Very, very few auto races, especially in NASCAR, end with the winning driver apologizing to the driver and crew chief who finished second. But that is exactly what happened late Saturday night, when Denny Hamlin pulled himself out of his car and said this to NBCâs Rutledge Wood:
âIâm so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto, Mike Wheeler. I hate it. I mean, I know a win would mean a lot to that team. I have to give it 110% for FedEx and my whole team. Just sorry.â
DiBenedetto, 28, drives for Leavine Family Racing, a second-string Cup team that informed him last week that he would not be returning next year. Although DiBenedetto said he was blindsided by the teamâs decision, it sort of made sense, because he had not won in 163 Cup races. Make that 164.
Plus, Leavine Family Racing has a relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing, who need a Cup seat for Christopher Bell, a rising star in the second-tier Xfinity Series. There has been speculation that Bell could replace DiBenedetto, or Bell could replace Gibbs driver Erik Jones, who would go to Leavine.
Either way, DiBenedetto is out of a ride for 2020, at least for now. But he nearly won the annual Night Race on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, leading 93 laps late in the race before Hamlin, who had a faster car at the end, stormed past DeBenedetto’s slightly damaged Toyota with just 12 laps to go.
Of course Hamlin did the right thing by trying to win, but he still felt bad about it. Hamlin drives for Gibbs and has won four Cup races this season. Hamlin said, âWe had a great car that could move around.Â Came back from a couple laps down, and here we are.â
A minute later, DiBenedetto was interviewed in front of his car. Heâd never finished higher in a Cup race. Heâd led 49 laps in the first race of the season, the Daytona 500, but crashed. He had four top-10 finishes in his previous eight races but was still 23rd in the drivers standings.
Entering the last three races of the regular season, DiBenedetto essentially needed a victory to clinch one of 16 playoff spots — and he still needs one. He was clearly disappointed.
When asked what was going through his head, DiBenedetto said, âI donât know. So much. I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, for them giving me this opportunity. Iâm just thankful that they gave me this opportunity, Toyota, Procore, Dumont Jets. Iâm so thankful.
âBut, man, Iâm sad. We got tight after the deal with [Ryan] Newman when he came up into us.Â All of a sudden it got really tight after that.
âCongrats to Denny. He raced hard. Iâve been a fan of his since I was a kid.Â To be racing doorâtoâdoor with him at Bristol, in front of a great group of fans . . .Â
âIâll try not to get emotional, but itâs been a tough week. I just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come. I love it. I love the opportunity. Iâm not done yet.â
Before joining Leavine, DiBenedetto had just four top-10 finishes in 141 Cup races for two other Cup teams over four seasons. He has had some unconventional sponsors: an online poker game, flushable wipes for men, a disaster movie and a candidate for governor of Maine.
DiBenedetto is a lovable grinder. He started a GoFundMe page last year. Hamlin was one of two drivers who donated $5,000. DiBenedetto showed up for pre-race driver introductions wearing a boxer’s robe and gloves.
âSomething will come open,â DiBenedetto said Saturday. âItâs going to happen.Â Iâm here to win. Somethingâs going to come open. Iâm proud of these guys. Thankful for my wife and fans for sticking with me.Â Itâs been a tough journey, a hard week. Cool for this team.â
NBC analyst Jeff Burton said, âIf you need a driver and youâre not calling him, itâs a mistake.â Twitter was kind to DiBenedetto, with fans suggesting several drivers whom he could replace next year. Included was Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champ who is fading fast.
Of course, it would have automatically become the NASCAR story of the year had DiBenedetto held off Hamlin on Saturday to win his first Cup race and get into the playoffs a couple of days after he lost his job.
He will have two more chances to make the playoffs, and he very well may get a ride next year. You get the feeling that every NASCAR fan will be rooting very, very hard for DiBenedetto. I know I will.