Well… he finally did it. After a seemingly endless slew of heartbreaks and close calls, Matt DiBenedetto finally secured his first career NASCAR win at Talladega. If this had happened a year ago I would have been over the moon. But last Saturday, when I watched my former favorite driver of six years finally summit that mountain he’d been trying to climb all those years I felt… empty. I wasn’t happy, but I also wasn’t upset. I wasn’t really sure what I was feeling. To understand, I need to provide some context for my connection to DiBenedetto.
I grew up a huge NASCAR fan. Through my whole childhood starting in 2001 up until about 2010 I tuned in every week – and was the kind of fan that would sit there and watch every lap of every race. I loved everything there was to love about the sport – the speed, the sounds, the crashes (I was, after all, a kid). I also loved the personalities at play in the sport – the drivers (particularly Dale Jr), the crews, the fans, all of it. The sport as a whole fascinated me as a kid.
Even into the early 2010’s, while I wasn’t really a diehard fan anymore, I still followed the sport – I’d check the results every Monday to see how my favorites were doing, track the standings every year, and tune in for the big events. But throughout the decade, something changed… then changed again… then again… and so on.
The NASCAR Playoffs system was seemingly participating in a game of rule change musical chairs – and I absolutely hated it.
I couldn’t stand the fact that a driver could dominate all year long, then be marginally outperformed by someone else for the last 10 races and lose out on the championship. Add on to that the fact that I was a diehard Dale Jr. fan, and by this point he was a shadow of his former self as a driver. So… I stopped watching. I still casually followed, so I still knew the drivers and the teams, but my days as a diehard fan were seemingly done.
Then one day in 2016 I happened to be flipping through channels, and I happened upon the last 50 laps or so of the Bristol day race. It was my absolute favorite track as a kid, so I figured I would watch the end. Like I said above, I still very casually followed the sport, so I knew almost all of the drivers. But there was one driver that day whose name I didn’t recognize running inside the top-10 – Matt DiBenedetto.
I figured if nothing else I’d keep watching to see how he did – and sure enough, he held on and brought home a sixth place finish. Then I decided to stay tuned in because I figured they would do a post race interview with him.
I was right about that, and what followed is the only reason I got back into the sport.
The level of raw passion and emotion DiBenedetto showed in that interview after wheeling his woefully underfunded team to their best ever result resonated with me in a way that no other interview I’d ever seen had. He was just seemingly so grateful to be there, super humble about the whole thing, and had an all around underdog aura that I loved.
So from that moment on, I was a Matt DiBenedetto super fan. I was tuning in again each week to see how he did, and in the process fell back in love with the sport that I loved as a kid. I followed Matt from BK to Go Fas to Leavine, and then to the Wood Brothers. I was watching for all of the close calls – the 2018 Daytona 500, Bristol in 2019, both 2020 Las Vegas races, Talladega in 2021 – and plenty of others. I suffered right along with him and every other fan of his through all of the heartbreak, convinced that eventually he would get it done.
But then 2021 happened – and I had to hang up all of my DiBenedetto gear because I realized he wasn’t the kind of person I thought he was, and absolutely wasn’t the kind of person I could pull for.
His downward spiral was well documented, and I don’t feel as though this is the place to write about it at length, but if you’re unfamiliar with the flashpoint moments I’ll sum up the ones that stuck with me in a few bullet points.
- His humble, underdog attitude started to turn into an uncomfortable mix of whiny and entitled. This eventually culminated in his making a video in which he essentially complained that Penske Racing and the Wood Brothers decided to give the 21 car to rookie Harrison Burton, even though Brad Keselowski’s departure seemingly opened up a seat in the organization.
- He used transphobic language in a video posted to social media, saying something to the effect of “what if the sky wants to identify as green today?” He then failed to apologize or even acknowledge the incident.
- Deleted his Twitter account after receiving backlash for a tweet mocking NASCAR for making Kyle Busch undergo sensitivity training after saying the r-word in a post race interview. DiBenedetto tweeted “I feel like living on planet Earth in 2021 is permanent sensitivity training”
- In his final race for the historic Wood Brothers #21, while trying to court sponsors, he happily said “Let’s Go Brandon” while climbing into his car, and followed it up with an Instagram post touting the “movement”. He then posted a video to social media “apologizing” for the way he’d been acting recently, without actually acknowledging any transgressions.
This last bit is more personal to me and doesn’t really need a bullet point, but during the 2021 season he was baptized by fellow driver Michael McDowell (in a swimming pool interestingly enough), and started quite loudly and proudly discussing – bordering on pushing – his religion. I should note that I have no real problem with religion – do what you want, I don’t care. However, I myself am not religious – so all the religion talk was uncomfortable and unrelatable for me as a fan.
The final straw for me was the Let’s Go Brandon comment. I had moved on from him by that point and didn’t really consider myself a fan of his anymore, but that made me actively resent him. That phrase is a black eye on the sport, and one they were actively trying to distance themselves from – hell, it turns out that it ruined Brandon Brown’s career. And you have the GALL to say that while you’re climbing into one of the most historic cars in the sport’s history? Come on.
I was angry, sure – but more than that I was embarrassed that I’d misjudged this person’s character so severely. Someone that I thought was a humble, loveable underdog was actually just a hyper-religious, right wing weirdo – something he’d shown no real signs of prior to that year. Had he always been like that and just hid it well? Or did the wrong people get their hooks in him at a time when he was particularly vulnerable with his looming free agency? Who’s to say… but his free agency ultimately ended with a demotion to the Truck Series, driving the 25 truck for relatively new Rackley WAR.
DiBenedetto’s debut Truck season has been up and down. He’s had flashes of legit competitiveness collecting seven top-10’s in the teams second season of existence (Rackley had one top-10 in their first year). But he’s also struggled with inconsistency at times, as well as both mechanical and on-track issues hampering races.
All that changed last weekend at Talladega. Finally, after all these years, Matt DiBenedetto collected his first career win. It came in what I would consider to be an appropriately chaotic and controversial manner, as he was actually beaten to the line by Bret Holmes, but was ultimately awarded the win because he was leading at the time that an ill-advised caution was thrown. Finally, the heartbreak was someone else’s. DiBenedetto would do a quick burnout on the front stretch, jump out of the truck for his interview, and would give “all glory to God” while thanking the fans that stuck with him.
And in that moment, I wasn’t sure what to think.
I’d been a fan of his for six years, and in a very real sense, Matt DiBenedetto is the only reason I became a NASCAR fan again. If it hadn’t been for that chance afternoon flipping through channels, I wouldn’t have gotten back into the sport. I wouldn’t have a huge diecast collection. I wouldn’t have gone to the Daytona 500 this year. I wouldn’t be an avid iRacer. I wouldn’t be writing for Pit Box Press. Just about everything in my life related to NASCAR I owe to Matt DiBenedetto finishing sixth at Bristol and giving the interview of a lifetime, which is weird to think about.
But at the same time, that’s life. Just about everything in anyone’s life can be traced back to individual chance events – so there’s no reason to get hung up on that, or let it sway my opinions. At the end of the day, he just isn’t the kind of person I can pull for. He’s someone whose beliefs and world views completely juxtapose mine just about across the board. Believe me when I say I’m aware that this is NASCAR – most of the drivers probably have similar views – but at least the majority of them don’t espouse them so loudly, and those that do, I already make an effort to avoid.
There will always be a small piece of me that likes Matt DiBenedetto, strictly because he is the only reason I got back into the sport I loved so dearly as a kid. And truth be told, there was a small part of me last weekend that was happy to see him finally get that win. But that piece of me is pretty muted these days thanks to his actions. I’ll always be thankful for that chance afternoon – but that’s where it ends.
So thank you, Matt DiBenedetto – and congratulations on the win. You deserve it.
But good riddance.
Photo credit: Pat Vallely