Sealed with a kiss: Matt DiBenedetto, BK Racing steal the show at Bristol

BK Racing owner Ron Devine congratulates Matt DiBenedetto after his sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2016. (R. Cory Smith/North State Journal)
BK Racing owner Ron Devine congratulates Matt DiBenedetto after his sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2016. (R. Cory Smith/North State Journal)

BK Racing owner Ron Devine congratulates Matt DiBenedetto after his sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2016. (R. Cory Smith/North State Journal)

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Victory Lane may have belonged to Carl Edwards on Sunday, but the biggest party was taking place on pit road. Matt DiBenedetto and BK Racing’s sixth-place finish – a career-best for the driver and the team – was cause for a massive celebration.

Tony DiBenedetto, Matt’s father, ran around screaming, “Oh my God! Sixth place!” Sandy DiBenedetto, Matt’s mother, hugged everyone in sight. Then there was Matt, coming to grips with what he had just accomplished at Bristol, one of the most illustrious tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

“A sixth-place finish for BK Racing? This is like a win for us,” Matt said while fighting back tears. “I apologize for being so emotional, but this is an incredible run. I’m so blessed to be here.”

It was an outpouring of emotions from a driver who fought his way through nearly every level of racing just to get to this point. Despite winning his first karting championship at six years old and Rookie of the Year in Late Models at 13, Matt struggled to find backing at every rung on the ladder.

Having his family in attendance meant he could share the moment with the people who sacrificed the most. After moving from California to North Carolina to pursue Matt’s racing career, Tony, Sandy and his brother Austin – a tech sergeant in the Air Force – were all enjoying the makeshift Victory Lane.

“I’m so glad we got a good run with them here,” Matt said. “They have put everything into my racing career since I was young. They sacrificed everything to the point where we had to sell everything quick because we were writing checks on our home.

“It’s hard to put into words what they mean to me.”

Refusing to Accept Defeat

The cross-country move was what helped propel DiBenedetto into a racing career. However, all drivers know you can’t make it to the top alone. There has to be financial backing at every level in the sport.

Tony and Sandy were at the end of their rope – but Matt wasn’t.

“I thought my career was over about seven times,” DiBenedetto said. “… Racing is just in my blood. I’ve been competitive my whole life. It’s all I dream about. If we don’t have a good run, I can’t sleep at night. I got down, but I kept on digging deep.

“I was like, ‘If I don’t give this everything I have, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’”

The DiBenedetto family poses with Matt following his sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17.

The DiBenedetto family poses with Matt following his sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17.

His relentlessness landed him several opportunities, including seven Xfinity Series races with Joe Gibbs Racing between 2009-10. Matt then tried his hand with Vision Racing and The Motorsports Group, but couldn’t crack the top 10 like he had twice with JGR.

Following a top-20 finish at Phoenix for DiBenedetto, current Gibbs driver Carl Edwards congratulated the young driver. When Edwards – Sunday’s winner – heard about DiBenedetto’s finish at Bristol, he marveled at the accomplishment.

“They finished sixth?” Edwards said. “Man, that’s unbelievable. That’s probably tougher than what we did. That’s a real testament to them. … It’s just unreal how hard everybody goes. So a good finish in this series is a real accomplishment.”

Making Their Own Way

Much like DiBenedetto, BK Racing has struggled to remain relevant in the Sprint Cup Series.

Since its inception, BKR owner Ron Devine estimates he’s spent more than $100 million at the Sprint Cup level. Sure, other top teams spend that much or more per season, but Devine has built the team with limited sponsorship – only half of the team’s sponsorship was sold before the season.

During the offseason, team owner Ron Devine bought the majority of Michael Waltrip Racing’s assets when the team folded after 2015. Waltrip also drove in a single-start situation in the Daytona 500 as part of a four-car team in the most lucrative race of the NASCAR season.

Along with changes to equipment, Devine also made tough decisions about his drivers. DiBenedetto is the only driver still on the BK roster from 2015 after J.J. Yeley and Jeb Burton were cut lose.

That decision paid off in a huge way last Sunday.

“Matt is such a special driver and it’s starting to show,” Devine said. “Our deal was to get a young talent and stay with them. We’ve tried it before and were unable to keep them. I think Matt is a loyal driver and we have a special relationship. He’s fast. He’s gutsy. He’s not scared. I love him.”

One key ingredient to Matt’s success has been the addition of David Ragan. Similar to DiBenedetto, Ragan has been through the NASCAR ringer and survived to tell about it.

Landing on his feet with BK Racing, Ragan has helped DiBenedetto grow as a driver this season. With only two teams in the garage, Devine noted that they have meshed together to make both cars better on the track.

“It’s like having one team with two cars,” Devine said. “Bringing David [Ragan] in has helped Matt and lifted everybody up. … This is our sixth year, so we’re still fairly new at it. But I think this situation is one that will help us go on for a long, long time.”

The Payoff

In 362 starts before Sunday, the only other top-10 finish for BK Racing was at Talladega when Travis Kvapil finished eighth in October of 2012. The 363rd was the sweetest for both the driver and the team.

DiBenedetto battled early on in the race to simply remain on the lead lap, dodging carnage as top drivers like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth wrecked. While Ragan saw his day end in the garage with a blown engine, his teammate was carving out a nearly perfect afternoon.

With five laps remaining in the Food City 500, DiBenedetto restarted ninth and – more importantly – on the outside line. Like he’s done his entire career, DiBenedetto fought his way up.

That’s when the emotions started pouring out.

“I’m not usually a real sensitive guy,” DiBenedetto said. “I was just so focused on the race track that I didn’t know or pay attention to where we were running. I was like, ‘Man! We’re really close to the front!’ When we crossed the line, it just took me a second.

“They said, ‘You’re sixth.’ I just kinda lost it.”

As Devine and the DiBenedetto family posed for pictures, Sandy pulled the owner and her son aside for them to pose together. Devine instantly hugged Matt tight and gave him a big smooch on the cheek, holding it for pictures.

“You deserve a kiss for what you just did,” Devine said.

“I better get at least a kiss for that,” DiBenedetto joked.

Sunday was a day filled with jubilation, but the next step is the toughest: sustaining that success. Coming off a career day for DiBenedetto and BKR, it’s a step they’re ready to take together.

 

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