BRISTOL, Tenn. — Looking for a ride for next season, Matt DiBenedetto enters tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway focused on one goal.
“I want to win in Cup,” says the driver whose family moved from California to North Carolina when he was a teen to help his racing career, who ran start-and-parks at one time in the Xfinity Series to keep in the sport and who has 13 races left in what is the best ride of his five-year Cup career.
DiBenedetto found out this week that he would not return to Leavine Family Racing after this season. DiBenedetto said that “I don’t want to say I was blindsided” but said he held out hope that “my performance behind the wheel (would) do the talking and hope that that would prevail over everything.”
Instead, business matters prevailed. With Erik Jones near an extension to remain at Joe Gibbs Racing — keeping all four driver spots there filled — Toyota and JGR needed a place to move Christopher Bell from the Xfinity Series to Cup. Leavine Family Racing’s alliance with JGR makes it the natural spot for Bell. While Bell said this week nothing is set, all signs point to him driving the No. 95 car next year.
Despite his disappointment, DiBenedetto remains grateful to Leavine Family Racing for the chance to run the No. 95 this year.
“I want everyone to know, fans especially and social media and stuff, is to be easy on our team and Toyota and (Joe) Gibbs and everything because they’re all still great people and they gave me this opportunity,” he said.
Still, about a year after DiBenedetto left his ride with Go Fas Racing and unsure of where he’d land, he’s again looking for a ride for the upcoming season.
“I don’t want to retire yet because I’m only 28 years old,” said DiBenedetto, who starts seventh in tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “Just getting started, but I want to win in the Cup Series. That’s what I’ve said and that’s my goal. I’m here to keep on climbing the ladder, not go backwards.”
As for what he might do next year, he’s not sure.
“I have no irons in the fire per se, yet, but this all just happened just this week,” he said.
One question is if it might be possible for him to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity program — DiBenedetto made his Xfinity debut with JGR in 2009 as a development driver and he will drive the team’s No. 18 Xfinity car in the upcoming race at Road America.
“I don’t think there is that opportunity or as of now, there’s not,” he said. “Not that I’m aware of. I’ve talked to the Toyota folks and stuff and I don’t foresee any opportunities within the camp, I don’t think. Just going to have to really pursue everything, but the main goal is to keep proving myself behind the wheel, which I’ve shown I’m here to win and run up front.”
Maybe something good will happen to him tonight. Bristol is where he scored his first Cup top 10 in 2016, placing sixth for an underfunded BK Racing team. He and his family celebrated that finish on pit road after the race.
Alex Bowman, who also drove for underfunded teams before working his way up to a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, is rooting for DiBenedetto to remain in Cup next season.
“I think he does a really good job in the race car,” Bowman said. “Obviously, he has shown that he continues to deserve (a Cup ride). He’ll land on his feet. Everything happens for a reason. I was pretty bummed when I lost my gig. It all ended up working out for the better.”