You couldn't blame Matt DiBennedetto for feeling like he had been a punching bag as he arrived in Bristol last week. He had been jabbed at for a month about his future at Leavine Family Racing when they slugged him a few days before the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, knocking him out of the 95 car next season.

Although orchestrated by Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to find space to move Christopher Bell up to Cup in 2020, it was a stinging blow.  It was especially hard for DiBennedetto to take it on the chin like that when he begun to put together some consistent runs, finishes he thought would eventually lead to his and the team's first win on stock car racing's top series.  

Then, the bell rang at Bristol and DiBennedetto walked out to the theme of "Rocky" loudly cracklingly through Thunder Valley. Dressed like the "Italian Stallion", the 28-year-old had boxing gloves on and was clearly ready to rumble.

We all know the rest of the story, like the first movie with Sylvester Stallone, DiBennedetto stayed in the fight right up until the 15th and final round when Denny Hamlin scored a late knockout, taking the lead with only 12 laps to go.

Leading a race high 93 laps, DiBennedetto would finish a career-best second as Hamlin apologetically went to victory lane for the fourth time this year.  "When I was marching through the field, I was hoping that somebody would pass him so that I didn't take the win away," explained Hamlin. "I knew I was going to get him. I was just thinking, there's a lot of people at home and a lot of people in the stands that probably don't want to see this happen but it's going to happen."

So, Hamlin became the Grinch who stole Christmas and DiBennedetto admitted in the closing laps, with the win slipping away, he felt like he was going to die. " With two to go I was screaming in the car. The pain was like being stabbed a hundred times in the chest," he confessed.

When the California driver climbed from his Toyota, his eyes had tears. His face was that of a man who clearly had his heart broken and not just that one time. The ache etched across his mug at first was hard to watch. "When I got out of the car and fans are screaming and cheering for us, I lost it. I couldn't even hold it together," DiBennedetto said.

Then, however, the continuous roar from the crowd, reacting with thunderous approval to everything he said, you could see it beginning to ease the hurt.

The big question is now what's next for "Mattie D"? "It is a tough business at times," said Hamlin during his post-race interview. "But Matt is doing a phenomenal job of showing his resume in front of everyone. He doesn't need to type it out, he's going out there and performing and will land as good or better on his feet. I am certain of it."

While on the air and still in the booth, both Doug Rice and I wondered if Hamlin had some inside information we didn't know about. Was there something else going on already that would allow DiBennedetto to find a ride capable of giving him a chance to win? He's collected five top-10s and three top-five finishes in the last nine races.  Where is he going to find another team as good or better than Leavine Family Racing is operating at right now under the large umbrella that is Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota.

Roger Penske would be a move up, but there's no apparent desire to start a fourth team. Rick Hendrick has all four rides currently covered as does Stewart-Haas Racing.  Kurt Busch has made Chip Ganassi Racing much stronger, but, again, I see no desire to add on. All the other teams could be viewed, at best, as a step sideways or maybe a half-step or more backwards.

With David Ragan retiring Front Row Motorsports will likely be interested in DiBennedetto's services. They're getting more help from Ford and could, in the next year or two, step up to the next tier just below the "big boys", given themselves a chance to shine just as Leavine Family Racing is right now.

Whoever he winds up with get a ton of good will dropped on their front porch.  Everyone loves an underdog and America has a new one to cheer for.  

All we can do now is for the next Hollywood ending. In "Rocky 2", the title is captured and the battle won. I can't think of anyone, anywhere who wouldn't give that a standing ovation if it turned out to be Matt DiBennedetto's story. 

DiBennedetto is hungry to make that a reality. He has the eye of the tiger and has truly turned into NASCAR's Rocky Balboa.