Matt DiBenedetto Seeing the Ups and Downs of Sprint Cup Series
Matt DiBenedetto was unlike most kids his age growing up. Forget about the extracurricular activities at school, he wanted to race. That’s what he’s known since the age of five.
DiBenedetto, now 25, is competing in his second season for BK Racing at the helm of the No. 83 Toyota, something he says he never could have imagined.
Growing up, DiBenedetto was winning races left and right, making his competition look silly, thus why he wanted to pursue it as a career. However, he didn’t realize how good he was at racing until other competitors and parents of his peers went up to him and his family saying that they should move to the east coast to view their options.
“My whole life,” DiBenedetto told Speedway Digest of how long he’s wanted to be a racecar driver. “When I started racing in go-karts and dirt, it was just for fun. We didn’t know anything else. We just went out there and played around. We were very naïve and didn’t realize how hard it is and the money it takes.”
In 2007, driving for his family-owned race team, DiBenedetto quit racing. While competing in the UARA Stars Late Model Touring Series, winning two races, the team did not have the financial support to keep racing.
It was a call from J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing that allowed DiBenedetto to get back into racing and move out east from California. He was signed by Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, and made his first-career XFINITY Series start in 2009 at Memphis, finishing 14th.
He competed in seven races between 2009 and 2010 for JGR in the XFINITY Series, after being acknowledged as one of the organizations future drivers. That year, the No. 20 car was shared with Cup Series veterans such as Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, winning three races.
DiBenedetto raced part-time until 2014 in the XFINITY Series, when he attempted to drive the full season with The Motorsports Group, finishing 21st in the standings.
However, 2015 was a career-changing year for DiBenedetto.
BK Racing decided it wanted to move on from Alex Bowman and several other drivers who were put in the No. 83 machine. The organization decided to put DiBenedetto in the racecar, while having no prior experience in the Cup Series. He made his Cup Series debut at Phoenix, the fourth race of the season.
DiBenedetto finished the 2015 season 35th in the championship standings with a best result of 18th at the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Beginning at the start of 2016, BK Racing wanted to up the ante, adding NASCAR veteran David Ragan to the driver lineup, fielding two full-time rides. Since then, DiBenedetto is happy with the improvements from last year.
“I’m extremely excited and blessed to be in the Sprint Cup Series,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s tough now-a-days to have a ride without bringing a lot of funding to a team. I’m just fortunate to drive for a team that has a good teammate with David Ragan.”
After racing his way into the Daytona 500 in a third BK Racing car with Michael Waltrip, two-time Daytona 500 winner piloting his No. 83 car, DiBenedetto saw limited success until Phoenix –the fourth race of the year – where he started 23rd and ran around the top 20 all day long, finished 20th.
It wasn’t until Bristol that DiBenedetto showed his true colors. Staying out late in the race while others pitted, the No. 83 car kept on moving toward the front, finishing sixth, a career-high for the organization and he.
“I think my sixth place at Bristol is number one,” DiBenedetto said was his career highlight. “It wasn’t a win on my resume, but it was a win as a team. That was cool for the whole team.”
The team has said to be getting more help from Toyota Racing Development (TRD) to advance them up the ladder of the sport.
“I’m able to focus on a lot more detailed things than last year,” he said. “Just like perfecting pit stops, getting on and off pit road and managing my race. It’s just a lot more comfortable to sum it up. I feel like I can do a better job for the team.”
A lot of the advancement has said to come with the addition of Ragan. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota is a two-time winner in the Cup Series, winning the July race at Daytona International Speedway in 2011, and picking up a victory for Front Row Motorsports in 2013 at Talladega, a team similar in size and funding to BK Racing.
Ragan is coming off a season in which he drove for three different teams. He raced the 2015 Daytona 500 for FRM, but the next week piloted the No. 18 car at Atlanta for an injured Kyle Busch with JGR. He competed in nine events JGR before finishing the season with Michael Waltrip Racing, but was forced to find another ride after the team shut its doors at the end of the year.
Now, in his 10th full year in the Cup Series, Ragan is the veteran of the team, a new role for the 30-year-old.
Through 15 races in 2016, Ragan has a best finish of 17th at Dover, but had led at least one lap in four events.
“We are both very positive and upbeat guys and I think that keeps out guys very encouraged,” DiBenedetto said of Ragan. “It’s really about jointing these two teams together, but we need all the resources we need to be the best we can. It helps a lot and feels like a big family.”
In August, DiBenedetto and veteran crew chief Gene Nead will have worked together for one full year. Prior to having his current leader on the pit box, Doug Richert was his crew chief. Nead has 13 wins in his NASCAR career, the first coming with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 1980 and the last coming with Greg Biffle in 2006.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever worked as well with a crew chief,” DiBenedetto said. “He’s helped me because he is an old-schooled guy with a lot of experience. He’s been around the sport for a long time. He knows a lot of things that I don’t and I learn from him very week. He stays on me really hard and makes sure that I’m on the wheel every lap of the race. He makes me want to be better.”
Since that sixth-place effort at Bristol in mid-April, DiBenedetto has yet to crack the top 30, having four DNF’s in the process, including the last two races at Pocono and Michigan.
The goal for the remainder of the season is to keep improving and constantly cracking the top 25, something DiBenedetto has done twice this year in 15 races. As an organization, the two cars have a combined nine top-25 finishes, the other seven coming from Ragan.
“It’s tough because when you look at the top 20 and top 25, you have Hendrick cars, Stewart-Haas cars,” DiBenedetto said of his competition. “It’s just a lot of very top funding teams running in that area. It’s just so competitive throughout the field and we run on such a smaller budget than they do. Some races when we get everything right and do our jobs, we have some breakout runs and beat those guys. It’s really tough to compete with teams that have more engineers than we do employees total.”
This weekend, DiBenedetto heads back to his home state of California for his second-career start at Sonoma Raceway. Last year, he placed 29th in the finishing order.
While having more friends and family at the racetrack compared to other races, DiBenedetto still has to partake in the event, which is the first road race of 2016. Last year the support he received took him by surprise, but now he’s adjusted comfortably into his role at BK Racing, a place he wants to stay at as long as Rob Devine, owner of BK Racing will have him.
Dustin is a 20-year-old, currently studying journalism at Ithaca College. Albino has always wanted to report on NASCAR and beginning at the end of 2014 that is exactly what he did with Speedway Digest. Since that time he has become well-known around the garage area and is looking to attend even more races than he did in 2015.