For Matt DiBenedetto, his NASCAR career has been all about making “a lot out of a little”.
The 25-year old grew up in Grass Valley, California. Living in California, DiBenedetto would constantly ride four wheelers and dirt bikes from a very young age. From the get go, DiBenedetto considers himself “pretty much wide open and out of control.” At the age of five, DiBenedetto started watching NASCAR on his own by forcing his dad to stop flipping through television channels.
While playing baseball, the veteran driver went to a local track and watched his teammate race on dirt. From his first experience at the track, DiBenedetto continued to bug “the heck out of my dad to let me do that.” The ironic part for DiBenedetto is that nobody in his family had a racing background. “I came to the conclusion I must be adopted,” said DiBenedetto.
At the age of 12, the DiBenedetto family packed their bags and headed east to Hickory, North Carolina. DiBenedetto described that transition as “interesting” and a “culture shock”.
“I was young so I couldn’t understand what we were doing. To me, we were winning everything out in California. I needed to pursue this to where racing is bigger. We were really naive,” said the veteran driver.
Now, DiBenedetto considers North Carolina home and would not live anywhere else, even if he wasn’t racing.
At the age of 15, DiBenedetto started running Limited Late Models at Hickory Speedway. While racing at Hickory, the veteran driver was running against Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), who had a development driver racing at Hickory. During that year, DiBenedetto won the championship. Winning that championship, the name “Matt DiBenedetto” began trinkling throughout the shop at JGR as someone who was “making a lot out of a little.”
“The word kinda got around the shop that we were doing a lot with a little, which has been the story of my career. They knew we were on a tight budget, didn’t have much to work with, winning races. It was a good way to get the word out,” said the 25-year old.
In 2009, at the age of 17, DiBenedetto was signed on at JGR as a developmental driver. “It was crazy. I could have cried that day. It was unexpected. I didn’t know it was coming. All of this happened really quick, it looked like a blurb,” DiBenedetto stated. During the time, the veteran driver ran in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series as well as a handful of NASCAR Xfinity Series events.
At Memphis Motorsports Park in 2009, DiBenedetto made his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start. “I was pretty naive. I was really excited. It was short track so it fit my background. I wasn’t too worried about it,” said DiBenedetto.
He started the weekend qualifying in the fourth position. DIBenedetto was running in the front for majority of the race until an incident on pit road sent him to the back of the field. Despite the incident, the 25 year old worked his way back towards the front passing drivers like Kyle Busch. The organization had a shot at winning, but was caught in the scuffle between Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards. DiBenedetto finished 14th that day. “At the end of the all, I was frustrated we didn’t win. That was my mentality. I didn’t really understand how good were in my first race,” said DiBenedetto.
Ultimately, the relationship ended at JGR for DiBenedetto. He went back to running K&N as well as some start and park rides in Xfinity. During that time, the veteran driver appreciated things more than he did before. Despite the circumstances, DiBenedetto continued to make a lot out of a little.
“Going about it this route, the day that I win a race, I will be crying like a little girl. I won’t care if I get any criticism for it because I had to work so hard to get there. I had to regroup and hit rock bottom,” DiBenedetto stated about this route.
When the call came from Ron Devine of BK Racing, things began to change quickly for DiBenedetto. The veteran drivers owes the ride to JD Gibbs, who called Devine.
“Man, it was cool. I owe a lot of that to JD Gibbs. Although I wasn’t at JGR, JD still called Ron and told him to give me an opportunity. So, obviously that weighed in heavily. The day I got the opportunity, I didn’t know if it was for one or two races, but it turned into a full season turning around that 83 car from missing races to making it their top running car,” said DiBenedetto.
In 2016, at Bristol Motor Speedway, DiBenedetto scored his career best finish of sixth. For DiBenedetto, that sixth place finish is considered a “win”. “It was cool because I felt that I validated myself and showed that I can be in a position one day winning races. I have the ability to win races. I just worked the old school way,” the veteran driver stated.
Going into 2017, DiBenedetto made the personal and professional decision to leave BK Racing for GoFAS Racing. The decision to move came with backlash from peers that he would be ruining his career. However, that is not the case for DiBenedetto. “I felt like going to GoFAS had lots of potential taking a team that ran 38th to 40th last year, I was like we can go in there and turn it around making a lot out of a little. If we do that, it would turn a lot of heads,” said DiBenedetto. Sure enough, the team has turned heads. With a small budget, good sponsors, and dedicated crew members, the team is running significantly better than 2016.
“We had to battle some growing pains, but to take a team and grow it way more competitively, it reflects on all of us. To me, that was the best possibility,” said DiBenedetto.
At the beginning of the year, the crew at GoFAS was tired and exhausted putting in long hours making the cars better. For DiBenedetto, the beginning of the year thigh him how to be the cheerleader that motivates and keeps the team together, despite the long hours.
“At the beginning, we knew it was going to be a lot of work running a small budget and having the right people that know what needs to be done with the cars. To be honest, there were lots of guys who were very tired at the beginning of the year. It taught me a lot about keeping the group together and keep them motivated. I had to be a cheerleader for our guys because they would get tired and frustrated with so much work. It taught me a lot,” said DiBenedetto.
The team now feels prepared with the cars that they have in the shop. The long hours are still there, but they are more reasonable for the team. “Our guys are still working long hours, but reasonable. We are more caught up. It’s more relaxed from where we started the season,” said DiBenedetto.
In the first half of the season, the organization is confident and pleased with the speed and performance they have had. The organization knows where they need to run, who they should be running with, and who they should be beating. The team went through a four race stretch where things either broke or a tire was cut down, the team was encouraged where they were running before the incidents.
“As angry and frustrated we were at not finishing due to being rushed or overlooking some things, some smaller teams struggles, we were encouraged because we had a great car and we were running with Danica or the 95, people that have better equipment than us, we were outperforming. All it did was motivate us to take the extra time to dot out i’s and cross our t’s,” said DiBenedetto.
In his personal life, DiBenedetto has been married to his wife Taylor since 2015. Unlike many drivers, being married did not change his approach on racing. “It didn’t. My wife would be okay with me saying that racing comes first before everything,” said DiBenedetto.
As the many drivers within the NASCR garage have went to cycling, DiBenedetto is his own person by lifting weights in the gym.
“I like lifting weights because it is more mental than anything. I kinda have more of that build. It’s a big stress reliever. What we do for a living is really stressful,” said the 25-year old driver. “When i can go lift weights, it mentally makes me feel better and gets me through the racing struggle. It’s a way for me to be unique.”
For those who follow DiBenedetto on social media, they understand that DiBenedetto likes to have fun. Earlier this season, DiBenedetto made his Snapchat account public to be able to interact with the younger fan base. “Getting a reputation is an easy way for me to have fun with fans and share some of my racing life and the fun, normal side of me,” said DiBenedetto.
At the end of the day when the racing career comes to an end, the veteran driver wants to be known in the same way as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. DiBenedetto wants to be known as someone who was fan friendly and friendliest to his fans. “Obviously, everyone can say winning races and championships, that’s a given. What I want to be know on top of that would being the nicest and cares the most about his fans,” stated the veteran driver.
You can follow DiBenedetto on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @mattdracing. You can follow GoFAS Racing on Twitter and Facebook @GoFasRacing32.
Growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, Blake Koch started his journey in racing by getting involved in motorcross. At a young age, Koch went to his uncle’s farm and watched them race their dirt bikes around. Koch hopped on a dirt bike and realized that most of the day was gone. From that day forward, it was all about motorcross for Koch. All he could think about at school was going back home and practicing on his dirt bike.
In 2007, Koch watched his first NASCAR race with his step-dad. Koch mentioned that his stepdad would watch and attend NASCAR races. After watching his first race, Koch’s stepdad bought a stock car and entrusted a young Koch to drive for him. Once he drove the stock-car, the rest was history on four wheels for Koch. Koch believes that he was lucky enough to be able to drive a car.
The 31 year old was able to move to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in 2008. The Xfinity veteran He believes strongly in the K&N program in how it is great for developing younger talent. Koch believes it is a natural progression going through K&N to the NASCAR Xfinity Series because the tracks are bigger, the cars are heavier, and that it is competitive. He believes that it is also a great series to sell sponsorship for drivers because it not only has the NASCAR backing, but that it is a fun series to race in.
During his time in the K&N Series, Koch was recruited for the Richard Childress Racing Driver Development program in 2009. Being younger, Koch did not realize what a special opportunity it was. However, Koch believed it was the appropriate next step in his pursuit of becoming a top driver in NASCAR. Sponsorship is crucial in NASCAR. Koch used the leverage of the NASCAR backing and the development program to sell sponsorship. Now, Koch is grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the program.
For the early part of his career in the top-three national series, Koch was considered a start-and-park driver. His main job was to get to the track, don’t crash the car, make the show, and then leave. In 2011, Koch was with McDonald Motorsports. In 2012, Koch began to bounce around organizations as a start-and-park driver. Koch was unable to have team building moments due to the nature of start-and-parking. Despite the nature, Koch never regrets that time as a start-and-park driver because it was able to pay the bills and put food on the table for him and his family.
One of the easiest decisions Koch had to make was when he joined Matt Kaulig in 2016 to start Kaulig Racing. Kaulig and Koch began a relationship when LeafFilter Gutter Protection, the company owned and founded by Kaulig, sponsored Koch in 2014. Koch has high praise for Kaulig. Koch describes Kaulig as a man who does everything first class. When Kaulig puts his mind to something, he takes it to a new level and achieves the goals he set. Koch wanted to be around somebody with a first class attitude. After sponsoring Koch for part of 2014 and all of 2015, he was all in when it came to the decision to move to the newly formed team.
Going into 2016, the team knew what they wanted that they were going to be building a competitive team that had the opportunity to compete for wins and championships. In December, the team sat down and sat goals for the season. They knew they wanted to be in the inaugural Xfinity Series playoffs. From there, they knew they had to be consistent with top-15 finishes. The team was able to make the playoffs in their inaugural season.
For 2017, they came in with the same goals as 2016. However, Koch believes that this is the most competitive he has seen the Xfinity Series since he has been involved since 2011. The big goal for 2017 is to make the final four to compete for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
2016 was a career best year for Koch that gave him the confidence in himself and his team. The biggest boost for Koch was being able to know that he was able to do it. Running in the back of the pack for five to six years took its toll on Koch. He began to question whether it was is driving ability or was it the equipment. Now, with the support of his team and sponsors, Koch has gained a boost in his confidence. The boost came early in 2016 when Koch received his best finish of his career early on in the season. During the season, Koch and his team began to see how committed and great their team owner was. In 2016, they bought a shop and renovated it, and moved into the shop in May of 2016. Koch sees how committed Kaulig is to the series, himself, Chris Rice, his crew chief, and the people involved. With time, they believe they will become a championship caliber team.
Kaulig Racing has carried the wave of momentum from 2016 to 2017. They ended the season seventh in points and now currently sit ninth in points after Talladega. With the momentum, the veteran driver and his team are not losing sight of their goal of making the playoffs a second consecutive year. Koch believes they are able to do this because they have a sponsor who is committed so that they can focus their resources and priorities on winning races.
Koch sees the potential in Kaulig Racing. Koch sees that they can be able to get the top-fives. Koch believes that they are comfortable with top-10’s, but when they get comfortable for top-fives, then they will be ready for wins.
Koch sees the new competition enhancements for 2017 as a positive for NASCAR. He sees this as the most positive change he has seen in the sport since he has been involved. He believes that it is three races built into one to provide better overall and exciting racing for fans and drivers. Because points are extremely valuable, Koch wants to get after as many of those points as possible. As for the aero changes in the Xfinity Series, he believes that the teams have adapted well.
Koch is an active member on social media. He uses social media to create a one on one conversation with fans who have been there from the beginning to fans who have recently hopped on board based on their success last season as the underdog. He thinks that is cool that people want to interact and follow him and have interest in what he says just because he is a race car driver.
Although he is a professional driver, Koch is a husband and father. Koch and his wife, Shannon, recently celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary. They have been together for over ten years. According to Koch, Shannon has changed his world. As a kid, Koch always had two questions in his mind: Who am I going to marry and what I am going to do? Koch believes marrying Shannon and then becoming a NASCAR driver created a more “orchestrated” life. Koch is also a father of two. When he had his first child, his priorities began to change. At the end of the day, he hurries home just to be with his wife and kids. Now having a family, Koch began to focus and base his decisions on how it would affect his kids and their futures and Shannon to make sure their needs are met.
Koch is a man of Christian faith. He always strives to find his joy in his relationship with Jesus. He believes that finding that joy helps him get through life not placing value on material things. He believes that it is all about being thankful with the things God has given him to steward whether it be the opportunity to own pressure washing equipment or to drive a racecar. He is thankful for the opportunities God has given him.
At the end of the day, when the time comes, Koch wants to be remembered as the husband and father he could possibly be. He wants Kaulig and other drivers to remember him as the best driver they could possibly ask for on and off the track.
You can follow Koch on Twitter at @BlakeKochRacing. You can also follow Kaulig Racing at @KauligRacing.
Growing up in Las Vegas, Noah Gragson did not necessarily grow up around the racing world. At a very young age, he was involved with stick and ball sports like basketball and football, as well as extreme sports, like mountain biking.
To Gragson, racing was just an east coast of the United States deal. However, everything shifted at the age of 10 and 11.
Gragson was friends with Riley Herbst. Herbst invited Gragson to one of his races in an off road champion truck series event outside of Las Vegas. According to Gragson, the racing bug was caught and that is what he wanted to do. However, when that bug hit, it was during the economic recession.
The bug did not die in Gragson’s heart. His dad would bring him to Pole Position Raceway, a go-kart circuit in the Las Vegas area. The family would go as many weekends to Pole Position for one and a half to two years when an opportunity arose to race in the Bandelero’s at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s “Bullring”.
During his time at the Bullring, Gragson found racing success. He moved up to the Legend’s division in 2014. While in that division, Gragson won the Young Lion Road Course championship as well as beginning to drive in the Super Late Model Division.
He also became a member of the NASCAR Next program in 2012. This program selects drivers that have a proven record of success and possess the necessary talent and skills to continue going up the NASCAR ladder. This program helps drivers develop the necessary professional skills and grow their marketability. Drivers are selected to join the program from input among veteran drivers and industry executives. NASCAR believes that these drivers will be the next face in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In 2015, Gragson moved to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. In just his third start, Gragson scored the victory at Tucson Speedway in Arizona. During that season, Gragson won one more race, scored one pole, seven top-five finishes, and 11 top-10 finishes while finishing second in the points standings and winning Rookie of the Year.
In 2016, Gragson continued to race in the K&N Pro Series West, but also added the K&N Pro Series East to his resume. During the season, Gragson collected two wins in East and West. In the West, he scored eight top-fives, 12 top-10’s, and led 73 laps. In the East, he scored four top-five’s, six top-10’s, and led 16 laps.
Because of his impressive steps, Gragson signed to race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM).
Signing with KBM was a dream come true for Gragson. About four to five years ago, Gragson swung by the KBM shop. When he walked into the shop for the very first time, he was amazed at the trophies that showcase the success of Busch and KBM. While there, Gragson dreamed of being able to step into the shop as a driver for Kyle and Samantha.
Driving for Kyle may seem daunting to many young drivers, but for Gragson it’s a special opportunity since both drivers were born and raised in the Las Vegas area. Gragson believes the opportunity to be able to talk to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion is an advantage to him because not every young guy has the opportunity to do so. Gragson can call up Busch and ask him what the nuisances of a specific track are and how to approach the weekend. Gragson not only leans on Busch for advice, but Christopher Bell, his teammate. Gragson is using this opportunity to be like a sponge and soak up every bit of information he can.
While driving full-time in the trucks, Gragson also has been running select ARCA Racing Series events with Venturini Motorsports. Gragson has already ran at Daytona International Speedway in ARCA. He will also race this weekend at Talladega, as well as, the second Pocono and Chicagoland. He chose to go with Venturini Motorsports because he saw how fast their Toyota’s were. Gragson also has saw how successful the organization was in winning at every track on the ARCA schedule. In 2015, Gragson, who was not racing for them at the time, believed that Venturini was the team to beat.
The first two races of the truck season were not what Gragson was hoping for. He crashed at Daytona in the opening laps to finish in the 26th position, while at Atlanta, he finished 14th after making a mistake on the opening lap. Because he has not had the experience on mile-and-halves, Gragson is learning everything he an about the trucks. “The aero is different than what I am used to in K&N,” said Gragson. “You can follow a guy on the short tracks and be right in his footsteps and once he messes up, you pounce on him. On the 1.5-miles, you really have to go where he is not. When you are stuck to him in the airwaves, you have no downforce making it hard.”
Despite the lack of experience, Gragson is proud that Marcus Richmond, his crew chief, and team are rallying behind him to build up his confidence.
As a young driver in the trucks, Gragson deals with the month long break from Atlanta to Martinsville to Kansas. Gragson only has five races under his belt, but would love the chance to get to learn more about the trucks by racing in them. Despite the break, Gragson relies on Busch, Richmond, and his teammates to help learn the nuances with the lack of experience.
Like his career, the sports scene in and around the Las Vegas area is booming. While Las Vegas Motor Speedway is getting a second date, the area is also getting a National Football League and National Hockey League team. Gragson believes that is huge for Vegas for the “businesses, the hotels, just the whole atmosphere in Vegas”. When he was racing at the “Bullring”, he always dreamt of racing on the “big track” and is excited to have that opportunity to live out his dreams.
Gragson believes that the competition enhancements across all three series is a success.
“I feel like it creates a bit more drama. In the past, I felt the races get strung out and single file, not enough racing. But now, they take guys group them up, takes it back to your traditional K&N/Short track racing. You get a halfway break etc. I feel like it’s a win-win for everyone. It creates drama for the fans, fans are happy. the TV providers happy because they get commercials in. For us, we get to take a sip of water and relax our fingers.”
Although the season is young in the Camping World Truck Series, Gragson has set goals in what he wants to accomplish. His main goal is to learn as much as he can because many of the tracks on the schedule or ones he has not seen before. “Hopefully next year I can come back to these tracks, but our main goal is to win races and a championship. to be realistic, i want to learn. with learning, the races will come, the finishes will come. You just gotta keep digging and striving to get better and better,” said Gragson. Although he has not seen many of the tracks, he is most looking forward to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in September because road courses are where he found the most success in the K&N Series.
Social media is an important part of Gragson’s life. Gragson uses Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat as ways to interact with the fans. Gragson loves to interact with fans on social media. He believes that fans come to the racetrack to see their favorite driver and get an autograph while social media provides fans the opportunity to see what drivers go through on a day-to-day basis outside of the racetrack atmosphere.
You can follow Gragson on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter on @NoahGragson.