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Been There, Done That: Hamlin Knows All About Di Benedetto’s Quest for Cup Success

When Denny Hamlin climbed from his Toyota after winning the NASCAR Cup Series race Aug. 18 at Bristol, the first thing he did was apologize to Matt DiBenedetto.

Hamlin passed DiBenedetto with 11 laps to go in the 500-lap race on the half-mile concrete bullring, earning his fourth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. But Hamlin also knew he denied what would have been one of the best Cinderella stories in NASCAR in recent years, a first career Cup Series win for Di Benedetto with the small, underfunded Leavine Family Racing.

"I'm just want to say sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (crew chief) Mike Wheeler. I hate it," Hamlin said. "I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I’ve got to give 110 percent to my whole team. Just sorry.

"This team gave me a great car. Everybody is doing an amazing job. We're just kicking ass."

Hamlin tied JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. atop the win list this season in the Cup Series with his fourth victory. Hamlin is third in the series standings, 77 points behind leader Busch. He projects to be seeded second in the NASCAR Playoffs after the final regular-season race, the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But it was only natural that Hamlin’s first thoughts while being interviewed at the start-finish line were with Di Benedetto, for whom a victory could have ensured more than a shiny trophy. It may have landed him a job in 2020, too.

Di Benedetto revealed two days before the Bristol race that he and the Leavine team will part company after this season, saying on social media that he “got the devastating news that I will not be able to return to Leavine Family Racing next season.” He pledged to “drive my heart out” for the team for the rest of the season, a promise he fulfilled with a spirited, powerful run at Bristol that ended up with a career-best second-place finish.

The runner-up result was no fluke. Di Benedetto led 93 laps in his No. 95 LFR Toyota, more than any other driver. He took the lead from Erik Jones on Lap 396 and led until Hamlin passed him on Lap 489.

"I wanted to win so bad for these guys, for this team, for them giving me this opportunity," Di Benedetto said. "I'm just thankful that they gave me this opportunity, Toyota, Procore, Dumont Jets. I'm so thankful.

"But, man, I'm sad. We got tight after the deal with (Ryan) Newman when he came up into us. All of a sudden it got really tight after that. Congrats to Denny. He raced hard. I've been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door‑to‑door with him at Bristol, in front of a great group of fans ... 

“I’ll try not to get emotional, but it's been a tough week. I just want to stick around and keep doing this for a long time to come. I love it. I love the opportunity. I'm not done yet."

Di Benedetto received plenty of praise from fans and fellow Cup drivers after the Bristol race for his classy manner after the gutting disappointment. He also is capturing the eye of Cup owners with a recent hot streak in underfunded equipment that includes five top-10 finishes in his last nine starts.

Hamlin led the parade of drivers who trumpeted Di Benedetto as a driver who should land a ride with a strong Cup team for 2020.

“Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his résumé in front of everyone,” Hamlin said. “So he doesn't need to type it out. He’s going out there and performing. He will land as good or better on his feet, I am certain of it, after this year.”

This isn’t the first predicament California native Di Benedetto has faced to continue his Cup Series career, which started in 2015 with GoFas Racing.

Early last season, Di Benedetto revealed on social media that he lost funding to compete in the Cup Series race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix. A few NASCAR drivers and personalities stepped up to donate money to Di Benedetto, who was able to make the grid at Phoenix and piece together sponsorship to race the rest of the year.

One of those drivers was Hamlin. He chipped $5,000 into the sponsorship kitty for the Phoenix weekend, joining fellow Cup star Kevin Harvick and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip in helping Di Benedetto.

Hamlin admitted after his Bristol victory last Saturday night that he and Di Benedetto are friendly at the racetrack but don’t hang out together away from race weekends. But Hamlin still saw something in Di Benedetto last year and now that generated respect.

Denny Hamlin saw himself, 17 years ago.

Hamlin’s promising career racing late models around Virginia and the Southeast for his family-owned team was crumbling in 2002. His parents had taken out all the loans they could afford and were out of money. Hamlin stood in the pit sign-in line at a racetrack, ready to register for what looked like his last race and preparing to go to work full time at his father’s trailer shop.

Then a man standing a few people behind Hamlin in that line heard Hamlin tell someone that he wouldn’t make the next race, at Myrtle Beach. That man, team owner Jim Dean, spoke up.

“He came up to me and says, ‘Hey, I overheard you say you're not going to be able to go to the final event,’” Hamlin said. “I said, ‘Yeah, we just don't have the money.’ He said, ‘If you don't know, I own these two cars. If you don't go into the final race and we win, I don't feel like we beat the best. Call me on Tuesday, let me know how much money you need to go to the race.’

“I called him on Tuesday. Oddly enough him and his driver had a falling out on Monday, one of his drivers. He said, ‘Hop in my seat.’ I qualified on the pole, led 225 of the 250 laps, I got passed, finished second. Anyway, he said: ‘Tell your family to go ahead and sell everything. You're going to drive for me next year.’”

Hamlin continued his career in late models and eventually climbed to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series in 2004 and the Xfinity Series in 2005 before making his full-time Cup debut in 2006.

He wants Di Benedetto to catch a similar break to continue his Cup career.

“I thought about that when I saw Matt's video that the team didn't have the finances,” Hamlin said. “I knew we could give him $5,000. The team, he was fighting an uphill battle, he wasn't going to go out there and win. I just thought to pay it forward. Someone gave me that opportunity, kept my career going. Like I said, it led to a six- or seven-race sponsor for him later that season.

“Yeah, just trying to pay it forward. I think a lot of people have a lot of respect for him. He's humble. This is not a story of he's just going to go away. This is only the beginning for him. He's writing his résumé on TV every weekend.”

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