DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Matt DiBenedetto had the race of his life on Sunday at Daytona Int’l Speedway, leading more laps in one race than he had in his entire career and looking to have a shot to win the Daytona 500.
Unfortunately for DiBenedetto and a host of others, it all went wrong on a restart with 10 laps to go, with a massive, multi-car accident breaking out down the backstretch and marring the closing stages of The Great American Race.
DiBenedetto was coming up the outside lane exiting turn two, with drafting help from Paul Menard, when Menard suddenly broke out of line in an effort to pick up an incoming run from Ford teammate Ryan Blaney.
The momentum Menard had carried him into the right-rear corner of DiBenedetto’s car, sending DiBenedetto spinning into the pack as it steamed for the banking in turn three.
Chaos was the end result, with 21 cars piling in and seeing their hopes for Daytona 500 glory dashed.
Chief among the heartbroken was DiBenedetto, who saw a storybook day come to a grinding halt after leading 49 laps and looking like a true challenger to not only win his first Daytona 500, but win his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in general.
In fact, that was the exact word that DiBenedetto used to sum up his emotions.
“This was the most amazing and heartbreaking day I’ve ever had in racing, all in one,” lamented DiBenedetto. “It’s unbelievable how fast my car was. I’ve never had a piece under me like that, so that’s amazing. I have really great teammates, too, and I’ve got to give them a lot of credit for helping me and dealing with all of the questions I asked all week.
“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s really neat to lead that many laps and have that many (positive) things going,” DiBenedetto added. “I’m so appreciative to all of my fans. I’ve had so much support it’s overwhelming. They’ve been a big part of getting me to where I am. I’m just appreciative for this opportunity.”
DiBenedetto flexed his muscle early, taking the lead for the first time on the seventh lap of the scheduled 200, but his highlight moment came during the second stage, when he led a group of six cars that stayed out through a long green-flag run and paced the field for 34 consecutive circuits.
A caution in the closing laps of the second stage shuffled DiBenedetto back into the pack, but he rallied through the field and was back inside the top 10 in the final laps when Menard’s tap sent him spinning.
To his credit, Menard took the blame for the accident after being released from the infield care center.
“I am not really sure what happened. I hooked the 95 (DiBenedetto),” 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 (Blaney) had a big run … so I jumped up in front of him and hooked Matt. I’ll take the blame for that one, I guess. We had really fast Fords, but I sped on pit road and we had to play catch-up. We had a shot there at the end though.
“It was time to go,” Menard added. “It’s frustrating that we have to put ourselves in that position to race this way. I had a big run, barely nicked the 95 and he got sideways. I tried backing off, but wrecked a lot of cars.”
DiBenedetto had no ill will toward Menard at the end of the day.
“It was just a racing deal. Nothing intentional,” noted DiBenedetto. “I have a great relationship with Paul. I think he was trying to sneak to my outside, but wasn’t quite there, and when he bumped me it just clipped my right rear and turned me in the wall. Just a racing deal.
“There’s nothing we can do about it. We had one hell of a day going, though; I’ll tell you that.”
Despite the disappointing ending to his day, DiBenedetto found a silver lining in the clouds and is optimistic as he moves forward with Leavine Family Racing and Toyota.
“At the end of the day, there were a lot of positives to take away from here,” he said. “I’m heartbroken, but there’s a lot of positives that we came and put these cars together quick. Had a lot of changes with this team and we came out and led the most laps and were flying in our Toyota Camry today.
“We have a lot of momentum going into the season, even though it ended pretty heartbreaking.”