By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto finished runner-up to Denny Hamlin until NASCAR penalized the No. 21 driver for a final lap violation.
In multiple attempts at overtime, DiBenedetto found himself up front at Talladega Superspeedway. The chaotic scramble to the finish of the YellaWood 500 saw the No. 21 Menards / Tuscany Ford Mustang in a tandem draft with Chris Buescher and then Erik Jones. The trio, plus William Byron traded massive blocks on the final lap.
While Buescher and Jones collided, DiBenedetto swung down, forcing Byron’s No. 24 Hendrickcars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE low. Eventually, the Hendrick Motorsports driver found himself below the double-yellow line. At the same time, Denny Hamlin was forced below the line by Buescher.
After regaining control, DiBenedetto and Hamlin drag-raced to the checkered flag. The duo crossed the line, side-by-side, 0.023 seconds apart. However, NASCAR ruled that DiBenedetto forced Byron out of bounds, dropping the Ford Performance driver to, 21st, the tail-end of the lead lap.
“It’s just a crazy finish,” admitted DiBenedetto before word of the penalty came down. “I haven’t been able to really process it. I just really want to get this thing in Victory Lane. This Tuscany Faucets team. I feel like this is the same story a lot of times, just heartbreak. My wife and I have had a stressful week again just with the uncertainty — always fighting for my life — but I’m so appreciative of this team.”
DiBenedetto was fighting to earn the Wood Brothers their historic 100th victory as an organization in the Cup Series. However, he was penalized, like Joey Logano and Buescher were during the 200-lap race (after overtime). Both drivers forced others out of bounds during the race. DiBenedetto himself was forced below the yellow line by Logano.
“The Wood Brothers, I want this 100th win for the Woods so bad,” explained DiBenedetto. “Our alliance with Team Penske, Ford — I appreciate them putting me in this car. It’s so much fun to drive and have a shot to win. Denny did a great job. Deja vu. Holy cow. Denny deserves all the support in the world. He’s an incredible racer. He was my biggest threat. I tried to block all I could. My spotter, Doug, did a great job. This is tough.”
DiBenedetto took the lead, briefly, for the first time in the race on lap 87. He didn’t stay inside the top-10 at the end of Stage two. However, DiBenedetto was up front throughout much of the final stage.
The Grass Valley, Calif. native took the lead for the final time on lap 193 when Chase Elliott was forced to pit for fuel. DiBenedetto and his Greg Erwin-led crew gambled that he would make it on fuel and win. The duo won half the gamble and were just shy of the second half.
Despite no longer being in the Playoffs, DiBenedetto is still fighting for a best possible points finish of fifth. After Talladega, the 29-year-old slipped from 14th to 15th in the points standings, six behind Ryan Blaney.
With silly season in full swing, DiBenedetto is racing for a job in NASCAR in 2021. Uncertainty about where the fan-favorite driver will compete next season continues to swirl. That fact was not lost on DiBenedetto prior to the announcement of the penalty.
“It’s been a tough week, honestly, with the uncertainty and I just pray to continue driving for the Wood Brothers,” stated DiBenedetto. “It’s a dream come true and there’s a lot of people involved that go into the decision-making and I just pray and pray I get to do it. I’m lucky that I got to drive this year, racing for wins.”
Photo by NKP / NKP Photo