DARLINGTON, S.C. — It was set to be a magical moment.
Then came the contact.
And Matt DiBenedetto saw his chances to collect his first career Cup win end two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway just days after finding out he would not return to Leavine Family Racing in 2020.
Some fans were upset with Ryan Newman for the contact with DiBenedetto in the final laps that damaged DiBenedetto’s car and made it easier for Denny Hamlin to close and then pass DiBenedetto for the win.
“I thought I held my line on the straightaway,” Newman said Friday at Darlington Raceway when asked about the contact.
Newman was running 11th and seeking to stay on the lead lap when DiBenedetto, who was leading, approached with about 40 laps to go at Bristol.
“I did what I needed to do to be competitive,” Newman said Friday. “I haven’t seen any replays. I don’t know exactly how (DiBenedetto) hit me twice in two separate straightaways in the right rear going down the straightaway. If I pinched him or he didn’t give himself enough room or what. In the end, it was nothing intentional by me.
“I even told somebody after the race, I said ‘I don’t know what his deal was.’ I thought I was in the same spot with every car that was on the outside of me and I didn’t hit any cars or any cars hit me up until he came in on the outside of me. He did surprise me off of Turn 2 the first time, but I thought I left him plenty of room.”
As for fans who blamed Newman for the contact and preventing DiBenedetto from scoring the win, Newman said: “I think Kyle Busch would tell you the best, there’s always going to be haters.”
After the race, DiBenedetto said the contact with Newman “cost us the chance at trying to hold off Denny.”
On the Dale Jr. Download this week, DiBenedetto explained what he was thinking as he approached Newman to put him a lap down.
“I see us catching Newman, and I’m like ‘oh man, this is not what I’m wanting,’ “ DiBenedetto said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I get to him and I process ‘If I win this race, I’m going to be in the playoffs. He’s on the bubble, he’s extra not going to want me to win.’
“I’m like he’s going to be racing me really hard. I catch him and I see Denny coming. … If I can get by Newman and get that clear race track in front of him, that’s it, that’s going to be the move that wins us the race. I’ve got to make quick work of (Newman).”
DiBenedetto saw Newman’s line change and said on the Dale Jr. Download that he focused on trying to pass Newman on the outside.
“If I can get to his outside and get to his right rear, like clearly there, and keep that momentum and keep it wound up on the top and get around him and drive past, oh man we’re going to be good,” DiBenedetto said.
“I get right to his bumper, gas it up in the middle of the corner and get to his right rear tire and I’m like I’m there. You’ve got to be careful. If you just stick barely your bumper there and it’s questionable, I wanted to make sure I was there. I did gas it up and we had a huge run off the corner and I was at his right rear tire and he just came up anyways.”
During qualifying Saturday, DiBenedetto said he and Newman talked about the Bristol contact.
“He said it wasn’t intentional,” DiBenedetto said of what Newman told him. “He thought he left me enough room but he didn’t. I just explained it to him. I was against the wall. I was trying to be smart as well.”
DiBenedetto’s focus now is on the Southern 500 and while his team has struggled on some of the bigger tracks, he thinks Darlington Raceway could be a good track for him.
He was fifth in final practice Friday.
“If I’m picking and choosing and being totally honest, if we’ve got Darlington and Indy left, I’m circling off Darlington as probably more of a strong suit,” DiBenedetto said of the final two races in the regular season, “because we’re going to have more off-throttle time and be a little more grip limited here, which are the things we need as a team to make it where I can stand out more and my team can stand out more with the things they do.
“Hopefully, we can do that here and a win would be great because we have the speed at those type of race tracks. We really do.”
As for where he’ll be next year, DiBenedetto was asked if he has been contacted for any rides.
“I got a lot of like really nice, encouraging texts and stuff from a lot of fellow drivers and such so that was really neat and encouraging,” DiBenedetto said Friday at Darlington. “Nothing in particular. Just keeping all options open.”