Matt DiBenedetto is happy. He has every reason not to be, but remarkably he is. A guy that’s had every heart breaking scenario thrown at him, he’s since found his purpose and that purpose has made his life more enjoyable.
Being a Christian. Yes, he’s a race car driver, but for so much of his life, he’s focused extremely hard on making a career out of driving fast cars. By doing so, he overlooked the most simple thing of his life journey and that’s putting God in the middle of it. Now that he has, everything is falling into place for him in a better way.
See, DiBenedetto says that while he’s winless in his NASCAR Cup Series career and badly needs a win now in order to make the postseason, none of that is making him not sleep at night. Yes, he very much wants to win a race and very much is as competitive now as he’s always been, but finding God has brought an inner peace to his life that has filled a large missing void in the process.
The driver who’s been through it all and is a free agent at seasons end, isn’t spending his time worrying about not making the playoffs and potentially not having a job come mid November. That stuff he’s found will take care of itself. You can’t control that part. God is in control and by knowing that, it has made him a much better person he says.
Before we get to the why and how, we have to go back on the journey for DiBenedetto. He moved his way through the racing ranks and made it to Cup in 2015 driving for an underfunded BK Racing team. He consistently outdrove the equipment and even finished sixth for the organization at Bristol in 2016.
That led him to Go Fas Racing in 2017. He’d give this team their best results with a ninth place run out of the gates in the season opening Daytona 500. He survived a wild Brickyard 400 later that year for another top 10. For the two seasons he was with this team, he gave them their best results.
Same as he did with BK Racing. He paid his dues but was keep getting passed over for bigger rides since he didn’t have much money to bring to the table and wasn’t as young as the guys that did.
So, he joined Leavine Family Racing in 2019. It was finally his break. LFR formed an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota and while they were a smaller budget team still, they had some better resources to propel DiBenedetto further up the pack on a more consistent basis.
He nearly won the Daytona 500 with them in his first start in the No. 95 Toyota. He led the most laps that day. He then nearly won at Sonoma too in what was shaping up to be a career year for him and the team. While he was in a fight to make the playoffs that year, the team announced on Aug. 15 that they weren’t going to retain DiBenedetto despite his best efforts that season for 2020.
See, LFR needed that alliance with JGR and with Christopher Bell coming up and ready to be in Cup and JGR not having any room for Bell in their operation, they needed a place to house him. So, out DiBenedetto would go and in came Bell.
A few weeks later, he’d lead 93 laps in the Bristol night race and nearly win again. He’d narrowly miss out on the playoffs again and was heading towards the unemployment line. Then came another lifeline. Paul Menard would be retiring at season end and he hand picked DiBenedetto as his successor in the Wood Brothers ride.
It was looking up again. DiBenedetto, finished second in his second race in the famed No. 21 Ford and this time, narrowly made the playoffs in his first season with the team. The problem coming was this, the Wood Brothers are aligned with Team Penske. In a similar scenario to JGR/LFR, Penske needs somewhere to house Austin Cindric for 2022.
That ride? You guessed it, the No. 21 Ford with the Wood Brothers.
DiBenedetto, entered the 2021 season knowing this would be his last with his current team. He’s facing free agency and had a year as a job audition to the other teams in the sport to give him a chance. Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan. He’s had terrible luck this year and come June, he sat 55 points below the cutline.
At that point, DiBenedetto in the past would have been a stressful wreck. The performance had gone south, he was with a playoff caliber team not currently in the playoff grid and facing an uncertain future. Instead of caving and being hard to deal with, he’s in a better place.
He found God. He has every reason to be resentful and questioning his situation. He could be a miserable person to be around he says. Instead, he’s not.
His life is now in place mentally and spiritually as he notes that while his playoff hopes are riding on a win over the next five races and he’s not ever won a race to date in NASCAR, he already has a win and that’s for having God in his life.
“You know looking at it, I should be stressed but I’m not,” he said. “I just focus on the things that are 100% in my control. I have a level of faith that direct affects my racing career and all for the positive.”
DiBenedetto admits that he’s rejected the notion of being a Christian for far too long and his wife was instrumental on getting him towards the good side. That as a result, has helped him greatly in his profession as a race car driver.
“My wife was one who changed my life,” he said. “She’s always had strong faith and I was stubborn and chose to reject it for a long time to be honest with you. I started to dig into it. Even people in the industry.”
He credits Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola and MRO as big people in the garage to help him as well.
“There’s many people are part of changing my life, people in the industry’s life. What goes on within our industry is pretty amazing.”
See, being a race car driver isn’t easy. You’re competing on a race track, driving a car that’s out of control at speeds no one should be safely traveling, inches from your closest competitors with walls surrounding you at both sides, fighting for milliseconds with very little real estate to do so.
How many of you get frustrated when traveling on the interstate or even on your normal road of your town/city? Imagine doing so at speeds in excess of 180 mph. Oh you have the points aspect to where you have to make the playoffs via a win or on points and that greatly affects your job status.
Having God on his side has shown him a calmer side of life and one that’s helping him find success inside of the race car too.
He no longer shows up to the race track miserable or grumpy or pissed off that he’s on the bubble or bad circumstances anymore. He’s been on the playoff bubble all season but being a Christian now has showed him a better form of life and that’s to be a better Matt DiBenedetto. A better Matt DiBenedetto is the best path for a victory on track.
He still wants to badly win a NASCAR Cup Series race. The passion hasn’t left. He feels like he’s meant to be driving race cars and that he’s meant to win. But, the way that he goes about the pursuit of a victory is different now. His perspective is what’s different in which it keeps him much calmer when going about it. It keeps him more levelheaded which he thinks makes him not only a better person off the track but as well as inside the race car too.
In the process, for the first time ever, he also feels like he’s got a car that can win on a weekly basis too. After a 23rd place finish at Sonoma last month, the team decided to cut ties with his crew chief and promote Jonathan Hassler as the replacement.
That moves has pushed the team forward in a big way, so much so that he feels like this is his best shot ever of winning.
“I was super appreciative for him (Greg Erwin) and what he’s done for the Wood Brothers for years, but our team wasn’t clicking and I felt it,” DiBenedetto said on Tuesday.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t feel like we were gonna win. We were not a winning team. The dynamic wasn’t there. We weren’t meshing. It’s all about relationships and it just wasn’t there, and then we make this change, which is so hard.
“You empathize with people. I care about people, but, at the end of the day, I have to do my job and we all worked hard, talked and made this change to have Jonathan Hassler on the box … Then it’s like, boom, we click and we’re rocking and rolling and running up front, leading laps, top 10s, contending and we’re just getting better and better, and we’re just getting started together.”
The only problem is, was the move made too late? DiBenedetto doesn’t think so as the speed is there and they can now just focus on positives and making his way to victory lane instead of points racing from this point forward.
“Not a situation that we want to be in but that’s out of our control,” he continued. “No sense putting our energy into that. Just focus on the positives. No. 1, we’re the best we’ve ever been as a team. Our team has clicked to a level that it never has. Jonathan Hassler, since he’s taken over, our whole team has just clicked very fast. We’re working together very well. We’re executing. It’s showing. Since he’s stepped in it’s showing every week. We’re the strongest than we’ve ever been. I’m thankful for the team and for everybody for working through the entire process and the results are showing.”
He’s not wrong in that aspect. He had a top 10 car in Nashville before some bad luck. He’s had two straight top 10 finishes on the season entering Sunday’s race and feels like they’re close.
“The cool part is that we are showing that we have made good efforts to make our 21 team better and that we’re here to win, and the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We’re now performing, running up front, leading laps. We’ve turned this whole program around.
“It’s clicking and all these things, so that does nothing but just help my situation moving forward, showing that we have the ability to go out there and contend for wins.”