CHARLOTTE, NC — For Matt DiBenedetto, the opportunity to pilot the No. 95 with Joe Gibbs Racing-aligned Leavine Family Racing in 2019 is a return to his roots.
In 2009, 17-year-old DiBenedetto made his first start in the K&N Pro Series – and his car owner was JD Gibbs.
“I couldn’t possibly script my career or control it to know how it was going to turn out,” DiBenedetto said Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “You just never know what could happen. This is a perfect testament to it; I started my career with Joe Gibbs Racing, with Toyota and for it to all come around full circle and for me to develop such a good relationship with all those folks at Toyota; (Toyota Racing Development President) David Wilson, (Group Vice President, Technical Director for Toyota Racing) Andy Graves, all the guys at Toyota and then all the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing, to have developed those relationships many years.
“And then look nine years later for me to still have those relationships and for it to all come full circle where we’re going to be working together again is pretty unbelievable.”
Joe Gibbs Racing gave DiBenedetto one of his first instrumental chances in racing; he won twice in seven starts in the No. 18 K&N ride, also making a lone start in the Xfinity Series (14th-place result) under the JGR umbrella that year. Both of the K&N wins came in Toyotas.
“They’re a very small group and they do nothing but the best,” DiBenedetto said of the manufacturer. “I think the transition is going to be very comfortable because I know … all the folks at LFR very well. I’m obviously really familiar with the Toyota family.
“It’s kind of in a lot of ways, being at home where I belong.”
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But when DiBenedetto “bet on himself” on Sept. 8 by choosing to step away from Go Fas Racing without another ride in his pocket, he had no idea of his future homecoming — or anything.
With nothing lined up, he knew he could potentially end up jobless in 2019, a thought that ran across his mind during that period.
“I was a tough person to be around, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Just emotionally. It’s tough not to get down. I’ve been very persistent my whole career and I’ve had to overcome some things that made me who I am today. Goodness, just the thought of potentially having nothing, that even crossing my mind. I knew what I was getting into when I bet on myself but those thoughts cross your mind that ‘this could be it.’
“Everything I’ve worked for since I was seven years old and invested my whole life into could be over, would devastate me.”
His struggle made his triumph that much sweeter, though; when DiBenedetto received the phone call from Bob Leavine, asking him to come pilot the No. 95 Toyota in 2019, it made him “1000 times” more appreciative for the opportunity.
“I believe in my heart that everything happens for a reason and everything has happened for a reason to get me where I am today,” he said. “I think our paths were just meant to cross and for us to be together and that’s what’s meant to be.”
The announcement is also a homecoming for Toyota, who will put its emblem back on DiBenedetto’s fire suit after giving him one of his first opportunities nine years ago.
“This is a people business and we tend to focus on parts and pieces a lot but it boils down to people and Matt is just a good guy,” Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said. “And we enjoyed working with him. As a fan, I’ve watched him progress through NASCAR and I’ve always wanted him to have better opportunities. So, you can see excitement.
“He realizes that this is a tremendous opportunity for him. … Just like when we reunited with Martin Truex and Furniture Row, this has a similar feel to it.”
DiBenedetto doesn’t know if his time with Leavine Family Racing will have the same level of success as Truex Jr. did. But he does know that Leavine Family Racing “pours their heart and soul” into bettering the team. He knows firsthand how Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing operate.
And he’s wearing a smile Wednesday because of it all.
“Oh, man — it’s crazy to have (JGR Senior Vice President) Jimmy Makar here from Joe Gibbs Racing,” he said. “All those guys, everyone at Gibbs. JD Gibbs was a huge part of me getting the opportunity with them to start my career … It’s a big blast from the past and pretty special.
“It just makes me feel really lucky that I’ve been able to build these relationships and it makes me feel really lucky that they think enough of me that they put a word in for me and they thought I was the right man for the job.”