By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Coming into Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, a nerve-wracking night was ahead for those drivers that had yet to lock themselves into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Now that the checkered flag has fallen on the regular season, Matt DiBenedetto can breathe a sigh of relief knowing he will be one of the 16 drivers battling it out for a championship over the next 10 weeks.
DiBenedetto had a slim nine-point advantage when the night began, so it was key for the driver of the No. 21 Ford to stay out of trouble as the race played out to be in position to capitalize when it mattered most in the closing laps.
Battling Jimmie Johnson and William Byron as the bubble drivers that had yet to lock themselves into the Playoffs, all three had a close call at lap 153 when the first of two multi-car wrecks broke out in Turn 4. Evasive maneuvers allowed them to escape without damage, keeping their postseason hopes alive.
After a 10 minute, 13 second red flag, DiBenedetto was scored in ninth-place, but still had some work to do to be able to clinch a Playoff berth.
Five laps after the restart, another multi-car crash took Johnson out of the equation, but it was far from over for the No. 21 team as the race was pushed into overtime. A number of different scenarios were in play as Byron led and Johnson returned his damaged No. 48 car to the track just in case trouble broke out again.
Though there were crashes during the overtime period, the race was allowed to run to its conclusion without another yellow flag. Despite a less than ideal final restart, DiBenedetto was able to bring his car across the line in 12th place to claim the final spot in the Playoffs.
With Byron winning his way in and Johnson limping his car home in 17th, just six points made all the difference for DiBenedetto and the No. 21 team when all was said and done.
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“It was too eventful. I’m mentally worn out,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m gonna sleep great tonight, but there was so much going on there at the end. First off, I’m so happy for this team and Menards, Dutch Boy, the whole Menard family, Motorcraft/Quick Lane and the Wood Brothers, Ford, our alliance with Team Penske. You name it.
“This means so much to get this for them, but in the race there if I could I hedged toward being on the bottom because, man, just when you’re in the bottom and the top it’s nearly a sure thing when you get that you get crashed, so I’m glad we were able to take it home because I wasn’t happy with the finish, but I came in here saying all that mattered I just wanted to make these playoffs and the finishing position didn’t matter too much.”
The past 12 months have been a whirlwind for DiBenedetto after losing his ride with Leavine Family Racing this time last year before landing at Wood Brothers Racing and being able to make the Playoffs for the first time in his career.
While he will have his work cut out for him over the next 10 weeks, the journeyman driver noted just how special it is to be able to accomplish what he has with the Wood Brothers this season.
“This is really special to make it in the Playoffs,” he said. “My career has been one I had to fight, claw, scratch for everything and it makes me so appreciative. I say the little things, but this is a big one making the playoffs for the Wood Brothers. This is very big, really special and I’m glad we’ll be able to get to work and do the best we can the rest of the season and we have a lot of really good tracks and short tracks coming.”