Craig Murto

Craig Murto

If there’s anything that can be learned from the August NASCAR night race at Bristol (Tennessee) Motor Speedway, it is that people in NASCAR need to get a clue.

Consultants get paid huge sums of money to instruct the principals in ways to attract and retain large crowds of fans. How’s that been working?

Right in front of anybody who opens their eyes is the answer: we need more drivers such as Matt DiBenedetto. Nobody on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup circuit gets as much out of less equipment than Matt. Nobody.

Even Denny Hamlin apologized for doing his job after keeping DiBenedetto from Victory Lane at Bristol. Hamlin had no choice – he gets paid huge sums of cash to wring out of that racecar everything it will give him. But that doesn’t mean he had to enjoy it.

Chase Elliott may be NASCAR’s most popular driver, but there is little doubt that this morning DiBenedetto is next on that list.

Originally from the Grass Valley section of California, DiBenedetto did not come from a racing background; he convinced his parents to move him to North Carolina as a child to pursue a dream that was unknown to all of them. Matt became a child star at Hickory Motor Speedway and a frequent race winner on the now-defunct United Auto Racing Association Short Track Auto Racing Stars (UARA-STARS) Late Model Stock Car tour.

I first met Matt’s parents nearly 15 years ago at Shenandoah Speedway at a UARA-STARS event. At the time, Matt’s father explained that he had spent all the money he could spend, that the rest of Matt’s career would be up to Matt. DiBenedetto briefly was signed as a Toyota Development driver through the Joe Gibbs organization, but that only lasted a full season in the Xfinity Series, a season that unfortunately produced no wins.

The talented driver cut his teeth behind the wheel of mid- and back-marker Cup cars, finally announcing last season that he would leave his secure ride at Go-Fas Racing in order to avail himself of whatever opportunity may present itself. Sure enough, the gamble paid off and owner Bob Leavine and Leavine Family Racing (LFR) signed DiBenedetto up to a one-year deal.

And DiBenedetto performs. The single-car team is placed better in points than many cars from wealthy multi-car operations. In the past nine races, DiBenedetto has scored five top-10 finishes, including his career-best runner-up finish last weekend at Bristol.

Earlier in the Bristol weekend, it was announced that the LFR car was going to become open for Toyota/Gibbs driver Christopher Bell. Despite all those highly paid consultants, nobody can figure out that Matt DiBenedetto is the guy fans want to see behind the wheel. Fans will pull for a personality such as Matt’s before they pull for the teen/20-something whose father is probably buying his way in.

What’s wrong with NASCAR? The fact that Matt DiBenedetto doesn’t have a top Cup ride lined up for 2020 and beyond. That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with NASCAR. And I’ll be happy to tell them about it for a lot less money than those consultants who are obviously giving them the wrong advice.

Want to see NASCAR’s popularity rise? Wake somebody up at Toyota, because if they actually allow DiBenedetto to leave the family, heads should roll. If a major team does not sign DiBenedetto to a contract for 2020, there really is no hope of bringing this sport off the edge of the abyss.

There are other drivers due the same consideration: Corey Lajoie, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell all come to mind. But it’s Matt DiBenedetto who has out-performed all of them, squeezed the most out of his equipment, and demonstrated maturity behind the wheel.

And if Toyota doesn’t realize what they have, then Ford or Chevy need to step up. Matt DiBenedetto will get the job done, and get it done better than most. He proved that he can get the most out of his equipment. Now a manufacturer needs to step up and give him the equipment he can win with, the equipment he deserves.

If Matt DiBenedetto isn’t soon announcing a major deal for 2020, then this is not the same sport I grew up with, and the powers that be across the board really need to get a clue.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.