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NASCAR legend inspiration to underdog DiBenedetto

By Jeff Birchfield • Aug 12, 2019 at 8:01 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Matt DiBenedetto will be thinking about a NASCAR legend on his trip to Bristol Motor Speedway for Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

His No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team works out of the late Alan Kulwicki’s race shop. Kulwicki — a two-time Bristol winner, including the 1991 Night Race — was the defending NASCAR champion when he lost his life in a plane crash 10 miles from BMS on his way to competing in the 1993 Food City 500.

DiBenedetto said his team often talks about being in the old Kulwicki shop.

“A lot of history in our race shop, right behind the Charlotte Speedway. It’s cool being called an underdog, or a growing team,” the 28-year-old driver of the No. 95 Toyota said at a recent news conference. “We’re still in the growing stages. 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.”

DiBenedetto, currently 23rd in the Monster Energy Cup Series points standings, has excelled on the road courses. He scored a fourth-place finish at Sonoma and a sixth at Watkins Glen. DiBenedetto, who grew up racing with Kyle Larson in California before moving to Hickory, North Carolina, as a teenager, also has a good record at Bristol. His best career finish prior to this season was a sixth at the 2016 Food City 500.

That finish was with BK Racing. Now with a better funded team, although still not on the level of the top teams, he was 12th in April’s Food City 500.

“I think it’s just cool the progression I have had and the path I have had to go about it,” DiBenedetto said of playing the underdog role. “I keep climbing the ladder. I’ve always been known as a guy that can make a lot out of a little. Now that I’m with a team of a higher caliber, it’s fun to be known as the guy that can go out there and run in the top five. It has been a fun progression. The cool part of that role is how people have embraced my story and path to get here.”

The Leavine Family Racing team has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. DiBenedetto said it’s not at the level Furniture Row Racing had in 2016-18, but he’s able to ask champions like Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for advice when needed.

“The support from Toyota is really good, and we are lucky to have the people on our team that we have,” DiBenedetto said. “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 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-five and top 10s.”

DiBenedetto has high expectations and feels a win isn’t out of the question. He said the key is for the team to keep putting itself in good position and executing. While there are always rumors swirling about drivers’ futures, the veteran of 163 Cup starts said his primary goal is to perform to the best of his ability.

“I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself. 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,” he said. “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.”