NASCAR driver Matt DiBenedetto is sitting on Willie Nelson’s old tour bus watching me crash his race car into a cement wall.
It’s Friday afternoon, the day before the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway in Virginia. DiBenedetto, his director of communications Ryan Ellis, and I are playing NASCAR HEAT 2 on Xbox to pass the time before DiBenedetto runs his qualifying laps. This old RV has been on the race circuit for a while now since Willie stopped touring in it (if the rumors are true), and sometimes DiBenedetto and Ellis stay here, parked among other drivers’ personal, shiny, multi-million dollar buses. One of the walls near the front bears the signatures of Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jimmie Johnson, and other NASCAR legends.
Everything about DiBenedetto’s life is on wheels. When he isn’t moving, he’s sitting around waiting to move. He gets to the track each week on Thursday night, whether the race is Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, and the hours between practice, qualifying laps, and races stretch long. DiBenedetto, 26, and Ellis, 27, are best friends not only because they like each other, but also because they understand the strains of being on the road 38 weekends a year. Besides Ellis, the people DiBenedetto hangs out with most are his parents, his wife Taylor, and Cosmo, his 40-something neighbor who owns a car dealership.
“I don’t see anyone,” Ellis says, eyes on the screen, hands on the controller. “Getting older means being lonely.”
At some point, DiBenedetto signed his name on the wall under Waltrip’s. But, unlike most of the other drivers, he left off his car number. Perhaps in the hopes that No. 32 won’t be what he’s saddled with forever.
“You’re pretty stuck there, try backing up,” DiBenedetto says. He and Ellis, who was also a full-time driver until this year, laugh as they watch me realize Ellis is actually controlling the car on the top screen that I thought I was moving. On the bottom half of the screen, I’ve actually been slamming DiBenedetto’s character into a barrier on pit road for a full minute.
We restart, and DiBenedetto’s car materializes, magically repaired. I’m looking at the right one this time as the green checkered flag falls. Ellis, who’s racing as Dale Earnhardt Jr., wins. I come in 27th, and apologize to Real Matt for Computer Matt’s less-than-stellar showing.
“That’s okay,” he says, “That’s probably about where we’ll finish tomorrow anyway.”
DiBenedetto declines to play as himself. Ellis says he’ll do it, so we switch controllers. He changes the location to Bristol Motor Speedway and rockets around the short track. He wins again. Computer Matt climbs out of the car on the black and white checkered pavement of victory lane and stands on the roof, pumping his pixelated fists as confetti falls. The scene is familiar; DiBenedetto became the youngest winner in Bristol’s history when he raced late models there 10 years ago.
“That guy looks nothing like me,” DiBenedetto says. “What’s with my dang hair?”
Computer Matt is a scrawny guy with red, curly hair, and a full beard. Real Matt — who peppers his speech with “dang”s, “darn”s, and “gosh”es — has straight, brown hair that always looks like it’s picture day at school. His face is boyish, handsome, with a jawline he squares up by trimming his short beard just so.
DiBenedetto also has biceps. Put together, they’re almost the same size as his substantial core. He works out a lot, and has grown into a sturdy dude since he won Bristol as a 5’1” 16-year-old clocking in at a whopping 75 pounds. You have to be strong to wrestle a car without power-steering around a track. He sweats out 15 pounds of water and burns thousands of calories over three and a half hours during a race. NASCAR is as physically grueling as it mentally punishing.
There might be a glitch in the game, because Computer Matt won’t stop pumping his fists. Real Matt gets up from the pleather banquette to take a video of the video game celebration. He’s obsessive about documenting his life on Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram. This mostly entails posting videos of him pranking his wife, Taylor, with rubber snakes, or cannonballing into the pool next to her while she’s sleeping on a float, but also includes candid reactions to very good and very bad races. DiBenedetto gets his sense of humor from his mother, Sandy. She’s a tiny, energetic woman who recently snuck into DiBenedetto’s house to hide a lifelike plastic tarantula behind the toaster. Her son is scared of spiders.
DiBenedetto’s followers respond to his social media presence with fierce loyalty. Despite having a fraction of the followers big name drivers command, he almost made it into this year’s All-Star race on the fan vote.
DiBenedetto tells me he identifies with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the way he connects with fans.
“That’s what I’d like to be,” he says.
The sport is battling the perception of declining national interest and waning viewership, and, with Dale Jr. retiring, it could use a relatable guy like DiBenedetto to step into the spotlight. DiBenedetto knows he has the talent and personality for it. He also knows he has to nail down big time sponsors or join a state-of-the-art team for it to happen.
As the son of an appliance repairman, DiBenedetto wasn’t born into money. And if you want to win in NASCAR’s Cup Series (the major leagues), you need cold, hard cash to fund one of the completely custom-made, spaceship-like vehicles required to win in NASCAR today. These things are hunks of technology that get tested in wind tunnels, calibrated down to milli-everything, and cost $20 million to maintain for one season. The days when you could buy some parts, screw them together, and become a hero the way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did are long gone. A sport that markets itself as blue collar is closer to America’s Cup sailing than it would like you to know.
DiBenedetto’s story is Sisyphean: Since he was 5 years old, he’s been pushing, endlessly, to get to the top of the sport he loves. He’s been bowled over and he’s tumbled down many times. But — thanks to his raw talent, dumb luck, and sheer force of will — he’ll race tomorrow night at the highest level of the sport in a car that has his name on the side. His equipment isn’t the best, and he knows there’s no way he’ll win. But just the fact that he’s made it this far, he says, is like lightning striking twice.
He can finally see the crest of the hill. The question now is whether he can make it to the top.
Sandy calls DiBenedetto her “oops baby.” When she found out she was pregnant in 1991, she and DiBenedetto’s father, Tony, were in their late 30s, already had three kids, and were running Tony’s business fixing washers and dryers. Sandy says she cried for the entire first trimester, but is quick to add that Matt’s been the best thing that ever happened to the family.
Family lore has it that Young Matt fell in love with NASCAR when he caught a glimpse of a race as his father clicked through the TV channels trying to find a baseball game. He became obsessed, watching every Sunday after that, tracking his favorite driver Jeff Burton in the No. 99 car.
DiBenedetto is telling me The Myth of Matt on Thursday night from the passenger seat of Ryan’s 2012 Ford Focus. Ryan’s driving us from his house just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, to the Richmond Raceway. Ryan always drives. DiBenedetto hates driving anything when there’s a destination. He only likes going in circles: driving race cars around tracks, doing doughnuts in parking lots, forcing ATVs up and down mounds of dirt.
Once they realized DiBenedetto was hooked on cars and there was no dissuading him, Sandy and Tony bought him a go-kart, then a modified car. DiBenedetto turned his family’s grassy backyard in Northern California into a dirt track. When he got home from school, he would drag the unwieldy garden house out to the yard so he could water, rake, and tamp down the dust of his race course. Then he’d fire up the engine of his lead sled — brap, brap, brap — and tear up all his hard work, splattering mud onto the metal of his machine as he careened around the corners he’d constructed.
DiBenedetto started winning races, then championships. People at tracks who watched him deftly maneuver the used go-karts and modified cars the DiBenedettos could afford would tell Tony and Sandy to “do something with this kid.”
So they did. When DiBenedetto was 12, the family moved to North Carolina. They wanted to be close to Charlotte, where the majority of NASCAR teams are headquartered, but the city was too big and busy for them. So they settled on Hickory, a small town about an hour outside of Charlotte that has a race track.
DiBenedetto was fresh out of Outlaw karts and just getting into racing Legends cars on local circuits by then, winning race after race at the Hickory Motor Speedway. He soon graduated to Late Models, and won lots of those, too, eventually touring up and down the East Coast.
Despite his promise, when DiBenedetto was 16 his parents realized they couldn’t afford to pay for his passion anymore. They wanted to, but it was just too darn expensive. If DiBenedetto was really as good as everyone said he was, someone — a team owner, a wealthy patron — would put him in a car, Tony believed. So he told his son he was going to sell all of his racing equipment.
A lot of families on the race circuits below NASCAR often say they’re going to get rid of everything. They’ll kvetch about it at races with other parents, saying to each other, “Oh, yeah, this year is the last.” Owning a race car is like feeding a growing teenage boy; you can’t ever put enough into one. But most of the families who threaten to quit don’t. They’ll show up the next year with a few new parts, maybe a new trailer.
Tony actually followed through. DiBenedetto came home from high school one day to find that everything was gone. His cars weren’t in their parking spots, and the truck his parents dragged the trailer behind had disappeared. The trailer was gone, too. Their little makeshift shop next to the house was empty. You’d only know someone there drove race cars because of the trophies in DiBenedetto’s room.
“It was time number one of one thousand that I thought my career was over,” DiBenedetto says. “I thought I was all done.”
DiBenedetto says his family thought they’d be able to run a team for him because they were “naive.” His parents use the word “naive,” too. They also all say “struck by lightning twice,” and Sandy and DiBenedetto list the racing equipment they sold in the same order. Tony says that if DiBenedetto ever disrespects a fan, even if he’s super old, he’ll “get out of his wheelchair and kick his ass.” DiBenedetto tells me that if he ever disrespects a fan, Tony will “get out of his wheelchair and kick my ass.”
The DiBenedettos know the script. They’ve had to tell and sell their story to countless sponsors, team owners, fans, and (more recently) journalists just to keep DiBenedetto in the sport. They schmooze, network, cold-call businesses, and market DiBenedetto — who turns himself into a human billboard whenever he puts on his fire suit splashed with sponsor’s logos — just to stay in the sport.
At this point in the story, we pull into a gas station in the middle of nowhere. DiBenedetto asks Ellis if he needs gas, and Ellis says no, we should be fine. As Ellis pays for the energy drinks and snacks he’s hoping will help him stay awake, DiBenedetto goes outside and fills up his friend’s car anyway.
We get back on the road. It’s 11:30 — we’ve been driving for close to two and a half hours, and we still have two left. That’s nothing for these guys. They’re now on a team with enough money to fly to most races, but the first time they raced together in 2014, they’d drive across the country smushed into the backseat of a van with 10 pit crew guys. They recall some of their trips, like the time they overslept and had to Uber to the racetrack in Chicago. It’s funny to imagine: two race car drivers with their helmets and fire suits in the back of some stranger’s Kia.
After Tony sold his racing equipment, DiBenedetto was rudderless for a while. But, just like Tony said they would, people started calling, offering rides. First, it was a team out of Asheville, then it was a family in Charlotte. DiBenedetto hopped in and out of different cars and put up more incredible finishes.
It was during this time that DiBenedetto won at Bristol. Then he got a call from Joe Gibbs Racing, a powerhouse team that guys like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin drive for. Gibbs had been keeping an eye on him since he beat his team in a race a few years ago. They wanted him to come in for a meeting at team headquarters in the Charlotte area.
DiBenedetto, who was 17 at the time, had no idea what to expect. He thought they just wanted to meet him, say hello, keep him on the back burner. Instead, they put a contract on the table in front of him and told him to sign if he wanted a development deal.
DiBenedetto couldn’t pick up the pen fast enough. It would be the first time that he had steady access to equipment commensurate with his talent. He started beating most of the people he raced against in one of Gibbs’ K&N cars (think minor, minor leagues of NASCAR). He was ripping up concrete tracks like he was back on the West Coast tearing through the dirt of his old backyard.
So the team bumped DiBenedetto up and put him in an Xfinity car in 2009 (think triple-A). He’d never driven one before. They’re a whole different animal from K&N cars, but that first race in the Xfinity Series was a dream come true anyway: DiBenedetto finished an impressive 14th after running second for most of it against big names like Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
The next season was a nightmare. Everything went perfectly wrong. DiBenedetto didn’t get to practice enough, and he only got to run six races. He made mistakes he says he’d be able to avoid now, but he also had a lot of bad luck, from blown tires to wrecks that weren’t his fault.
“And then, at the end of the season, another driver came in with millions of dollars,” DiBenedetto says. “I was out as quick as I was in. So again, I’m like, well, my career is over. I have nothing.”
Sandy and Tony say they’re glad the Gibbs deal didn’t work out. They think their son has stayed grounded because he’s had to fight so hard to stay in the sport since then. But DiBenedetto has a hard time truly believing that. If he’d done well, it would’ve been a fast track to a ride in one of the best Cup Series cars on the circuit. He could’ve been a household name by now.
Instead, DiBenedetto went home to Hickory. He was 19, and, feeling like he was out of options, went to work at Carillo’s Collision Repair, an auto body shop in the area.
“I wanted to blow my brains out every day,” DiBenedetto says, turning around in his seat to look at me. “Not that I was unappreciative of life or anything, I just had no passion for doing that crap. I hated it.”
DiBenedetto worked at the shop while he continued to network in the NASCAR world. He’d run some races on the weekends, but during the week he fixed normal cars that normal people drove to run normal errands. It smelled like racing — engine grease, burnt rubber, oil-soaked rags — but it was the opposite. It was standing still.
Eventually, a family-run team took a liking to DiBenedetto and let him “start and park” the worse of their son’s two Xfinity cars. This meant that DiBenedetto would qualify the car, then start the race so the owner could collect the money from simply making the field. DiBenedetto would then run a handful of laps and drop out, so as not to burn through a fresh set of wheels.
Then he’d go back to Hickory and the auto body shop.
As frustrating as it was for DiBenedetto not to be able to run full races, just being in the cars paid off. The Motorsports Group (TMG) noticed him and offered him a deal starting-and-parking. They eventually moved him into one of their Xfinity cars in 2014.
At this point in our road trip, Ellis has started interjecting more as DiBenedetto talks. He was also racing on and off for TMG at the same time DiBenedetto was, so he’s in the story now. He remembers the races, the practices, the long cross-country drives, the sponsor meetings, that DiBenedetto is telling me about.
Ellis’s grandfather built cars for Mario Andretti and died in a crash the same year Ryan’s father was born. But despite being a racing family like the Elliots, Earnhardts, or Childresses, the Ellises didn’t get rich from cars. They couldn’t fund Ryan’s career.
Ellis misses driving more than he’s willing to admit. When a few fans recognize him at the track over the course of the weekend he lights up, thrilled to sign their cards and hats. What Ellis doesn’t miss is the cutthroat side of the sport. Last year, he kept getting bought out of races by richer, younger, and less experienced drivers who come from family money (we’re talking serious money, here: NASCAR drivers are the sons of Vegas casino owners, heads of agricultural lobbies, owners of airlines). It was the same thing that happened to DiBenedetto at Gibbs.
“I became emotionless,” says Ellis, who dropped out of college two classes shy of a marketing degree to drive full time. “Literally. I felt like I was just a zombie. When I’d get bumped from another race, I’d be like, ‘Oh, well that sucks, I’m going to hang myself again.’ I don’t blame the teams, it makes sense for them. But you just become numb.”
He’s glad to finally have a steady paycheck working for Matt. And if it can’t be him, at least his best friend is the one who got one more lucky break than he did. When someone he knows bumps into Ellis bumps at the track and asks what he’s up to now that he’s not racing, he tells her, “I’m living Matt’s dream.”
Despite the fact that DiBenedetto drove well for TMG, the team dropped him at the end of 2014. Thinking it was all over for the umpteenth time, but refusing to quit, DiBenedetto kept calling, emailing, and taking team owners out to dinner trying to schmooze his way back in. He says he even drove eight hours to show up at the Daytona 500 uninvited to convince a team called BK Racing to give him a chance. It worked, and he ran some races for them starting in 2015. Last year, he drove to a sixth-place finish at Bristol, his lucky track. The cars weren’t great, but BK eventually gave DiBenedetto a proper crew chief — a surly guy named Gene — and a dedicated crew that worked on only his ride.
At the end of 2016, DiBenedetto signed with GoFas Racing. A family named St. Hillaire owns the team — they made their fortune running garbage removal and port-a-potty businesses in Maine. GoFas was doing poorly every week, and wanted to be better. DiBenedetto — handsome, talented, personable, available — seemed like the perfect guy to drive their No. 32 car.
DiBenedetto says that everyone thought he was crazy to sign with GoFas. Gene told the St. Hillaire’s, to their face, that their cars were “junk.” But DiBenedetto believed if he could turn a low-budget program around, maybe the owners of the best teams would finally consider him. Maybe the big-time sponsors would come calling. Maybe the NASCAR world would realize he wasn’t going away.
So far, he seems to be doing it. In used equipment and almost no time, DiBenedetto has taken the team to its best finishes ever, including two in the top 10. He came in ninth at the Daytona 500 and eighth in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis — two of NASCAR’s biggest races. GoFas has improved from 38th to 31st in the owners points standings.
The problem is that a whole lot of money still separates DiBenedetto from where he is now and the chance of winning a Cup race. This weekend at Richmond, a finish close to the top 20 would be GoFas’s version of coming in first.
But 20th isn’t first. DiBenedetto’s best still won’t earn him a trophy, and it drives him insane.
On Saturday night at Richmond, DiBenedetto comes in 31st.
The bright floodlights of the raceway glint off the advertisements on the hood of his car as he pulls into the pits. His fenders are scraped up, and the track smells like burning rubber and gasoline fumes. When DiBenedetto takes his helmet off and climbs out of the car, his usually perfect hair is poking up and matted down in various places. He’s a little pale. His lips looked chapped.
“We sucked,” he says.
Ellis and DiBenedetto are driving to back to Charlotte tonight because they want to sleep in their own beds rather than the cramped bunks of Willie’s old bus. Ellis will drive, that is. DiBenedetto will probably fall asleep in the passenger seat after about 45 minutes. But before they can hit the road — before DiBenedetto can even change out of his fire suit — he has to go talk to the sponsors he’s been shepherding around the track all weekend.
These sponsors are wealthy, but they’re not giving DiBenedetto enough for him to finally end up in a car as good as he is. For that to happen, DiBenedetto needs to convince a huge corporation to back him, or find many more smaller businesses that want to slap their logos onto his body. He has no choice. In NASCAR, marketing is as much a sport as the driving itself. Even though DiBenedetto signed for another year with GoFas, it all still feels precarious.
Most people like DiBenedetto — including Ellis — have given up the dream of driving. In Ellis’s car on Thursday, both of them joked that the most talented driver in the country is probably driving a tractor somewhere. But racing cars is DiBenedetto’s only passion. His stubborn optimism makes him think that maybe someday his skill, dogged ambition, and charisma will be enough. Despite the many times he’s seen evidence that it might not be. The dang world just isn’t fair.
“All I can do is turn left,” he says.
Since DiBenedetto was 16, people have been asking him what he’ll do if this all falls apart. He’s never had an answer, and even thinking about it is terrifying. He keeps straining against that boulder, believing he will get it over that hill. Somebody has to make it, and DiBenedetto refuses to accept that he might not be the guy who does.
Except that it’s not up to him. He’s reminded weekly, thanks to the leaderboard, exactly how far away he is from becoming the face of NASCAR. His story is familiar and deeply American; he wasn’t born with the right last name, or the correct amount of zeros in his bank account, and no matter now hard he pushes his foot down on the pedal of that No. 32 car, it won’t be enough, not unless something changes.
DiBenedetto finally takes off his sweaty suit and puts on a T-shirt and shorts. He and Ellis say goodbye to the sponsors, the team, and DiBenedetto’s parents. They duck into the media center to grab some free pizza before they head back to Ellis’s car.
I retrieve my bag from where I left it on the counter of the GoFas hauler and bump into Curtis, one of the guys on DiBenedetto’s team. He’s older, tall, with a big, white beard, broad shoulders, and a sizable belly. Curtis loves NASCAR. His parents used to carry him to races before he could walk. Working on cars is the only job he’s ever had.
“I can’t imagine doing anything different,” Curtis says. “They’ll be carrying my cold, dead carcass out of here.”