It was late last Sunday afternoon and Carl Edwards had just a few minutes earlier won the Food City 400 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. During his post-race news conference, Edwards fielded a question about the performance of Matt DiBenedetto, a little-known driver from California who had finished sixth.
“They finished sixth?” Edwards said, eyebrows raised. “Man, that’s unbelievable. That’s probably tougher than what we did.”
Edwards is one of NASCAR’s top stars, a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the sport’s most powerful teams. DiBenedetto might best be described as a journeyman who is driving this year for Charlotte-based BK Racing, a two-driver team that is one of the sport’s minnows. DiBenedetto will start 36th in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
But when DiBenedetto turned in a career-best performance like he did at Bristol, those kinds of words from a driver like Edwards mean a lot.
“I think that what he was meaning by that – that it’s cool – is they understand our situation and that we’re a smaller team and not working with the same resources they do,” said DiBenedetto. “They’re all kind of expected to win, the powerhouse teams. But surely it’s never easy to win in the Sprint Cup Series.”
Man, you get to feel popular this week.
Taylor DiBenedetto, to her husband Matt after his sixth-place finish at Bristol
Like several NASCAR drivers before him – such as Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon – DiBenedetto, 24, is a native of California who moved to North Carolina to find a spot in NASCAR. After DiBenedetto and his family settled in Hickory and he established himself on the late-model circuit, he was noticed by J.D. Gibbs, who is now president of JGR.
DiBenedetto continued to drive on the late-model circuit and, at the age of 16, became the youngest driver to win a race at Bristol.
Maintaining his relationship with Gibbs, DiBenedetto progressed through the ranks, winning races in the K&N Pro East Series before moving into the Xfinity Series in 2014 as a developmental driver for JGR.
Around that time, J.D. Gibbs ran across Ron Devine, BK Racing’s majority owner.
“Ron, this guy (DiBenedetto) is special,” Devine recalled Gibbs as saying. “You should get him.”
DiBenedetto moved to Hickory from California to find his spot in NASCAR.
Devine did. In 2015, DiBenedetto drove 33 Cup races for BK Racing. He did well enough, with an 18th at Talladega serving as that season’s highlight.
But it was nothing compared to his sixth-place finish at Bristol, an accomplishment so meaningful that it moved some of his crew members to tears.
“I was so excited for those guys,” said DiBenedetto. “When I went into the race shop last week, they were all telling stories about the weekend and they’re all smiling and saying, ‘Man, I was crying, too, don’t worry!’ ”
2 Laps led for DiBenedetto in 41 career Cup races
DiBenedetto’s strong finish at Bristol has brought him and BK Racing some welcomed attention from the media and potential sponsors.
As his wife Taylor told him: “Man, you get to feel popular this week.”
But there’s more to it than that. DiBenedetto’s sixth-place finish was also the highest in BK Racing’s three-plus season history.
“It’s a big motivation short term and long term,” said teammate David Ragan, who has two pre-BK Racing career victories. “It definitely creates some momentum. Obviously, you have to start somewhere. You have to finish sixth, before you finish third or before you win these races. It’s just the next step. It’s not a grand slam, but it’s the next base over, closer to home plate.”
And others, like Carl Edwards, are paying attention.
“These guys are all so good,” Edwards said. “On TV it might look like, oh, those guys are struggling or, oh, that’s a lapped car, whatever. They’re only a half a tenth (of a second) off or a tenth off. It’s just unreal how hard everybody goes.
“A good finish in this series is a real accomplishment.”