By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
Matt DiBenedetto’s 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season was another positive step in the right direction for a driver looking to make his mark on this sport. Sure, his overall box score and championship points ranking (29th) aren’t super impressive on paper, but what DiBenedetto did for the small GoFas Racing organization was a good effort.
DiBenedetto started the season off with a great run in the Daytona 500. He was solidly in the mix for a top-10 finish until an accident in the closing laps ended his race. However, DiBenedetto was happy his team brought such a strong piece to Daytona.
“We were running anywhere between second and third and sixthish at the end, but you’ve got to expect anything at all that happens at the end,” DiBenedetto said after his run. “The Fords were really strong. My car was really strong, especially being a back-up car. It had plenty of speed, so I just tried to tag onto another Ford, but stuff happens.”
The little team that could kept bringing DiBenedetto decent cars throughout the first half of the season as the 27-year-old driver finished 16th at Texas (an intermediate oval), 16th at Richmond (a short track) and 17th at Sonoma (a road course). DiBenedetto rounded out the first half of the year with a seventh place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona (a superspeedway).
Results would trail off a bit for the team in the second half of the year, but they did have another impressive showing at the ultra-challenging Charlotte Roval. DiBenedetto was able to finish 13th despite never turning a lap on the course in testing.
DiBenedetto ended the season with a career-best points finish as well a a career-best average finish (27.0).
In September, DiBenedetto announced that he would be parting ways with GoFas Racing. The move was a chance for the driver to bet on himself by pursuing an opportunity where he would be in potentially race-winning cars.
“When I made my announcement to bet on my self I just knew it was that time in my career. It was time to take a step up,” DiBenedetto said in a recent episode of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast.
It was a bold gamble, and DiBenedetto admitted that at the time of his announcement, he feared his career could be over as he had no offers to drive for any other teams.
“When I made that decision I had nothing at all lined up,” DiBenedetto explained. “It seemed that doors were closing. Things that I thought I could work on and that I would have a shot at, I got told that I was a gamble by some people. I was like, man. I was getting down. I thought that it wasn’t going to work out.”
Then came a call from Bob Leavine.
Moving forward to 2019, DiBenedetto could rise up the ranks to being a potential future star of the sport as he moves to the No. 95 Toyota Camry at Leavine Family Racing.
The team is swapping manufacturers from Chevrolet this off season and they will now have a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. With Furniture Row Racing closing up shop at the end of 2018, LFR has a chance to be the next big satellite team latched to JGR.
This is actually familiar territory for DiBenedetto as he was a Joe Gibbs Racing Development driver early in his NASCAR career.
Joining DiBenedetto at LFR is Mike Wheeler who will be the crew chief for 2019. Wheeler comes from Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 team. Over the past three seasons, Wheeler had guided Hamlin to five victories. There will be experience atop the pit box for Matt D.
That being said, what are the realistic expectations for DiBenedetto this year?
I wouldn’t expect a win by any means, that isn’t a fair expectation for a driver and team in the midst of so much change, but you should expect a very steep uptick in performance at the very least from the California-born driver.
DiBenedetto should easily surpass his career-best mark in every statistical category in 2019, anything less than that would be a disappointment.