FENWICK: Matt DiBenedetto’s ‘Rocky’ Story

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CONCORD, N.C. — When Matt DiBenedetto left Go FAS Racing last year, he did so not knowing what his future would hold.

His goal was to land in a better Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride than the one he left. GoFAS Racing wasn’t in a position to win races, much less race consistently in the top 10. DiBenedetto wanted an opportunity to show that if he had the right equipment, he could perform at that level.

His faith paid off when he secured a deal to take over driving duties of Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95. The team, which had previously campaigned Chevrolets, switched to Toyota with support from Joe Gibbs Racing.

It was exactly the type of opportunity for which DiBenedetto had been waiting for. Sure, he wasn’t driving for Team Penske, JGR or Hendrick Motorsports, but he was driving for a team with support from JGR and better equipment than he’d previously driven.

It was his opportunity; his moment in the sun.

Things started off well enough with the California native leading a race-high 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway, but he was eliminated in a crash.

From there the team struggled, with DiBen­edetto earning a best finish of 12th through the first 15 races. Perhaps, some wondered, DiBenedetto wasn’t good enough to perform in the Cup Series.

Things began to turn around in late June with DiBenedetto finishing fourth at Sonoma Raceway in California. He kept the momentum going.

Two races later he finished eighth at Daytona Int’l Speedway, which he then followed with a fifth-place effort at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Next came a sixth-place run at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Int’l.

Suddenly, people were talking about him. DiBenedetto was gaining steam, gaining fans and gaining support from people inside and outside of the NASCAR garage.

Then came the heartbreaking news. Just days before the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Leavine Family Racing officials revealed they would not be renewing DiBenedetto’s contract at the end of the season.

While unconfirmed as of this writing, many believe that the team’s move is to make way for Joe Gibbs Racing developmental driver Christopher Bell.

The news of his departure from Leavine Family Racing had to be like a punch to the gut for DiBenedetto. Finally, the 27-year-old from Grass Valley, Calif., had begun to gain some momentum and the wind was taken out of his sail.

DiBenedetto was not going to be knocked out easily, though. He dusted himself off and got to work. During driver intros for the Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race, he was introduced while wearing boxing gloves and a robe with the song “Gonna Fly Now” from the “Rocky” movies playing in the background.

It was a sign of what was to come.

Prior to this season, Di­Ben­e­detto’s best Cup Series finish had come at Bristol, a sixth-place effort while driving for BK Racing in 2016. The odds of him performing well were good, but Bristol has a way of chewing up and spitting out drivers on their best days.

DiBenedetto had the race of his life. He ran inside the top 10 for most of the race and took the lead from Erik Jones on lap 396. DiBenedetto led the next 93 laps and it looked as if he would collect an improbable victory.

However, just like Rocky Balboa in the first “Rocky” film, DiBenedetto came up just a little bit short. In the closing laps, Denny Hamlin chased down and passed DiBenedetto, relegating him to a career-best runner-up finish.

But again, much like Rocky, the fans in attendance now knew his name. Upon exiting the car and being interviewed by a track broadcaster, the crowd roared in approval. It was the loudest the crowd had been all night.

It took everything DiBen­edetto had not to cry during his television interview with NBC Sports, but no one would have blamed him if he had. It had been a trying week and he’d just come agonizingly close to a victory that could have changed his life.

Even Hamlin, while celebrating his fourth victory of the season, apologized to DiBenedetto for stealing the victory.

“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto,” Hamlin said. “I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team.”

There is, however, a silver lining to all of this. If the fairytale story of Rocky Balboa is any indication, DiBenedetto will take his performance at Bristol and build upon it. He’s already secured a job for next year — he’ll take over the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford vacated by the retiring Paul Menard.

It is — yet again — the best opportunity of his career. You don’t always win your first big fight, but it prepares you for the next one. For DiBenedetto, Bristol was his first big fight. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next one.