Coming to the end of Sunday’s (April 25) Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Matt DiBenedetto found himself in familiar territory: Up front towards the end of a superspeedway race.
But as the checkered flag waved, the No. 21 team was oh so close yet again.
“It’s tough, but it’s just all so circumstantial,” DiBenedetto said post race. “We talked about it a lot before the race and it’s tough. Our day will come. It’s hard to come so close to so many of these things.”
DiBenedetto began the 500-miler from 13th position, though quickly drove to the front with the help of his affiliate Team Penske teammates. Come lap 60, it was the No. 21 Ford that was in the lead when Joey Logano went airborne, flipping end over end. With the field being frozen at the last scoring loop, DiBenedetto captured the stage victory, the first of his career.
In the second stage, DiBenedetto remained competitive, running up front throughout most of the stage. But he dropped to 17th on the final lap, when Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. got together, creating a six-car pileup.
During the final third of the race is where DiBenedetto shined, taking the lead from Erik Jones on lap 177. With the race becoming single file around the top, the No. 21 was ahead of Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski. Then, a caution flew on lap 186 for a tire carcass laying on the track, off the right front of Truex.
On the overtime restart, DiBenedetto, as the leader, elected to take the bottom lane, ahead of Keselowski. The No. 21 car led the pack until he moved up to block Blaney coming to the white flag, with the No. 2 car soaring ahead of DiBenedetto off the front bumper of Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell. While the bottom line formed, the No. 21 Ford went up to block the top. When the checkers flew, DiBenedetto was scored fifth.
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“It was a solid day, take a top five and had a stage win, so that’s great,” DiBenedetto added after climbing from his car. “Our car led great. Our Penske teammates did an excellent job helping us get that stage win, so that was huge. Big credit to them and big for our points situation, so just a tough ending.
“I jumped up in front of Ryan and he kind of got spit out and hung out and some people were grabbing his quarter panel and such.”
Last fall at Talladega, DiBenedetto was in a similar position. On the final lap, the California native was out front, taking the checkered flag in second to Hamlin. But NASCAR ruled the No. 21 car forced William Byron below the yellow line, resulting in a penalty (finishing 21st).
But DiBenedetto said he learned how to manage races better, stemming from last October’s near miss.
DiBenedetto stated, “We’ve actually gotten better at our race craft and I think also it’s a big credit to not only my spotter (Doug Campbell) and us working hard on that stuff and watching film and studying, but it’s a big credit to my Penske teammates. I’m not just saying that. It really is because they’re so good — Brad, Joey and Ryan are so good at these plate races at their race craft.”
Going into the last lap this time around, DiBenedetto wasn’t sure if he was in the best position as the leader.
“I was kind of 50/50 on that,” he said. “Being the leader is tough and I never feel good at Talladega until we cross the line winning it because so much can happen.”
The good news for DiBenedetto is, he scored 42 points, the most he’s earned in a single race since last July at Kentucky Speedway (43). The No. 21 team also secured a playoff point and cut its deficit to just 12 markers below the playoff cutline, currently held by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher.
The bad news is, another near miss towards that coveted first Cup Series triumph.
“We’re in position to win and I know that if we keep doing that, like I said, our day will definitely come,” DiBenedetto said. “And pertaining to this race specifically, I’ll drive myself crazy if I just look back at it, replay exactly what happened and will never let myself live it down.
“We had a stage win and a good day, and I know that although my career has consisted of a lot of heartbreaks our day will come, so I don’t look at it in a negative way.”
The Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway next weekend, where DiBenedetto has a best finish of 12th in 12 starts.