Saturday night, Matt DiBenedetto strode onto the Driver Introduction stage at Bristol Motor Speedway to the pulsating beat of the “Rocky” theme, wearing boxing gloves and a red-and-gold robe with the phrase “Italian Stallion” enblazoned on the back.
Just over three hours later, the California native looked even more like Rocky Balboa, slumping against his car -- beaten but unbowed -- after a dramatic heavyweight slugfest with winner Denny Hamlin that left a monstrous Bristol crowd roaring its approval and chanting his name.
Saturday’s career-best runner-up finish capped a rollercoaster week for DiBenedetto. Just four days earlier, he had been informed of plans to replace him in the No, 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota next season, most likely with promising youngster Christopher Bell. He responded – not with anger and animosity – but with a stirring performance that saw him lead 93 laps in the race’s final stage until contact with Ryan Newman caused front-end damage that affected the handling of his Toyota and left him a sitting duck to Hamlin’s late-race charge.
“When I was marching through the field, I was hoping somebody else would pass him so I didn’t have to take the win away,” Hamlin said. “I knew I was going to get him. I was just thinking, `There are a lot of people at home and a lot of people in the stands that probably don’t want to see this happen.’”
Hamlin made the decisive pass with just 12 laps remaining, then motored away to a margin that was too much for DiBenedetto to overcome, while still tantalizingly close. DiBenedetto called it “like being stabbed a hundred times in the chest,” a pain that Hamlin admitted to sharing in the celebratory hubbub of Victory Lane.
“Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his résumé in front of everyone,” added Hamlin. “He doesn’t need to type it out. He’s going out there and performing. He will land as good or better on his feet after this year.
“I am certain of it.”
One after another, rival drivers stepped through the throng surrounding DiBenedetto’s steaming Toyota to offer their congratulations, their condolences and their sympathy for an on-track performance that was so close… and yet so far.
Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, even retired series champion Jeff Gordon alternately shook his hand, thumped him on the chest or locked him in a series of bear hugs, hoping to somehow ease the pain of being second-best on a night where only first would do.
None of it worked, at least right away.
“It was hard to hold it together with all those drivers coming up to me,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s amazing to have earned that respect from them.
The former Joe Gibbs Racing developmental driver walked to Victory Lane after the race, where he and Hamlin locked in a long embrace. Hamlin spoke quietly, sharing words that both drivers insisted would remain private. As they separated, DiBenedetto said simply, “That means more than you know.
“This journey has made me strong and I would not change it for the world,” he insisted to reporters afterward. “It makes you appreciate being here 1,000 times more. This journey has beat me down on the ground more than I can possibly explain.
“It’s hard. It’s really hard. I’m glad it’s been hard. I want to appreciate it the most that I can. I want it to make me fight and claw and dig as hard as I possibly can, and that’s what this journey has done.”
DiBenedetto’s roller-coaster ride has also not been lost on NASCAR fans. His pass for the lead elicited the loudest ovation of the night, as fans wearing a rainbow of other drivers’ apparel suddenly found themselves rooting hard for the underdog affectionately known as “Guido DiBurrito.”
They roared even louder when he appeared on Bristol’s “Collossus” video screen after the race; an ovation so thunderous that it stopped him in mid-sentence, no longer able to speak through the emotion.
It has been a long road since DiBenedetto made his Cup Series debut with the underfunded BK Racing organization. It’s been even longer since he was forced to accept a series of start-and-park Xfinity Series jobs, just to keep his name in the garage after a lack of sponsorship trimmed his JGR developmental schedule to just seven races in 2009-2010.
Not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough opportunity.
But Saturday night, for 93 magical laps, DiBenedetto erased all doubt about what he can do, if only given a chance.
Hopefully, someone was watching.