DiBenedetto celebrates career-best race finish


SONOMA, Calif. — Matt DiBenedetto drove his way into the NASCAR Cup Series with meager funding and no glossy racing pedigree. He has spent 4¢ years circling tracks in the back of the pack, attempting to will his underperforming, underfunded cars to unlikely results.

Every week, DiBenedetto feels like he has to prove his worth anew to a racing world that still seems determined to push him back down. Even 15 races into his tenure with his latest team, he was already hearing whispers about his tenuous future.

But DiBenedetto fought much too hard for this dream to give it up without a fight.

After he raced to fourth place Sunday at Sonoma Raceway for the best result of his career, DiBenedetto was overwhelmed by excitement and gratitude to all of the people who stuck by him.

“I’m just so lucky to be doing this,” he said. “My path to get here has been so out of the ordinary. I can’t tell you how many people had to take a chance on me for me to get here, or how desperate I was to have a run like this.”

While his team celebrated and his hometown Northern California fans clamored for his autograph, DiBenedetto’s mind flickered with thoughts of his father, of the late J.D. Gibbs, of mentor A.J. Allmendinger — of everybody who believed in an unknown driver with not much more to his name than hunger and skills.

“I’ve had every odd in the world stacked against me,” DiBenedetto said. “I’ve just had to do it the old-school way. Driving for small, underfunded teams, and just had to perform every time I strapped in the car. It’s taught me a lot. That’s the reason I’ve learned to hone my skills and be where I am today.”

For one beautiful afternoon on Sonoma’s rolling road course, he got to show off everything he learned back there in the pack.

Although he didn’t threaten Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch up front in their vaunted Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, he still roared up through the field during the final stage. Passing superstars Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick along the way, he masterfully guided his Leavine Family Racing Toyota into a comfortable fourth place in his 156th career Cup start.

The 27-year-old DiBenedetto sees himself in all the blue-collar racers over the years who scrapped their way into a Cup ride and then spent years hoping for a miraculous burst of speed.

“I’ve learned to become really, really mentally tough over the years,” DiBenedetto said, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s been a tough journey. My whole career, every single year of my life and career … I mean, we’ve folded it up as a family and sold all our stuff and quit. My whole life, I’ve always had to perform. Every single race. … I always say that to my wife. She worries all the time for me, and I tell her, ‘It’s hard to stay calm, (but) if I go out there and I perform, the rest will take care of itself.'”