In many occasions throughout history, there are underdogs that succeed against all odds. That become legendary moments of success or inspiration. This is particularly prominent in the world of sports. Individuals, or teams, that become the “Cinderella Story” if you will and win the hearts of not only Americans, but the world. The ones that, against all odds, overcome numerous adversities and obstacles place before them to pull off the seemingly impossible. The 1983 NCAA Champion N.C. State Wolfpack team, The Miracle on Ice(1980), Rudy Ruettiger, and Michael Oher just to name a few. There are countless stories like these through the ages. Even in NASCAR, there are many of these stories throughout the years. My particular favorite is the story of Alan Kulwicki. A man who started racing at the age of 13, then in 1985 sold almost everything he owned, moved to the Charlotte area using a borrowed truck. He fought and clawed his way to a Championship in 1992 before his untimely death in 1993.
Last Saturday night(9/17/19) in Bristol, Tennessee, a new hero for the people really began to gain momentum. Matt DiBenedetto, also referred to as “Guido” or “Matty D”, really turned up the volume on an already growing fan base. Matt lead 93 laps late in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and looked like he had the car to beat. At least until late contact with Ryan Newman effected the handling of his car, making it possible for Denny Hamlin to run him down and pass Matt for the win. That may not sound like much to most, however, in the NASCAR community it was heartbreaking for not only Matt, but also for fans and fellow drivers and teams that have come to respect and love him greatly. You see, earlier in the week Matt had received the news that after this season he would no longer be the pilot of the #95 Leavine Family Racing(LFR) Toyota in the nation’s top series. The driver who came out in driver’s introductions wearing a boxing robe and gloves to the “Rocky” theme to an eruption of cheers was on a mission and nearly fulfilled a Cinderella story of the week before millions of hearts broke with 11 laps to go. Post race emotions ran high for Matt. Too high for him to fully contain during interviews with the media. As he was shown on the Goliath screen above the track after the devastating loss, the crowd erupted even bigger than before for the driver sometimes referred to as “The People’s Champ”.
Big deal you may be thinking. Drivers lose close races all the time in heartbreaking fashion and drivers get cheers often as well. That is nothing new. You are correct. However, it is Matt’s story and journey that makes it so heartbreaking and special. That coupled with him being a genuinely good guy who is always smiling and in a good mood. Still not a big deal right? Well, many would beg to differ. What has drawn fans to him, and earned the respect of his fellow drivers, is also his path to where he currently is and his genuine love and passion for what he does and the sport he “lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes for”. He doesn’t do it because he gets paid to, he does it because it’s what he loves. They say that if you find a job you love, that you never work a day in your life. That is Matt and NASCAR. He was born to race cars and lives for just that. Perhaps his love and appreciation is due to the determination, hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that it has taken him to get here. He has 100% earned his way to where he is unlike many talented young drivers these days that are given rides based on potential.
Matt’s road began early in life, but the struggle and fight really started when he debuted in the Xfinity series in 2009. From 2009 to 2016 he ran part time for a variety of mostly small, underfunded, and independent teams like a proverbial pinball. Many of these races were “start and park” races, but the seat time would still be invaluable. Matt transitioned to the then Sprint Cup series in 2015. From then to the present, he would continue to drive for a variety of smaller teams, but all the while gaining valuable seat time and fine tuning his craft. In 2017, he really started to gain momentum as driver and began drawing the eyes of more fans. His years of seat time were beginning to pay off as better finishes started finding their way to him. Even though he was still with smaller teams, these finishes brought more TV time and publicity. Thus showing off his humor and good attitude, but more importantly, his determination, love, and passion for the sport of NASCAR. This didn’t go unnoticed at all by fellow drivers and fans. Matt was quickly becoming the underdog that would skyrocket his popularity with the people. With his attitude, fans were becoming drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Beginning in 2019, he would be driving the #95 Toyota for LFR which had an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. This alliance would bring him possibly the best equipment and technical support of his career. That opportunity, along with his talent as a driver, thrust him into NASCAR limelight as a legitimate contender for numerous races on the schedule. He was having some of the best finishes and races of his life. Just like I mentioned before, with better finishes came more press and attention. Once again, also bringing more fans. Matt was becoming a household name. Just days before the Bristol night race, Matt got the heartbreaking news that he would not be piloting the #95 LFR ride following this season leaving his immediate future in the sport in question as of now. Although many fans and drivers have shown an outpouring of support and even criticized some teams, it is still a business and hard choices have to be made. Many also believe that he has more than earned for a top tier team to pick him up for the future with his ability, talent, and determination.
Are you starting to see now why this man is like a modern day Rocky? Why it was a perfect fit that he came out in a boxing ensemble and to the Rocky theme? And that he came so heartbreakingly close to pulling off the Cinderella finish that many were hoping and praying for? Through all the trials, setbacks, and struggles Matt has kept his same positive attitude and outlook. His love and passion have carried him far past where many others may have been tempted to quit. He has earned his way every step to where he is today. He was not given anything and has had to fight, claw, and work his way to the top. In my opinion, he is the current epitome to this Rocky quote:
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you are worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”
So, to that I say, that Matt definitely knows his worth and is fighting for that every single day! We know your worth too Matt and are right beside you every step forward, step backwards, and salty tear of heartbreak along the way! I hope that you know have a better picture of why Matt is a modern day Rocky and it is only a matter of time before those salty tears of heartbreak are replaced by sweet tears of joy along with him raising his arms up in victory formation as he cries those tears of joy and screams to the heavens “I finally did it!”. To us, his fans, he has already made it and solidified himself as a top notch driver in the series and household name, as well as him belonging where he has worked so hard to get to. My belief is that when that victory does come in the nation’s top series, that the outpouring of support from fans, and the NASCAR garage alike, could possibly rank up there pretty close to Dale Earnhardt Sr. winning the 1998 Daytona 500 and Rocky finally winning that Championship belt. It will surely be a sweet and happy day!