Craig Murto: DiBenedetto the star of Bristol

CRAIG MURTO

Carl Edwards may have won the NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it was Matt DiBenedetto who emerged as the true star.

DiBenedetto drove to a sixth-place finish, the best of his career and the best finish ever for BK Racing. His emotional post-race interview has gone viral on social media, and his neighbors in Hickory, North Carolina, are probably still celebrating.

Short tracks are the great equalizer. Drivers have a better chance of overcoming their equipment’s shortcomings on the smaller tracks. BK Racing is a small team, without the resources of a Gibbs or Roush; a top-10 finish is almost as good as a victory for them.

Originally from California, DiBenedetto’s father was a baseball fan, and coached Matt’s youth team. But even as far back as kindergarten, Matt DiBenedetto knew he wanted to be a race driver.

At the age of 5, DiBenedetto insisted that his father allow him to watch all the NASCAR races on TV. Eventually his father bought him a racing go-kart, and by the age of 11 he had more than 100 victories and five championships.

The family moved to North Carolina, where the now 24-year-old competed in Late Models at Hickory at 16, and toured with the now-defunct United Auto Racing Association (UARA). He was the 2007 Rookie of the Year, finishing fourth in the championship with two wins. He also finished fourth in the big Late Model race at Martinsville Speedway, and at the time was the youngest driver to make the field.

When the UARA tour came to Shenandoah Speedway, DiBenedetto’s father told me that he had taken Matt as far as he could; fielding a Late Model emptied the family savings account, and whatever was to become in the future was up to Matt and his talent.

He drove (and won) for a Late Model car owner named Mitch West, and even became the youngest winner at Bristol during a UARA visit. In five races he scored three wins. But West had to fold his team, and DiBenedetto was left on the sidelines.

He raced and won his second time out in what is now the K&N East Series, and in 2009 was given the chance to race in the Xfinity Series by Joe Gibbs Racing, where he competed for two years and scored some top-10 results.

In 2011, DiBenedetto worked for a K&N East team, where his job was to fill the team’s vacant seats, basically sell the ride. He won races and finished fourth in points.

In 2014 he gave a small Xfinity Series team the best finishes it had in nine years. That led to the opportunity to drive for BK Racing in 2015, which is owned by Ron Devine, owner of many Burger King franchises in the Washington, D.C., area.

BK Racing will field a Cup car for Ashburn native Ryan Ellis at Richmond this weekend, and a few more times this year. The effort will be sponsored by Science Logic, a technology company based in Reston. Be sure to keep an eye on this “local”  effort.

The biggest local effort in the region — the construction of Dominion Raceway in Thornburg — paid off last weekend with a standing-room-only crowd and Chamber of Commerce weather on hand for a full field of 32 NASCAR Late Model Stock Cars and other divisions.

Mason Diaz in his Legends Car took the first checkered flag waved at Dominion Raceway. His trophy will certainly be one to cherish his entire career, which this year will include Pro Late Model racing at North Carolinaís Southern National Motorsport Park.

There were some opening-day glitches at Dominion. Registration lines were so long it forced racing to be delayed. The power went out during the Late Model feature; thankfully all the drivers kept their heads. The race had to be shortened from 100 to 75 laps to meet a midnight curfew. And due to a flagging error, the race went one lap too long, so the win was taken away from Nick Smith and awarded to Tyler Hughes, who led when the white flag waved.

Nick Smith’s not happy, but the majority of reviews were positive. There is little doubt that Dominion raceway is one of the finest facilities ever built for motorsports. Owner Steve Britt and general manager Edwin Pardue should be proud.

But the proudest person in racing and the star of the weekend should be Matt DiBenedetto. Sometimes talent does rise above money.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

 

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