After his sixth-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, Matt DiBenedetto declared he was “fighting for my life, my career” in NASCAR, as speculation continues to swirl around where he’ll be racing in 2020.
The Leavine Family Racing driver left the road course with his fourth top 10 in seven races. Before this stretch, he hadn’t finished better than 12th in the first 15 races of the year.
Now DiBenedetto and the No. 95 team take their fight to Michigan International Speedway, which DiBenedetto viewed as his “weakest” track when the Cup Series last visited the 2-mile facility in June.
In that race, DiBenedetto started 29th and placed 21st. In nine starts there, it was his best finish and his first on the lead lap.
In his first year with LFR, Michigan is the third track after Daytona and Pocono that DiBenedetto has visited a second time.
“I think that we’ve had a bit more speed lately at tracks that were our weakness starting off the year, so I think this weekend going back to Michigan will be a good test for us since I feel that Michigan was our weakest track when we raced there a few months ago,” DiBenedetto said in a media release. “The challenges that we faced there in June were speed in general as well as the aero balance of the car. I held it wide-open, and unfortunately, we just didn’t have the speed to be able to catch up.”
With this year’s rules package, DiBenedetto said Michigan presents different challenges than the tracks he’s excelled at in the last seven races, which included two road courses, as well as Daytona and the flat 1-mile track in New Hampshire.
“In traffic at Michigan, it’s really hard to pass and that’s what makes it a tough track for us since I’m not controlling a lot in our Camry like I am at the tracks that we’ve run better at lately,” DiBenedetto explained. “This weekend we’ll be dependent on the speed of our car and our track position.
“I think that for the stability of the car, everything’s about aero, especially with high downforce since it’s super sensitive to that. Trying to get the aero balance of the car to feel right and make it feel stable is something that we’ve been working on learning and will be important this coming weekend.”
On DiBenedetto’s pit box will sit crew chief Mike Wheeler, who is in his first year with Leavine Family Racing after three full-time seasons with Denny Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Appearing on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On-Track” Wednesday, Wheeler said there was “no switch” flipped in order for DiBenedetto to suddenly be running near the front.
It was just a matter of the No. 95 team finally getting its house in order after a massive offseason of change for the organization.
“I’ve heard some rumblings of, ‘Oh, you’re getting better this from (Toyota Racing Development)’ or ‘you’re getting better that from JGR,'” Wheeler said. “Honestly it just comes back to hard work. Beginning of the year, I wouldn’t say we were short-staffed, but we were definitely on the short-end of the stick as far as overcoming the package changes.
“We had to start from scratch in a lot of areas, but also changing over manufacturers (from Chevrolet to Toyota) and chassis suppliers. A lot of the ways they did things here at LFR have to start over. Measuring the car, setting up a car, parts and pieces, mileage systems, note taking. All that starts from scratch.”
Wheeler said having “some baseline events to run well, but not great” has benefitted his team over this recent stretch when it came to be prepared once they showed up to the track.
“(Cars get) built sooner than later and (we) get ahead of schedule so we can actually try to carry out some performance enhancements,” Wheeler said. “Next thing you know we started clicking off some top 10s and top fives.”
But Wheeler admits they don’t expect exponential improvement at Michigan.
“We haven’t learned enough yet to really correct everything that we want to at this point,” Wheeler said in a media release. “Hopefully with the gains we’ve made with the 550 (horsepower) spec package, we can perform better than we did in June, but keeping track position, qualifying well and executing all day will be the keys to finishing up front.
“The 750 spec package is quite a bit different than the 550 spec package, so a lot of our good runs with the 750 package don’t apply to tracks like Michigan. There’s no doubt that going to Pocono twice (where they finished 17th each time), we had learned more and performed better, but we still face some uphill challenges that we don’t have all the answers for yet.”