When it has comes to climbing the ladder of stock car racing, the game has really changed in recent years.
No longer is it about just proving your abilities and conquering one level before moving to the next one and hopefully repeating that process. A path like Johnny Benson's, who won a championship at the ASA National Tour then won a Busch Series championship and finally moved to NASCAR Cup racing, has pretty much gone the way of the dodo bird. A gritty and rough-around-the edges type like Dale Earnhardt would never make it into the big leagues today - even though he is widely acknowledged as being one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.
In the past 10 or 15 years, moving up became more about looking the part and speaking the part. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch moved up the ladder of racing. Those drivers usually knew the right things to say and when to say them. Playing nice with sponsors was something they knew well. But that was acceptable, since each of those racers proved their worth at the short track level and held the talent required to eventually become a NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Today, there is something much scarier taking place. Only a marginal amount of talent is needed to advance through the ranks if the right bankroll exists. If the family business is a major hardware store conglomerate, fast food chain or something along those lines, opportunities come quicker. Doors that should remain closed for some people are opened enthusiastically by team owners who need cash. This leads to a number of drivers in the “Big Three” series of NASCAR who could never realistically dream of ever becoming a champion.
Even the polite, good-looking and well-spoken drivers are getting knocked out of the game before it begins if their families can't write a big enough check.
So that is why it is refreshing to see a driver earn a chance based on his accomplishments and potential rather than his checkbook. It's heartwarming to see a teen driver who works cleaning up tables at the local Texas Roadhouse restaurant and started making a name for himself running a Late Model at his hometown track get a big chance.
Meet Matt DiBenedetto.
DiBenedetto, who goes by the racing nickname of “Guido” will drive in a limited schedule of NASCAR Camping World East Series events this season for the NASCAR powerhouse team of Joe Gibbs Racing.
The young driver, whose parents relocated from California to North Carolina to help further their son's racing career, is a graduate of the Late Model Stock Car ranks. He started at Hickory Motor Speedway and then moved into the UARA-Stars series, where he won on (relatively) big tracks like Bristol and downright small ones like Newport.
Now, he's got his foot in the door at JGR, and it didn't take any money to get an in there.
“I feel very lucky because we didn't come into this with any money,” said DiBenedetto. “I just happened to get a great opportunity and I'm so thankful for everyone over at Gibbs to give that to me. We couldn't bring anything and they are just giving me a chance. It is really good that they are doing that.
“I'm still in awe that this is happening. For the past four years or so, everyone has been telling us that we have to have money to do anything in this sport. Without the money, you won't make it they said. But we just kept piugging along. At one point, we got to the point where we had to quit. We sold all of our stuff because we couldn't do it anymore. Then a couple of other teams put me in their cars and I could keep on racing. So I've been lucky because everything has fallen together.”
You mean, a team picked a driver based on his potential to succeed? Yes they did. It's a move right out of the Joe Gibbs playbook that has brought the team a total of three NASCAR Cup championships to date. It's one that worked in the past as well. After all, JGR plucked a young Late Model Stock Car driver out of Virginia a few years ago and moved him through the NASCAR Truck Series, what-was-then the NASCAR Busch Series and then to Cup. It worked out pretty well too. In fact, you may have heard of that driver. His name is Denny Hamlin and so far he has won four Cup races in only three full seasons.
That fact hasn't been missed either.
“Actually, when I first when to the Gibbs shop, there were quite a few comparisons,” said DiBenedetto. “A lot of people referenced what he did when they talked about what I'm doing. That is pretty neat.”
DiBenedetto's Camping World East Series career is scheduled to start in the series opener next month at Greenville Pickens Speedway. From there, the exact schedule of 2009 races is unclear.
“Now that I'm with Gibbs, it looks like we'll be running about six races. We might be able to do more if we found a sponsor. Hopefully, we'll run Dover and the races at New Hampshire. For sure, I'll run the Tri County race. That is definitely in the plan.”
DiBenedetto is going to keep busy though when he isn't running the Camping World East car. He recently tested a UARA Late Model at Rockingham Speedway in preparation for the April 18th event there. He will compete in this weekend's UARA season opener at Hickory as well. He also made his Super Late Model debut driving for David Stremme earlier this season at SpeedFest 2009 - and he'd love to run more of those races, possibly for another high-profile team.
“The East races are going to be our focus, but hopefully we'll still get in some Late Model stuff, hopefully the Rockingham UARA race, and maybe a few Super Late Model races. When I met with Gibbs there was some talk with maybe Kyle Busch letting me run a race for his (Super Late Model) team.”
Bouncing between rides in something that DiBenedetto is used to, since money has been tight, he hasn't really been able to put together a family-owned team to race wherever and whenever he wants to.
“We sold our equipment a few years ago and I've been driving for other teams since then. I haven't been in one of my own cars since two years ago on the UARA tour.”
So now there are a few things for DiBenedetto to look forward to. The first is this week's race at Hickory. That is the town where he lives and where he works. It's the track where he got his career rolling and where several local sponsors of his can be found.
“I love Hickory Motor Speedway. I have about nine million laps there and every time we race there, we are really strong. So it will always be my hometown place and I will always come back to it, but I'm excited about going to some of these bigger tracks. I've never been on anything bigger than a half-mile. Bristol is the biggest track that I've raced on. So I'm excited about going to see what these one mile tracks are like and get some seat time at those places.”
But even racing at Hickory won't compare to moving up into the Camping World East series.
“I'm really excited about it. I drove one of the East cars and it wasn't too much different. To me, a racecar is a racecar. It will be a good experience for me to learn what those cars do and how to handle a long run, qualifying and things like that. It will be good for me to get acclimated to those cars and the more experience that I get, the better.”