Saturday night's latest version of a Bristol night race will go down as one of the best of all time and it will not be for who won the race or how he managed to take the checkered flag. It will be remembered more for who finished second and the emotion that he crawled out from behind the wheel with as he addressed the media and the crowd.
Matt DiBenedetto found out earlier in the week that he would not be coming back next season as driver of the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing. LFR will never be mistaken for Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports but it does have support from Toyota and it could be that the manufacturer is looking for a landing spot for what it feels is an up and coming talent in Christopher Bell who is now driving for Gibbs in the Xfinity Series.
The 28-year old DiBenedetto did an amazing job of hiding any disappointment he had with LFR's decision as he put on a boxing robe and boxing gloves for Bristol's driver's introduction but as it turned out it wasn't the only show that he would put on for the crowd. He led 93 laps on the night and in the closing laps he found himself in the lead with Denny Hamlin in his rear view mirror as the final laps began to go off the board.
DiBenedetto's car had gotten tight after a run in with Ryan Newman earlier in the race which helped to open the door for Hamlin to finally make the pass with only twelve laps remaining to go on and notch his fourth win of the season. It turned out to be a bitter sweet win for Hamlin as he said in his very first interview after exiting his car how sorry he was for how the race ended for DiBenedetto and his crew chief Mike Wheeler who until this season had been Hamlin's crew chief at JGR.
The Bristol crowd knows its racing and appreciates what a driver can do behind the wheel and it did not hesitate to show their approval for the show that DiBenedetto put on Saturday night at the track after receiving the news he would not be returning in 2020. When he crawled out from his car on pit road the crowd roared its approval for his second place effort that is usually reserved for the winner.
The respect that he earned was not just from those in the stands either as the activity in the pits seemed to come to a stop as DiBenedetto's interview upon exiting the vehicle was being shown on the track's huge overhead TV screens. His voice at times cracked with emotions as he talked about what the win would have meant to him and his team but was also able to say that he knew he had a future in the sport and that he was not done yet.
His second place finish was not a fluke finish by any means as it was his third top-5 finish of the season. He is 22nd in the points after Bristol which ranks him higher than ten other drivers that have run the full schedule. He has proven that he has the talent to be in the series and now it is up to an owner to give him the opportunity to continue his career and build upon the success that he is beginning to have in the sport.
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer continued their battle for the final playoff position in the sixteen driver field that will advance to the ten-race playoff portion of the schedule that will eventually crown this season's champion. Suarez was able to collect nine points in the first stage to go along with his eighth place finish to leave Bristol with a two point lead over 7th place finisher Bowyer with only two races remaining before the playoff field is set. Jimmie Johnson who had been in the battle for the last playoff position finished 19th and is now 26 points out of the last playoff spot and appears to need a win to make it in.