LAS VEGAS — While it wasn’t the long-awaited 100th win for Wood Brothers Racing that he hoped for, Matt DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was important in other ways.
His run to second was part audition, considering DiBenedetto is reportedly required to be notified this week whether his contract option will be picked up for 2021. It was also part confidence-rebuilder, after a disappointing three-week stretch knocked him out of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in round one.
“This was big. Much needed for our team, for sure,” DiBenedetto told reporters after the race. “I’m proud of the effort and the team. This shows the strength that we’ve had. We’ve had the speed and the strength as a team, so it was tough to have a (rough) run first round in the playoffs because I knew that we had and have the speed as a team to really contend for wins. We showed it tonight and we have a lot of really strong tracks coming up. But we have a lot to race for the rest of the season, a lot of positions and points, and tonight was just an example of the frustrating luck we’ve had recently.
“It’s not all luck, but we just had a couple races that weren’t good ones for us where we missed it a little bit with no practice and such in 2020,” DiBenedetto continued. “We had rough luck at Bristol. We cut a tire down at the end when we had rebounded from three laps down. We got on a little streak of just some rough luck, but Vegas is just one example of the speed and strength that we have as a team.”
DIBenedetto snagged the lead by virtue of being on pit road when a perfectly timed debris caution waved with 32 laps left. He beat the pace car off pit road after completing his stop and stayed out when the remaining cars on the lead lap pitted for tires and fuel.
Though he took control of the race at that point, DiBenedetto couldn’t hold off a hard-charging Kurt Busch when the green flag waved with 25 laps to go. Busch dropped DiBenedetto back to second at that point, and the Grass Valley, Calif., driver had to restart on the less preferred inside lane afterward.
Though DiBenedetto did all he could to catch Busch and challenge on two more restarts in the waning laps — including one in overtime — he just couldn’t overcome the momentum Busch had in the high groove.
“We had the lead and we chose the outside and we lost control of the lead; (Kurt Busch) got a good push and it got him the lead. I thought to myself, ‘Oh man, this is tough,’ because I knew the remaining restarts he had a really big advantage on us as far as our differences in gear ratios,” DiBenedetto explained. “Kurt is a smart guy. He’s a veteran and I knew he was going to play his strengths to his advantage and do the right things on the restarts to maximize his deal.
“But yeah, that hurt us, and it made it tough for the rest of the race,” DiBenedetto added. “I know my (corporate) teammate, Ryan Blaney, tried to push me on that last one — I appreciate that — but we had a car that if it was out in clean air, we definitely could have won. I’m just proud that we had a shot at it.”
Sunday marked DiBenedetto’s second-straight runner-up finish in Sin City, following a similar effort in February. He refused to take any of the credit, however, turning the nod back in the direction of his No. 21 Ford Mustang team.
“The credit all goes to my team. It’s the fast Ford (No.) 21 car, the Wood Brothers, this team, our alliance with Team Penske, Roush Yates engines, all that stuff. I was just lucky enough to hop behind the wheel of this thing, and it goes fast. It’s not me,” DiBenedetto noted. “My job is just to always take whatever I’m sitting in and make the most of it and drive it as fast as it’ll go, and when they go as fast as it did here, we can contend for the win. It wasn’t an easy race; we had to work on it throughout the race. Greg Erwin had to make really good adjustments and we didn’t have to stick any wrenches in the window, so that makes it easy. My pit crew kept us up toward the front all night. It was all those things combined.
“It just goes to show how this is a true, total team sport and you’re nothing without all the guys around you and the equipment you’re sitting in.”
Knowing his performance is trending up again, DiBenedetto is optimistic about his future, even though he’s unsure at this point whether that will be with the Wood Brothers or back on the job hunt.
One thing is certain, however. If it were solely up to DiBenedetto, he’d stay in a heartbeat.
“I feel like the Wood Brothers are an amazing family, and you can tell they ooze confidence in me, and that’s such an amazing feeling,” he said. “It’s the same with Team Penske and our alliance with them. I can feel that everyone has confidence in me and our team and knows we’re only going to continue to get much better. So I don’t feel much (worry) on that side. I think it’s more just a lot of logistics and things that they’re really trying to work out to get everything, hopefully, set for next year … because I want to drive for this team for a long time to come.
“I love driving for the Woods. I would hope and expect to be back with them.”