By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto scored a much needed third-place finish in Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway after restarting in eighth with two laps remaining.
The wild restart saw DiBenedetto giving tremendous push on Cole Custer, gaining some spots along the way. That exact push into Turn 1 played a pivotal role towards the 22-year-old’s sudden charge and mesmerizing four-wide pass for the race win on the last lap.
With the race win was unfolding in front of DiBenedetto, he had a battle of his own as he was just taking fifth away from Brad Keselowski.
The leaders were beating and banging, hurting both Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney the most. The contact resulted Harvick having a massive tire rub while Blaney faded away towards a sixth-place finish. DiBenedetto successfully went by both drivers and captured his first top-five since his runner-up finish at Las Vegas back in February.
“Man, it was crazy. We had a really good car. I mean, we could have contended for the win,” DiBenedetto on the finish. “It was really fast, but lost track position when things shuffled around and we had to do the wave around.”
The lost of track position could’ve ruined a superb outing as DiBenedetto’s No. 21 Menards/Quaker State Ford Mustang ran inside top-10 throughout the 267-lap race.
During the first two stages, DiBenedetto finished fourth and ninth respectively, collecting nine stage points. Those points were vital to his afternoon as consistency has been hard to come by as DiBenedetto only finished in the top-1o three times since the season resumed at Darlington two months ago.
The biggest adversity occurred late in the race when he cautions breed cautions that impacted the days of Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. At one point, DiBenedetto was shown in the 18th position with just seven laps remaining and looked like a shot for a top-10 was gone.
In typical DiBenedetto fashion and a boost from spotter Doug Campbell, he preserved and used those restarts to his advantage and while he would’ve loved to score his maiden Cup Series victory, he’s content with a top-five result.
“I told (Doug) we should win some sort of restart award,” said DiBenedetto. “This is a big race for us having the Menards/Quaker State Ford Mustang in the Quaker State 400. I wish we could have won it, but circumstances didn’t work out. We’ll take a strong finish and a really fast car.”
DiBenedetto commented that he didn’t have much of a choice but push Custer since both were on the outside lane. That in mind, he still ended up praising Custer when it comes to clutch moments as he became the 33rd driver to win in all three NASCAR national touring series.
“Cole is always a smart racer. He’s one of those guys, even though he’s a rookie, he doesn’t make silly moves. He puts himself usually in pretty good spots,” DiBenedetto on Custer.
“When we restarted, we made a pretty big power move on the restart before that. I got a good restart. I was curious basically what he was going to do. When he pulled to the top, I was like, Yeah, that was a good move right there.
“I just decided to shove him since I couldn’t go around him on the outside. Time to push the heck out of him, see how far we can shove him up there. Helped him to get to the win. I joked with him and told me he owes me a hundred bucks (laughter). No, he did a great job. Really proud of him.”
After 17 races, DiBenedetto sits 12th in the regular season standings. However, with Custer being 20th in points following his Kentucky win, it moves DiBenedetto down to 13th in the playoff grid. He’ll head to Texas Motor Speedway with a 68-point cushion over Austin Dillon as the battle for a playoff spot continues to heat up.
“The way that I look at it is we had a lot to work on as a team. We’re a new group working together this year,” said DiBenedetto. “We’ve been building. We’ve had a lot of speed most everywhere we’ve went. Have to work on our execution, communication, things like that.
“It’s all the team, my crew chief Greg (Erwin). Our engineers really are the ones that deserve the credit for us going so fast today, having that good of a car. Think of it, no practice, nothing, all we adjusted today was tiny, tiny air pressure adjustments. When you start that close, have that good of a racecar and team around you, it makes my job a lot easier.”
Live coverage of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 commences on Sunday, July 19 at 3:00 p.m. EST on NBCSN. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner.