Matt DiBenedetto came out dressed as a boxer for driver introductions Saturday for the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Turns out that was good foreshadowing.
DiBenedetto, in fine Italian Stallion fashion, almost pulled off one of the best Rocky stories in NASCAR Cup Series history. He led a race-high 93 laps and was on his way to his first career victory before being passed by eventual winner Denny Hamlin a handful of laps before the checkered flag.
DiBenedetto held on to finish a career-best second in his 164th career start, just days after being told by Leavine Family Racing that he would be let go after the 2019 season.
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The 28-year-old driver from California couldn’t mask the pain of falling short and the lead-up to it.
“I wanted to win so bad for these guys, this team,” he told NBC Sports Network’s Parker Kligerman after the race. DiBenedetto said his car tightened up after it made contact with Ryan Newman’s car late in Stage 3 of the race. Hamlin overtook him not long after.
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“I’m trying not to get emotional, but it’s been a tough week,” DiBenedetto added. “Just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come.”
“I’m not done yet,” he added. “Something will come open. It’s going to happen. I’m here to win. Something’s going to come open. I’m proud of these guys (and) thankful for my wife and fans for sticking with me. It’s been a tough journey. It’s been a hard week. It was cool for this team.”
To add some perspective on how improbable DiBenedetto’s drive was: His 93 laps led were 20 more than his career total of 73 (over parts of five seasons) prior to Saturday.
Hamlin himself knew how important winning was to DiBenedetto, who noted that he was a fan of Hamlin’s as a kid.
“I just want to say sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (his crew chief) Mike Wheeler,” Hamlin said after his fourth victory of the Monster Energy Cup Series season, his his second win at Bristol and the 35th win of his career. “I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I’ve got to give 110 percent to my whole team. Just sorry.”
Material from the NASCAR Wire Service was used in this report.