By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega was déjà vu all over again for Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team.
In a repeat of the race last Fall at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, DiBenedetto was leading on the final lap in overtime only to see another driver snatch victory from his grasp, leaving him wondering what else he could have done to turn the tide in his favor to finally break through and win a NASCAR Cup Series race.
DiBenedetto was a constant fixture at the front of the field on Sunday, leading five times for 28 laps, including a win in Stage 1. Taking the lead for the final time on lap 177, he was in a familiar position up front, trying to keep his Ford at the top of the leaderboard throughout the final run to the checkers.
Despite DiBenedetto being in the catbird seat as the laps wound down with a convoy of Fords behind him, the carcass of a tire from Martin Truex, Jr’s car came off and was resting in the tri-oval, forcing NASCAR to throw the caution. As they say, that changed everything.
The caution pushed the race into overtime, with DiBenedetto and Brad Keselowski lining up on the bottom lane, while Ryan Blaney took the top lane with Kevin Harvick behind him to push on the ensuing restart.
DiBenedetto and Keselowski got the early jump on the restart, but their draft broke apart off Turn 2, allowing Blaney and Harvick to charge ahead momentarily. All hope was not lost as Keselowski came back to DiBenedetto’s rear bumper down the backstretch with a head of steam, pushing the duo back out front.
The push from Keselowski gave DiBenedetto some separation from the rest of the field, leaving him to have to make a choice, stay on the bottom with Keselowski or move up top and jump in front of Ryan Blaney, who had won two of the last three Talladega races.
DiBenedetto made the choice to move up in front of Blaney as the field crossed the line to take the white flag and from there, his fate was sealed.
The low lane with Keselowski, Michael McDowell, and Harvick had the momentum over he and Blaney, but DiBenedetto held steady as the field headed down the backstretch for the final time, staying even with Keselowski as Blaney tried to regain the lost track position between he and DiBenedetto.
It looked as if DiBenedetto and Blaney would have help from Tyler Reddick to strengthen the top lane, but Reddick attempted to pass Blaney instead of helping push, causing the draft between them to fall apart, leaving DiBenedetto without sufficient assistance to fend off Keselowski and the others.
DiBenedetto would wind up crossing the line in fifth, while his drafting partner at the start of overtime, Keselowski, won the race, taking home his sixth win at Talladega and tying himself with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on the track’s all-time wins list.
“Oh, man. You say that after every one of these races,” DiBenedetto said of whether he’d do the same if he had the final lap to do over again. “It’s tough, but it’s just all so circumstantial. We talked about it a lot before the race and it’s tough. Our day will come. I’m just lucky to drive this thing and have the support from everybody. The fans, they are so awesome.
“Driving for the Wood Brothers is really a dream come true. Gosh, it’s hard to come so close to so many of these things. The Fords are so fast. They believe in me, the whole Ford camp. They do an excellent job. The Mustangs are great. Motorcraft, Quick Lane, Menards and all of our vendor partners, I tell you that because all those people believed in me and I love what I do. Our day will come. We’ll get there. I just appreciate the support from everybody.”
Though he comes away without a win once again, DiBenedetto noted that he was not going to let the disappointment of the finish override his feelings of bringing home his best result of the season after such a strong run.
“I think as I get older my perspective on a lot of things gets better, 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 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 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.”