CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Matt DiBenedetto decided about a month ago that he definitely would leave Go Fas Racing, he didn’t know if Leavine Family Racing was a real possibility. All he knew is that the door was cracked open.
He was on the organization’s list of potential drivers. He wasn’t necessarily at the top, but he is now.
LFR announced Wednesday that it had inked a two-year deal with the 27-year-old DiBenedetto to replace the retiring Kasey Kahne starting with the 2019 Daytona 500.
“I believe in my heart everything happens for a reason,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything has happened for a reason to get me where I’m at today. Our paths were meant to cross to be together, and that’s what’s meant to be.
“I’m excited it did work out that way. I’m excited and relieved. When I bet on myself and took a step back, I genuinely had absolutely nothing. It was a full bet on myself. I’m so relieved I am the guy that came out on top.”
DiBenedetto is 30th in the NASCAR Cup Series standings driving for Go Fas Racing. He announced last month he would not return to the No. 32 Ford and started looking for a ride, even a part-time one that he felt would be in more competitive equipment.
At the time, Leavine Family Racing was still looking for a driver after Kahne abruptly decided in August to retire from full-time racing after this season. The team courted Daniel Hemric and Daniel Suarez, but Hemric decided to stay with Richard Childress Racing and Suarez appears to be continuing negotiations with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Leavine Family Racing, currently a Chevrolet team, will join the Toyota stable and have an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. That appeared to be a natural fit for Suarez to move from JGR, which plans to add Martin Truex Jr. to its team next year but has made no formal announcement.
Suarez, though, continues to test the market and has been talking with Stewart-Haas Racing. Christopher Bell, vying for the Xfinity Series championship for JGR, is expected to remain in that ride for 2019 with JGR looking to continue him in that series.
That opened the door even wider for DiBenedetto, who has cultivated a decent social media following and also has earned praise from some of the top drivers in the sport about his performance with the team. He also had driven for JGR as a test driver several years ago.
“I knew I had an opportunity to get in the door and be part of the team,” DiBenedetto said. “To say I was persistent was an understatement. … This was the biggest opportunity of my life sitting here in front of me.
“I made sure I put all my effort to make it happen and wanted to be a part of it.”
Regan Smith will continue to drive the No. 95 Chevrolet for the remainder of the year in a substitute role in place of Kahne, who can no longer drive stock cars because of dehydration issues. Smith works for Fox Sports during the first half of the season so he was never really a candidate.
“We really wanted to get somebody we could build a program around. … I really like [DiBenedetto’s] desire, his determination,” LFR owner Bob Leavine said. “He’s a good kid. He was in the process, and obviously he came out on top.
“I think the world of him and his ability.”
Jimmy Makar, JGR senior vice president of racing operations, was happy to see DiBenedetto get this shot, although, without naming anyone specific, admitted JGR had hoped to move one of its drivers to LFR.
“It would have been nice to be able to do that, but things don’t always work out perfectly,” Makar said. “It really wasn’t our decision to force that on anybody.”