LAS VEGAS – The smile hasn’t faded from Matt DiBenedetto’s face, and there is an unmistakable extra zip in his step. The 28-year-old has hardly been able to walk more than 2 feet at a time in his Las Vegas hotel lobby this week without a fan stopping him to ask for an autograph or pose for a photograph.
The warm reception is fresh off some career-changing news. On Tuesday, Wood Brothers Racing announced the popular Californian will drive the team’s famous No. 21 Ford in 2020. DiBenedetto will replace veteran Paul Menard, who is retiring from full-time competition at the end of this season.
The reaction from both fans and his competitive peers has been equally effusive – both for DiBenedetto’s recent work driving the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota and for the big news about his future.
“The support has been crazy,’’ DiBenedetto said. “I can’t believe how much my phone and social media has blown up just after (a runner-up finish at) Bristol (Motor Speedway) and then with this announcement this week and the success our team has had. We’ve been running well. All these things compounded and it’s been interesting walking around the track or at South Point (Casino) getting stopped, to an extreme I’m not accustomed to that at all – even walking through the garage.
“It’s definitely been interesting and crazy how in a couple weeks how much support you can gain, and it’s amazing how much people have gravitated to the this story and how much positive feedback there is in such a world where it can easily be negative. It’s amazing and heartwarming to see on how social media of all places, be super positive.”
Certainly DiBenedetto is in the midst of a career year performance-wise. He has accomplished four top-10 finishes in just the last seven weeks, highlighted by that career-best runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin at Bristol three weeks ago. He also led a race-high 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 only to be collected in a late-race accident.
The three top fives – fourth place at Sonoma Raceway, fifth at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and second at Bristol – are the first top-five finishes in his five-year career. His six top 10s – with 10 races remaining – are triple his previous best single season effort (two).