Tyler Strong | NASCAR Digital Media

Matt DiBenedetto finishes second — ‘I’m not done yet’

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Matt DiBenedetto emerged from the curtains of the driver introductions stage at Bristol Motor Speedway with a boxer’s robe and gloves, “Italian Stallion” emblazoned on the back. After a 15-round Saturday night bout, DiBenedetto emerged with a people’s champion belt.

DiBenedetto gave the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Toyota the ride of its life in Bristol’s annual night race, just days after learning that he wouldn’t return to the organization in 2020. The potential granddaddy of all redemption stories for the 28-year-old driver faded away when Denny Hamlin whizzed by with 12 laps left, leaving DiBenedetto with a career-best second place, a multitude of emotions and the largest crowd reactions of the day — both pre- and post-race.

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“To see it slip away was oh my gosh, I can’t even,” said DiBenedetto, who said he screamed into his helmet for the final laps, unable to catch Hamlin. He led a race-high 93 of the 500 laps. “The pain was like being stabbed 100 times in the chest. It was killing me. But it’s a sign of things to come. I’m not done yet. I feel like a team is going to hopefully grab me and be glad they did because I’ll go out and do nothing but win and give them my all.”

Those cheers — at a decibel not heard all day at the .533-mile track — are the type usually reserved for a race winner. So were the congratulations that DiBenedetto received, with Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney all among his peers who stopped by his parked car to offer their congratulations. So did four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who lent his ear for an extended post-race conversation.

The emotions also flowed for his father, Tony, who carried his son’s pre-race boxing costume on pit road in a paper bag. The elder DiBenedetto described heartbreak for his son’s recent career news, but a degree of gratitude for those who had given him opportunities along the way — singling out the St. Hilaire family, Bob Leavine and J.D. Gibbs among them.

Upon hearing the cheers rain down from the grandstands, Tony DiBenedetto called it “cloud nine.”

WATCH: DiBenedetto take lead

“I think what made me feel the best, because I’ve been pretty down lately with just not having a ride, I’m not gonna lie, because we scratched and clawed so hard to get here,” Tony DiBenedetto said, “but when I heard those people screaming for my son, it went away. It went away. It just felt good and real that these people are behind my son. And I want to share him with them, because we are them sitting in the stands. That’s who we are, Mom and Dad. We want them to be part of this second and the wins coming. It’s just a true story.”

The emotions didn’t spare DiBenedetto’s crew chief, Mike Wheeler, who crouched not far from the No. 95 car to reflect on the night and to survey the damage from contact with Ryan Newman’s No. 6. The collision altered the car’s handling characteristics, with DiBenedetto complaining that it had tightened up for the final stretch.

Wheeler had spent the previous three seasons as Hamlin’s crew chief, working on the No. 11 car that wound up in Bristol’s Victory Lane. His partnership with DiBenedetto started just this season, but that pairing appears set to end, just as their performance has begun to click.

“If you told us we’d run second this week before we got here, we’d be like, heck yeah,” Wheeler said. “But to kind of lead the whole last stint and then come up just short, obviously it’s disappointing. Personally for me to get beat by the 11 car because of the fender damage, it’s like gosh. I don’t understand why things happen to me like that. It makes you a better person, I guess, in the future. But definitely needed a moment to compose myself afterward to talk to you guys.”

DiBenedetto had handled the week in his usual affable manner, trying to reflect on the bright side while acknowledging the hardships. The disappointment was at such a degree that Wheeler expressed concerns for his driver’s ability to rebound.

“I would tell you Wednesday this week, he was junk,” Wheeler said. “I saw him Wednesday morning at the simulator and I knew something was wrong. He said he didn’t sleep very well, and I could just tell that was going to be a problem. I was actually worried that it would be so dejecting that he wouldn’t be able to sleep and he’d suffer performance. Fortunately, he was a man and took it and did his job tonight.”

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It was a performance that lived up to DiBenedetto’s pre-race alter ego, even though the prize-fighter costume was planned long before this week’s career developments. DiBenedetto indicated that he had intended to wear the same outfit during Bristol’s outsized driver introductions last year until those plans unraveled.

The family had called Mason St. Hilaire from his previous team, Go Fas Racing, to see if they had it, but it couldn’t be located. They reordered it and it arrived a couple of weeks ago.

Timing has been a fickle partner for DiBenedetto through his career, but this was impeccable.

“It was what I was going to do last year but it was more fitting this week after the week we’ve had,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s craziness. The underdog story, the Italian Stallion, the nickname with my middle name being Guido, I’m doing it. I’ve got to do what I wanted to do last year and come out as Rocky.

“That was cool, a cool intro, and fitting I guess for my story that fans have embraced so much. That was amazing. When I got out of the car and fans are screaming and cheering for us, I lost it. I couldn’t even hold it together.”