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Fellow drivers believe in Matt DiBenedetto: ‘This is only the beginning’

BRISTOL, Tenn. — A winner normally doesn’t apologize for winning, yet Denny Hamlin did in Victory Lane after Saturday’s Bristol Night Race.

Hamlin, notching his fourth win of the 2019 season, took the lead from Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps remaining in the 500-lap race. DiBenedetto had been out front from Laps 396 to 488, good for a race-high 93 total. DiBenedetto obviously wanted the checkered flag, but so many others wanted it for him, too.

“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto, (crew chief) Mike Wheeler,” Hamlin said. “I hate it. I mean, I know a win would mean a lot to that team. But I have to give it 110% to FedEx and my whole team. Just sorry.”

That was DiBenedetto’s last race at Bristol Motor Speedway in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota. He found out Wednesday he would not return after the season and needs to find a new ride for 2020.

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The 28-year-old has voiced how he feels about the situation – it’s heartbreaking, but he’s not giving up on his career. Now, fellow drivers are speaking out.

“Over a teammate, there’s not someone worse that I wanted to see in the front,” Hamlin said. “When I was marching through the field, I’m like hoping someone passed him so I didn’t take the win away.

“But he was fast. He was marching there at the end. I knew I was going to get him. I was just thinking about it the whole time. There’s a lot of people at home, a lot of people in the stands that don’t want to see this happen, but it’s going to happen. It stinks.”

The two shared a moment in Victory Lane that Hamlin preferred to keep private but made clear was full of support.

Hamlin wasn’t the only one who went out of his way to pick DiBenedetto up.

Immediately after the race, while DiBenedetto waited outside his car on pit road and fireworks went off for Hamlin, multiple drivers came up to him — Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney and surely more throughout the night.

“I hate that for that guy,” Bowyer said. “He’s racing for a job and everything else. You know those kids’ cars are fast. He knew he was going to have a rocket, and he did.”

Said Blaney: “That’s tough. That would have been a pretty cool story. He just announced that he’s not going to be in that car next year, and I think he does a great job. He really drove for that one. It stinks he couldn’t get it done, but he’s a great driver. I hope he lands somewhere good.”

RELATED: Full Bristol results | Updated series standings

Daniel Suarez, who now sits in the 16th and final playoff spot, was straight-up asked if he was happy DiBenedetto didn’t end up winning because it kept him in the postseason picture.

“I feel like he deserved the win, but you never know how things are going to work out,” Suarez said. “I feel like I have to do my race and let everything else play out by itself. I can’t control that, but I will tell you that in a way I’m kind of lucky that he didn’t win, but I wish he would have won the race because he’s an amazing driver.”

This season has seen DiBendetto show his true potential.

Through five years and 164 Cup starts, DiBenedetto has three top-five performances and nine top-10 showings. All of the top fives and five of the top 10s came this season. DiBenedetto has never won a Cup race, but the second-place Bristol finish is his best yet.

DiBenedetto is currently 22nd in the championship standings, but don’t count him out. There are two races – Darlington Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway – left in the regular season, and a win would instantly guarantee him a playoff berth. Possibly so much more, too.

“A lot of people have respect for him,” Hamlin said. “He’s humble. This is not a story of he’s just going to go away. This is only the beginning for him. He’s writing his resume on TV every weekend.”