At the start of the season, it appeared to be a struggle for Matt DiBenedetto. However, the past six races, it appears that Leavine Family Racing has turned a corner.
After scoring no top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, DiBenedetto has scored three in the last six events, including a fourth-place finish at Sonoma Raceway.
The success can be not only attributed to the chemistry between DiBenedetto and crew chief Michael Wheeler, but also the team’s alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR has obviously been fast this year, sweeping the top-three spots at Pocono Raceway.
“It’s been good,” DiBenedetto commented. “We get really good race cars. I have a good relationship with the fellow Toyota drivers which helps and it’s so nice to be able to pick their brain and get advice from champions and such good drivers. The support from Toyota is really good, and we are lucky to have the people on our team that we have. Guys like Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief) and our engineers that are so good, because we don’t get all the information, like Furniture Row (Racing) did. We are not quite at that level yet, but we have such good people that it just shows that we can still perform and go out there and get those top-fives and top-10s.”
Being able to sit in some of the meetings with JGR, DiBenedetto added the biggest benefit has been the consistent advice the other drivers have been able to offer so the No. 95 Toyota Camry is fast as it can be from the drop of the green flag.
“I have always been a smart racer and have been able to get the most out of my equipment,” he continued. “I can go out there and hustle the car and wheel it. But getting some of the finer points, like from Martin (Truex Jr.) and Kyle (Busch) and some of them on making sure that I can maximize what I have for the weekend in the car. That’s a big part of it, and their experience has been nice to lean on when I can.”
The fourth-place finish a couple weeks ago has certainly helped the confidence, especially now heading into Watkin’s Glen on Sunday. It almost brings more pressure in everybody wondering if DiBenedetto can back up the performance.
“I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself,” he commented. “I’m always hard on myself as far as making sure I’m as perfect as I can be for my team. I am big on that. I have been through so much in my career. It has made me a really, really mentally tough person, so not a lot gets to me. I just go out, perform, do my job and the rest of it takes care of itself.”
Another strong performance would certainly help their position in points, as they currently sit 24th in the year-long standings. A win would be a dream come true, and put them in the playoffs.
“I think the focus is really just doing what we are doing and focusing on track position and focusing on setting ourselves up for the end of these races,” he said. “Because that’s our best shot is to keep positioning ourselves where we are in the top-five and is something happens and we can get a win, that gives a bigger point jump than anything else.
“We are 24th in points. We’re a much better team than that.”
The success has caught the attention of the fans, as it’s always great to see an underdog succeed. It’s even more special in realizing the shop that they’re working out of, which led Alan Kulwicki to his underdog success with a championship in 1992.
“A lot of history in our race shop, right behind the Charlotte Speedway,” he said. “It’s cool being called an underdog, or a growing, team. We’re still in the growing stages. It’s so much fun to go out there. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was really satisfying when we go out and pass powerhouse teams and go up and run in the top-five like we have the last few weeks.
“When we pass former champions and beat powerhouse teams, it’s pretty satisfying.”
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