NASCAR driver Matt DiBenedetto almost had a storybook ending to a âdevastatingâ week. The driver of the No. 95 Toyota led a race-high 93 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night, and it looked like he was headed for his first career Cup Series win.
And it would have come just four days after DiBenedetto found out he doesnât have a ride next season with Leavine Family Racing.
DiBenedetto took the lead with 103 laps left on the .533-mile track, but in the final laps, he had pole-winner Denny Hamlin chasing him down. As they both were fighting through lapped traffic, Ryan Newman â a driver famous for being exceptionally difficult to pass â made contact with the front of the 95 car as DiBenedetto tried to get by.
With about 11 laps to go, Hamlin took the lead and won his fourth race of the season, while DiBenedetto finished second.
And the first thing Hamlin did when he got out of the car was apologize to DiBenedetto, who said he has no prospects for next season yet.
âIâm so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto, Mike Wheeler. I hate it. I know what a win would mean to that team,â Hamlin said as soon as he exited his car. âBut Iâve got to give 110 percent.â
This is DiBenedettoâs first â and turns out only â year with Leavine Family Racing, and Wheeler is new to the team as well in 2019 after being Hamlinâs crew chief for three seasons.
After Hamlinâs Victory Lane celebration, the two drivers hugged and shared a moment congratulating each other. Then on NBCSNâs post-race broadcast, Hamlin said he was emotional for DiBenedetto, calling him âa great guyâ and an âamazing race car driver.â
He also added that if DiBenedetto doesnât find a ride, âall you car owners are idiots.â
Understandably, DiBenedetto was also emotional after the race, saying at 28 years old, heâs not ready to retire. His strong run Saturday at Bristol should help him find a ride for next season, but nothing is guaranteed.
Heâs also having the best season of his career, earning his first three career top-5 finishes, and entered the race ranked 23rd in the driver standings.
âI wanted it so bad,â DiBenedetto said. âIâm sad. Congrats to Denny, raced hard and Iâve been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door-to-door with him at Bristol in front of a great group of fans â Iâm trying not to get emotional but itâs been a tough week and I just want to stick around and want to keep doing this for a long time to come. I am not done yet. Something is going to happen.â
Christopher Bell, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing in the second-tier XFINITY Series, is expected to take over the No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing has a technical alliance with JGR, which has four cars in the Cup Series and will keep its same lineup of drivers through at least the 2020 season.
Bell has won 13 races through 63 starts across three seasons for JGR, so with the two teamsâ alliance, it makes sense that he would get promoted to the 95 car.