Long: Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place run, a finish worth celebrating

Matt DiBenedetto celebrates his sixth-place finish Sunday with his family (Photo by Dustin Long)
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BRISTOL, Tenn. — They gathered on pit road. While Carl Edwards celebrated his victory Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto, his family and team savored the best sixth-place finish this sport has seen in some time.

DiBenedetto’s mother wanted to hug everyone and did. DiBenedetto’s father smiled with pride. DiBenedetto’s older brother, Austin, who is in the U.S. Air Force, was awestruck.

DiBenedetto?

He cried after finishing a career-high sixth — also the best finish for BK Racing (and only its second top 10 since the team entered Cup in 2012).

This isn’t just a small team besting some of the sport’s big teams. It’s more personal.

Twelve years ago, Tony and Sandy DiBenedetto left behind three grown children when they moved from Northern California to Hickory, North Carolina, to further Matt’s racing career. Matt was 13 years old.

They considered moving to Charlotte, but it was too big. They looked at Asheville, North Carolina, but it was too far from the race shops. One day, Tony DiBenedetto spread a map of North Carolina on a table, closed his eyes and picked Hickory. It was just right, and that was before they found out the city had a track where some NASCAR stars raced.

As DiBenedetto had more success in the lower ranks, NASCAR’s top teams paid attention. Joe Gibbs Racing signed him to a development deal in 2009. DiBenedetto was 17.

He ran seven Xfinity races for JGR in 2009-10, but the deal ended when sponsorship went away. DiBenedetto was left searching for a ride — one of many young drivers victimized by the recession.

He competed in the K&N Pro Series East in 2011 and was back in the Xfinity Series in 2012 — but he was starting and parking in races. He never ran more than 10 laps in any of his seven starts that season. In 2013, DiBenedetto ran six races but never more than 67 laps in a race.

A career that once seemed promising was headed toward a forgettable ending.

“I thought my career was over countless times,’’ DiBenedetto said as Denny Hamlin walked by and congratulated him.

“I got down, but I kept on digging deep. I said, ‘If I don’t give this everything I have, I’ll regret this the rest of my life.’ I don’t ever want to think back and say, ‘I wonder if I could have been racing with those guys.’ ’’

Every time DiBenedetto thought his career could be over, “something little would just pop up … then we’d do something or have a good run or surprise some folks and get another opportunity. When I thought that was done, then something else would pop up.

“It’s like winning the lottery seven times in a row.’’

But it wasn’t just luck. DiBenedetto admitted as he looked for rides, he called anybody and everybody, hoping one call would lead to some ride.

Still, he was starting and parking in the Xfinity Series at times. Eventually, he got to run more than a few laps and then the full race. It helped land a ride last year at BK Racing and return this season.

But after the race, the moment was still too fresh to truly realize. He admitted it likely wouldn’t sink in what he had done until after he had driven home with his wife and brother and could contemplate that “Wow, we passed like Kevin Harvick and guys I looked up to since I was a kid and wore their T-shirts and hats. I was the biggest fans in the stands. Tony Stewart was like my idol. To be racing with these guys and seeing them and be around them, I still feel a little bit of a fan. I maybe need to get over that, but I don’t know if I ever will.’’

He had fans on his side before the race during introductions. Bristol has made it a tradition that drivers come out to a song they select. DiBenedetto’s song was ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.’’  He walked on the stage donned with a long beard and a guitar. It’s the same thing his father did at DiBenedetto’s wedding when each member of the family had their own intro song. His dad still had the beard and the guitar, so DiBenedetto took it for what was the most entertaining driver introduction.

But others are noticing DiBenedetto. The drivers are becoming fans.

Tony DiBenedetto said it meant a lot to him when Edwards congratulated his son earlier this season on placing 20th at Phoenix, which was two spots off his career best at the time.

Asked about it Sunday, Edwards didn’t realize that DiBenedetto finished sixth.

“That’s probably tougher than what we did,’’ Edwards said. “That’s a real testament to them. He seems like a really great guy. I haven’t spent a lot of time with him, but he seems like a really good dude, seems like a neat family. That’s neat.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted that he was proud of DiBenedetto and said: “Like seeing good things happen to good people.’’