NASCAR Richmond Auto Racing

Matt DiBenedetto, left, and Gray Gaulding wave to the crowd during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., on Sunday, April 30, 2017. 

Matt DiBenedetto became an instant cult hero with his career-best run in Saturday’s Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Now for the rest of the story.

After following the underdog narrative on national television, many NASCAR fans took to social media and satellite radio to attack car owner Bob Leavine for deciding to part ways with DiBenedetto next season on the Leavine Family Racing team

The DiBenedetto army, which apparently formed overnight, praised their man as a championship caliber driver deserving of an elite ride.

Leavine was cast as a misguided, Scrooge-like figure. Other characterizations where much worse.

Hold on.

Where were all these compassionate and intelligent fans when scores of independently-owned Xfinity and Truck series teams were forced to close due to a lack of sponsorship? What about all the drivers and crewmen who lost jobs then?

As the top three levels of NASCAR were being downsized, the pleas and stories of team were owners were ignored on network television broadcasts. Instead, fans were treated to public relations fluff pieces on the same five Cup superstars.

DiBenedetto, 28, certainly deserve praise for his near-flawless effort on one of the toughest tracks in motorsports. He executed difficult passes, weaved through lapped traffic and held the lead for a race-high 93 laps.

Despite the heartbreak of losing the race to Denny Hamlin, DiBenedetto displayed grace and humility in post-race interviews and interactions with fans.

The California native, who followed his father into racing, once competed in the UARA-Stars series which competed at regional tracks like Kingsport Speedway.

DiBenedetto paid his dues to attain a ride at the top level of NASCAR, but his story is no different than other drivers who have dealt with the harsh realities of a sport that is ruled by a handful of mega-teams.

The DiBenedetto saga illustrates the power and danger of social media, where folks receive news in 140-character segments or through industry-driven websites in the case of NASCAR.

One wonders how many fans had actually read about the dilemma that Leavine faced before making judgments based off a one-sided television production. One must also wonder how many fans even knew who DiBenedetto was before Saturday.

As the laps clicked down and DiBenedetto continued his pursuit of history, the Twittersphere was abuzz with excited followers engaged in groupthink. The messages took on the tone of an American Idol episode where viewers cheer for a contestant whose persona had been carefully molded by scriptwriters.

The real story, which has been detailed by real journalists, is not as simple. Leavine, a Tampa native who owns WRL General Contractors, has sponsored Xfinity and Truck teams and has a passion for the sport.

Before last week, the 75-year-old Leavine was viewed as a hero by some members of the racing community for his honesty and insight into the challenges of owning a NASCAR team.

By deciding to change drivers for financial reasons, Leavine has done nothing different than the dozens of other team owners in a sport where the pay-to-play method is common.

And DiBenedetto has done nothing wrong by promoting himself through social media and television appearances. During driver introductions Saturday, DiBenedetto donned boxing gloves and a robe emblazed with the “Italian Stallion.”

In 164 career Cup starts, DiBenedetto has three top-five finishes. His best track has been Bristol Motor Speedway, so his strong run Saturday was not shocking.

No doubt, DiBenedetto left the BMS stage as the people’s champion. But there was more to this story than a star search TV show.

agregory@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544

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