By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Shattered dreams and a wad of junked cars surrounded the garage area after an 21-car crash on Lap 191 brought out the first of two red flags during Sunday’s 61st Daytona 500.
Heading into Turn 3, Matt DiBenedetto, who led a race-high 49 laps, was running in fourth when contact by Paul Menard caused a wicked ripple effect that went from a fierce and clean race, to an absolute barn burner.
As cars tried to avoid the mess, some weren’t as fortunate including Aric Almirola, who’s car landed on top of David Ragan while others plowed into them on the top groove.
Almirola said he didn’t have a car quite as strong as last year’s race, where he was two turns away from victory, and by being taken out of the race, it just further built the heartbreak.
“Last year, taking the white flag with the lead with emotions high and feeling like you have a great shot to win was worse,” said Almirola. “Tonight, we were about 10th or 12th and with 10 laps to go, a lot can play out, a lot can happen. It didn’t feel like we were as close right there. Still disappointing.
“You never wanna come down here and wreck out of the Daytona 500. You want a shot in the final closing laps. Unfortunately, we weren’t in the right position tonight.”
As it pertained to the crash from Ragan’s point of view, it was textbook superspeedway racing.
“I just saw someone get turned in front of me a couple of rows,” said Ragan. “That is a product of speedway racing, pushing and being that aggressive at the end of a race. You have guys blocking and you have guys coming fast. That is just the way it is.
“Unfortunate that we were in the wrong place at the right time but we were up in the top-10, where we needed to be to try to win the race and sometimes things just don’t fall your way.”
Other drivers involved included defending Daytona 500 winners Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, all three full-time rookies (Daniel Hemric, Ryan Preece and Matt Tffit), and Martin Truex, Jr. and Daniel Suarez, whose first race with their new teams ended in the carnage.
All drivers ended up unhurt, but many spirits were tarnished including DiBenedetto, who prior to the Great American Race, had never led more than 23 laps in his entire Cup career.
DiBenedetto said it was a racing deal between he and Menard that caused the big one at Daytona.
“He clipped my right rear,” said DiBendetto. “We were just racing hard, and it looked like he barely got into my right rear and was trying to push.”
DiBenedetto followed it up by saying that his focus was working with the Toyotas, notably the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of race Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Furthermore, his strong performance up to that point will go down as his best run to date, which he couldn’t be more fortunate to run for Levine Family Racing’s No. 95 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
“It was the most fun speedway event I’ve ever had in my life. Being able to lead and do some incredible things. I have an amazing team and people can see what we’re doing. All these guys have taken a heck of a chance on me, but we proved what we’re here to do.
“I’m very heartbroken, but appreciative to be here. Thank you so much to all the fans for the support and it’s just the beginning.”
As for Menard, who was involved in the 17-car pileup in last Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, puts the blame on himself and immediately apologized to DiBenedetto, who shook Menard’s hands for the courtesy.
“I am not really sure what happened. I hooked the 95,” said Menard. “I was trying to get to his outside and he was kind of in the middle and he went to the outside and was going back and forth. The 12 (Ryan Blaney) had a big run so I jumped up in front of him and hooked the 95.
“I am not sure what really happened there. I will take the blame for that one I guess. We had really fast Fords. I sped on pit road and got us behind. We had to play catch-up. We had a shot there at the end though.”
Menard added that because of DiBenedetto trying to make his move in the middle lane, he tried to ease off to avoid hitting him, which didn’t pan out.
“It was time to go. It is frustrating that we have to put ourselves in that position to race this way,” Menard stated. “I had a big run with the 12 pushing and barely nicked the 95 and he got sideways. I tried backing off but wrecked a lot of cars.”
The total time of the red flag was 24 minutes and 57 seconds, and the first Daytona 500 to have a stoppage since 2017.