By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Choosing the wrong line to block on the final lap cost Matt DiBenedetto a chance at his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Following a late-race caution in the GEICO 500, DiBenedetto assumed the lead when he stayed on track in his No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Mustang. The Wood Brothers Racing driver led a contingent of Ford Performance drivers while others elected to pit for fresh tires.
While Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and others on fresh tires sliced through the field, DiBenedetto held station. He blocked runs from Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, and others to maintain the lead. As the laps wound down, the blocks from DiBenedetto grew bigger and bigger. A caution for debris with four laps to go forced the race into overtime.
On the final restart, DiBenedetto cruised forward. After the white flag waved, the Grass Valley, Calif. native moved up to block Blaney. Moments later, Keselowski surged forward with a push from Michael McDowell. The duo left DiBenedetto in the dust as their energy carried them forward.
After William Byron and Harvick slipped by for third and fourth, DiBenedetto was left to battle with Erik Jones and Kaz Grala. Contact between the three drivers cut Jones’ tire, sending him spinning in the tri-oval. DiBenedetto crossed the line in fifth, beating Grala by 0.001 seconds.
“Obviously, a disappointing end there,” explained DiBenedetto. “I shouldn’t say disappointing, it was a solid day, take a top five and had a stage win, so that’s great. The car was really fast. All the Fords were super good. That was awesome. Our car led great. Ryan really pushed. Our Penske teammates did an excellent job helping us get that stage win, so that was huge.
“Big credit to them and big for our points situation, so just tough ending. I jumped up in front of Ryan and he kind of got spit out and hung out and some people were grabbing his quarter panel and such.”
The first Stage also ended spectacularly. As DiBenedetto led the field, the battle behind him saw Denny Hamlin break loose. Hamlin clipped Joey Logano, sending the No. 22 Autotrader Ford Mustang flipping into the air. Luckily, Logano was okay after the accident. Meanwhile, with the caution waving on the final lap of the Stage, DiBenedetto took the Stage win.
The fifth-place finish is the first top-five for DiBenedetto this season and the seventh of his Cup Series career. It is also the 24th top-10 finish in his career. DiBenedetto led 28 laps, the most since Bristol Motor Speedway in 2019.
The top-five moved DiBenedetto up from 18th in the points standings to 17th. He is just 12-points behind the cutoff for the playoffs, held by fellow Ford driver Chris Buescher. DiBenedetto is 229-points behind leader Hamlin.
Feature Photo Credit: Photo by NKP / NKP Photo