“Our day will come.” The refrain from Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday was a familiar one, this time coming after a split-second scramble at the front of a Talladega Superspeedway pack that left his No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford just on the fringe of a Victory Lane visit.
DiBenedetto led the next-to-last lap and the 13 circuits that came before it as Sunday’s GEICO 500 pushed into overtime. His move to block the advances of an ally in Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney as the white flag unfurled, however, opened the low lane for Penske’s Brad Keselowski to methodically surge ahead for his sixth Talladega win.
DiBenedetto settled for fifth place in the frenzied final-lap shuffle, gathering a season-best finish to help soothe a rough start to the 2021 Cup Series campaign. But he still wound up just shy of his first big-league victory after the 222nd start of his journeyman career.
“I think as I get older my perspective on a lot of things gets better,” said DiBenedetto, who remained upbeat after the defeat, “so the way I look at it is, yeah, it’s disappointing to come close so many times, not just today because this is Talladega and a lot of things happen that’s crazy, but to come close — a lot of my career has consisted of a lot of that and some heartbreaks and it’s tough. The way that I look at it is I focus on what’s in my control and focus on the positives. I’m driving fast cars. We’re in position to win and I know that if we keep doing that, like I said, our day will definitely come.”
DiBenedetto led his first 28 laps of the season Sunday, gathering his first stage win and establishing himself as a contender along with his affiliated Team Penske compatriots. After a final-stage pit cycle, he shook out as a leader again in the late going and by the time the field assembled for the final restart, DiBenedetto had reinforcements lined up behind him — two Penske stablemates in Blaney and Keselowski as Ford drivers owned the top six spots.
He abandoned the bottom lane heading to the white flag, pulling in front of Blaney on the top side. But changing horses and stemming that charge left Keselowski free to fill the gap on the low side. When the top lane became disorganized, the late rooting and gouging for finishing positions intensified and DiBenedetto’s help in the aerodynamic draft evaporated.
“I’ll drive myself crazy if I just look back at it, replay exactly what happened and will never let myself live it down,” DiBenedetto said of the late jumble. “We did the best job we can. Circumstances are crazy, especially with how big the runs are and all that, so it’s nothing to beat ourselves up over. 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.”
At stake Sunday was also a landmark victory for the venerable Wood Brothers team, which remains at 99 Cup Series victories all time. DiBenedetto is in his final season in the Woods’ No. 21 Mustang; he’ll make way for Xfinity Series champ Austin Cindric’s rookie campaign in 2022.
DiBenedetto has come close before, finishing second in both Las Vegas Motor Speedway races last season and clinching an emotional runner-up effort in his last blast for Leavine Family Racing in Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race in 2019. After starting this season with three finishes outside the top 25, he has righted the ship with six straight efforts in the top 15, including two consecutive top-10 results. That first victory, however, remains on the horizon.
“Matt D. is an incredibly talented guy. He’s not going to have to wait as long as I did to win a race, I can promise you that,” said Michael McDowell, who finished a strong third Sunday and broke his own 0-for-357 skid by winning this year’s Daytona 500. “He’s up front so much in these races, not just at the speedways, but he has a great team behind him. He will get to Victory Lane. The biggest thing is not getting down and discouraged, and building. …
“But he’s been doing so well. He will win a race. He is a great guy, has a lot of heart. He fights hard. That’s the thing, you got to fight hard. You got to want it and fight hard. He’s got that.”