trying to wrap his head around how he ended up in this situation.
This time last year DiBenedetto was preparing for his first Daytona 500 as the driver of the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing. Fast forward one year and DiBenedetto, 28, has departed the Leavine team and joined Wood Brothers Racing.
None of it was planned, but somehow it has all worked out for the California native.
“It’s been crazy,” DiBenedetto said. “I tell the story best of the rollercoaster of emotions that my journey has been.”
By this point everyone knows the story. In mid-August of last year DiBenedetto was informed he would not return to the No. 95, a move designed to make way for incoming Toyota superstar Christopher Bell.
Two days after his departure from Leavine Family Racing was made public, DiBenedetto nearly shocked the world during the Bristol Night Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. He led 93 laps late in the race, only to lose the lead to Denny Hamlin on lap 489. He finished second, but he had the crowd and most of the NASCAR community firmly behind him.
Less than a month later, veteran Paul Menard announced he his retirement from active competition in NASCAR and Wood Brothers Racing hired DiBenedetto to replace him.
“Last year when I found out I wasn’t going to be able to return to the 95 team, my wife was crying endlessly every day,” DiBenedetto said. “Then we go to Bristol and, obviously, all of you know what happened there and we had a shot at winning that race. Didn’t really know what to even feel emotionally (after that) and then fast-forward after that probably to two weeks later…in a span of three weeks my wife went from crying endlessly of sadness to fast-forward to three weeks later to her crying endlessly tears of joy for an opportunity that I couldn’t even put into words.”
DiBenedetto insists he had no idea he was a candidate to drive the No. 21 Ford until getting a phone call from Wood Brothers Racing.
“I didn’t know until I got a phone call from the race team,” DiBenedetto explained. “When he (Menard) had has his conversations with them, it all came up quick, him thinking about stepping away around, ironically, a similar time as when I announced I wasn’t going to be able to return to the 95.
“Paul and all that group knew I was a free agent and Paul put in more than a word for me to be the guy to go to for them to approach. That’s something you can’t repay a family for, changing your entire life.”
The timing couldn’t be better for DiBenedetto, whose stock as a driver is higher than it has ever been. His season with Leavine Family Racing was a head turner. He scored career highs in top-five finishes (three) and top-10 efforts (seven) and also led the most laps in the biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500.
It all adds up to the opportunity of a lifetime for DiBenedetto aboard the familiar Wood Brothers No. 21. With the team continuing to receive technical support from Team Penske, DiBenedetto believes this could be the year he breaks into victory lane at NASCAR’s top level.
“It’s been neat coming in and getting to know this whole entire team and how they operate, our alliance with Team Penske and everything, so I’ve just been getting educated,” DiBenedetto said. “Seeing just how much experience there is on the 21 team alone, these guys have been around a long time, so they’re really, really good guys.
“This is the best opportunity I’ve ever had in my racing career. It has taken every single person every step of the way,” DiBenedetto said. “This is obviously an amazing team to be with and the best job I’ve ever had.”