SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford did not look like a top-five car at the conclusion of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.
The initial race start was not kind to DiBenedetto, who rear-ended another car going into Turn 1, leaving the left-front fender mangled. Later in the race, heavy contact with the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Christopher Bell knocked the toe out of the steering and levied significant damage to the side of the car.
Although it was a little more than bear bond could fix, crew chief Jonathan Hassler used pit strategy to salvage the day, electing for DiBenedetto to stay out longer than other competitors during the final round of green-flag stops with the hopes of better track position if a late caution fell.
A series of cautions in the closing laps due to incidents related to curbing issues in Turn 6 were a blessing for the 21 team, leading to a fifth-place finish when the checkered flag finally flew — his first top five in 13 races (since a fourth-place finish at Kansas in May).
“I’ll take a top five after the craziness and we had not a whole lot of a race car left. … You name it, we had it, somehow,” DiBenedetto told NASCAR.com. “That’s a testament to Jonathan Hassler, my crew chief, the whole team for fighting and not giving up. That incredible strategy of knowing that if anything happened, we would gain track position by staying out really long and it works. That’s team effort.”
The top-five showing extends his recent streak of consistent results, finishing 11th or better the past five races.
Currently 18th in the playoff standings, 145 points below the cutline, DiBenedetto knows the team needs a win in order to make the playoffs with two races remaining in the regular season. As his job search continuesfor next year, DiBenedetto is satisfied with the positive trajectory the team has taken, albeit a bit tardy.
RELATED: Key players in Silly Season
“Our worst runs have been 11th. Every week we’ve been running up in the top 10,” DiBenedetto said. “It just shows how much our team has clicked. Obviously, I wish it all happened sooner, but we’re showing where our team’s at and what we can do when everybody’s clicking like we are.”
The recent stretch of finishes began at Road America in July, earning a 10th-place finish. DiBenedetto feels like his road-course prowess has always been strong, but he always needed the backing of a solid car and team to accompany it.
“… You’re only as good as what you’re riding in, so it’s a testament to the team because, really, that (road-course racing) was the weakest part of our program for a while,” DiBenedetto said. “We kept communicating, talking about what we needed and how to get better and better.”
With Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway serving as the last two stops before the postseason begins, DiBenedetto is optimistic. He finished seventh in the second race of a doubleheader at Michigan last year. A more efficiently run team will only improve his chances at a first career victory this Sunday.
Despite an unknown future, confidence is higher for DiBenedetto at the moment.
“We’ve eliminated a lot of weaknesses as a team,” DiBenedetto said. “We’ve gotten better everywhere. … we can do great things when we’re all on the same page.”