DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Leavine Family Racing is a true testament on how to just survive long enough in the NASCAR Cup Series and good things may happen. LFR came into the Cup Series as a part-time team on a limited budget. They’d run four races in 2011, 15 in 2012 and 20 more in 2013 with a different driver each season.
Then, in 2014, LFR signed Michael McDowell and went for stability. McDowell, ran 35 races over two combined seasons in 2014 and 2015. Then, they’d run 31 races in 2016 in which they started making progress.
In 2017, they’d go full time and McDowell competed in all 36 points paying races for them. For 2018, they’d find an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports and have Kasey Kahne come over and drive for them.
That’s really where things got kick started even further. See, Toyota needed an alliance and needed one quick. They have too many young drivers coming up through the ranks with no where to house them. Joe Gibbs Racing is maxed out with four drivers and none of those four look to be going anywhere.
So, for 2019, Matt DiBenedetto came over and LFR had a career year. In the offseason, LFR further got closer with Toyota and became a further extension with JGR and got handed Christopher Bell as a result.
This is an equivalent to what Furniture Row Racing was. That team went from underfunded, to almost out of the Cup Series to a championship caliber organization when moved into this role to out of money and back out of the series for 2019 and beyond.
LFR has some high hopes this season but knows that it will take a lot to catch up to JGR for this season and further.
“How do we compete with these guys?” Leavine said of JGR. “We really can’t. We want to be part of and add to the Toyota success. When somebody puts a standard of 19 wins in one season, that’s really tough to compete with.”
Leavine, is ecstatic to get a driver of Bell’s nature in their organization and points to an example this week at Daytona to why this marriage could be a race winning one.
“We’re really tickled about Christopher being in our car this year,” Leavine continued. “He’s an exciting young talent, one of the most driven young men that I’ve seen in years. We watched him closely the last two years. Even from practice on Friday and then Saturday, to watch him grow, and then in the Duels following Thursday, it’s exciting.
“When I walked in the trailer this morning, he was in watching those films, and we had correlated the spotter’s voice and SMT and the video where he could look at it because he texted me after the Duels and said, “I can do better.” I made some mistakes, and I can do better. I really like that. So that’s the type of young man that we went because that’s been LFR’s — we want to do better, continue to do better. We want to help contribute to Toyota winning another manufacturer championship.
“Do we want to contribute the wins? Absolutely. I don’t predict those things. We’re going to be competitive. He’s excited about the cars he got when we qualified. We were in the middle of our other Toyota teammates, and that was exciting to him and exciting to us. So you know, that’s our expectations, to help be there, help in the superspeedway races with JGR and those four cars, us being the fifth, and so being a good partner is what we anticipate doing this year.”
Leavine said that despite being with top equipment now, he doesn’t seem himself as making it yet.
“Not yet. We hope to. It’s been progressing because this is our first year for full-time, and we have gradually progressed, and last year with Toyota and TRD and Coach Gibbs, we raised our level with Matt driving the car, and this year we feel like we’ve done it again. So you know, expectations I don’t like to put out there, but yeah, we do have higher expectations, and it’s enjoyable.
“Probably my internal feelings, last year I kind of hoped our car was going to be good enough, and a lot of times it was. A lot of times bad things happened.
“This year, I expect our cars to be good enough. You know, you never know what’s going to happen here, but I also know our guys are great in the shop over the five years or more we put them together, and we really just got two adds this year, Christopher and Jason. Everybody else remained the same, and they did a great job last year. So I have confidence in those guys. We’ve raised our level of performance and expectations and information and cars, so that will help. So knowing when we get to the track what we ought to expect, and then if we don’t get that when we arrive, I know these guys in the front of the lounge will get us there, and that’s a little different feeling.
“Big-time, no. We’re just a single-car team, and we like that underdog role. It’s enjoyable doing that because it’s tough on him when he wins 19 races, because where can you go. Winning 19 is tough. So it’s a lot of stress there. We haven’t won yet, so when we get that one with Christopher, I’m sure we’ll start adding up, but I welcome that stress.”
It’s far from where LFR started. Leavine, remembers a time when they first started where they were so far off, they had to park their hauler outside of the track instead of inside of it.
“I can remember I think our first race at Bristol we parked outside because — we didn’t have a tent over us, and the most thing I was excited about when I looked at the map that NASCAR sent us is we were next to the restrooms. I’m just like, that’s pretty cool. When you’re way over here, you’ve got a long way to go. Some of us are getting a little older and use it more often, so that was a plus. And in fact, I think Jeremy, our president, called me; did you look where our hauler is? Yeah, isn’t that cool? Next to the restroom. No, that isn’t what I meant. Yeah, it’s kind of nice to be on that side because we can get out quicker to the track.
“It’s a good feeling. I can remember last year, year before last when Case was with us, he was used to a lot of people coming around his hauler, and we were in the back of the garage, and he was sitting outside of me, and he said, man, I really like this, nobody is bothering me. I’m like, dude, we’re trying to get people to bother you. We’re not trying to run people away.
“So we like that — we like our drivers to be popular and like guys to know, and it’s a good feeling. Yes, it is.”
If Bell does what he’s capable of, LFR will be even more popular in 2020.