By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
For the three drivers on the playoff bubble, the pressure couldn’t have been much higher in the final laps of Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Multiple late restarts, two Big Ones and only handfuls of points to spare. What else can you expect from a regular season finale at Daytona?
With an overtime finish to end the race, William Byron, who entered the race four points above the cutline, scored the victory and confirming his position in the 2020 Cup Series playoffs.
And after Jimmie Johnson was swallowed up in the race’s second Big One with seven laps to go, it was Matt DiBenedetto who grabbed the 16th and final spot in the postseason, finishing 12th at Daytona’s checkered flag.
You can say it was a nerve-racking night for the No. 21 Ford of DiBenedetto, who made the playoffs for the first time in his career.
““It was too eventful,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m mentally worn out. I’m going to sleep great tonight, but there was so much going on there at the end.”
Entering the weekend nine points to the good, DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing needed a clean race — with some helpful stage points — on the high banks.
Earning only four points in the night’s two stages, DiBenedetto had both Johnson and Byron on his heels in points, standing only five points to the good with 15 laps to go.
But when Johnson crashed toward a 17th-place finish, DiBenedetto had just enough (six points) to make the cut.
“This means so much to get this for [the team],” he said. “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. The finishing position didn’t matter too much.”
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) August 30, 2020
A journeyman driver through his Cup Series career, DiBenedetto leaves Daytona Beach with an overwhelming sense of fulfillment to bring home to his family.
“I promise you my wife, Taylor, is at home crying right now,” he said. “I can bet you anything. My parents are here in the stands. They drove all the way down from North Carolina. My brother in the military, him and his girlfriend were able to make it here, so this is really special to make it in the playoffs.
“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.”
Johnson, however, was the one on the outside. Earning 12 points in the two stages, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was looking to be well in the conversation to make his first playoff appearance since 2018.
But following the Big One in Turn 2, those hopes were dashed.
“We had a really good car,” Johnson said. “The last couple of months, we’ve been really getting our act together and running well. Definitely disappointed to not be in the playoffs – that was the number one goal to start the year.
“But when I look back at the disqualification at Charlotte and then missing the Brickyard 400 due to my COVID-19 positive test and only miss it by six points – we did all that we could this year.”
I’m so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports and the career that I’ve had there, the relationship with Ally and their continued support for this race team. Cliff Daniels and these guys on my team – they pour their guts out for me. There’s 10 races left, 10 trophies to go chase and we’ll have to focus our efforts there.”
I’m down but not out.
Bring on Darlington!
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) August 30, 2020
Johnson will not compete for his eighth championship in what is his final season in the series. Still, the veteran looks forward to 10 more weeks with his No. 48 team.
“I’m so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports and the career that I’ve had there,” he said. “The relationship with Ally and their continued support for this race team. [Crew chief] Cliff Daniels and these guys on my team – they pour their guts out for me. There’s 10 races left, 10 trophies to go chase and we’ll have to focus our efforts there.”
Despite the loss, Johnson was also upbeat for teammate Byron, who not only made the playoffs for the second straight year, but scored his first Cup win Saturday at Daytona.
“Congratulations to my teammate getting his first Cup win like that,” he said. “This setting and the drama to go with it – that’s a big win for [crew chief] Chad Knaus and William Byron. I’m really happy for those guys.
“I really felt like we had a way to transfer, to win, or point our way in the way it went in the first two stages. Things just got ugly down in Turn 1. Unfortunate, but that’s plate racing.”