DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One of the pleasant surprises that might have been overlooked at first glance during Thursday night’s Gander RV Duels at Daytona was the solid fourth-place run of Matt DiBenedetto.
In his first race for Leavine Family Racing, DiBenedetto stayed out of trouble during the first 60-lap sprint at Daytona Int’l Speedway and made a roaring charge on the final lap, edging out Toyota teammate Martin Truex Jr. at the finish line and earning a solid starting spot for Sunday’s 61st Daytona 500.
DiBenedetto will line up ninth for the Great American Race in his No. 95 Procore Toyota, his best-ever Daytona 500 grid position, but he’s even more optimistic about the speed in his car for the long haul.
“That was a great run for us; it feels good to get thing started strong like that,” DiBenedetto said. “We took away a little bit that we can use on Sunday, but it’s always different when you get a big ol’ pack of 40 (cars) out there. Our speeds were still pretty quick, though. When we were all lined up single file, we were wide open.
“I learned a ton, so that was good for us, and we finished fourth. It’s a nice way to start the year.”
DiBenedetto was quick to note that there’s a fine balance between racing for a Duel win and protecting one’s car for the Daytona 500, a balance he did a fine job of managing throughout Thursday night’s event.
“You always run the risk (of wrecking) and you just kind of accept that,” he said. “You just race smart and try to not make any silly moves, and that’s about it. You’re always going to run the risk of crashing. You’re at other people’s mercies sometimes.
“We just raced hard and didn’t make any crazy moves – just smart, decisive moves – and that’s kind of what picked us up some spots at the end and got us to fourth.”
The good news for DiBenedetto is that he doesn’t feel his team has to make many big swings at the car before Sunday afternoon. He believes that his No. 95 Toyota is in a good place, handling-wise.
“Luckily I really don’t think we’ll have to change too much,” DiBenedetto said. “My Camry handled good, which is important, and we learned most everything we needed, so we’ll just fine tune it a little bit.”
Going into Sunday’s race, DiBenedetto feels that his superspeedway skillset – combined with a strong car from LFR and Toyota – will give him a shot to check off a bucket-list item by winning the Daytona 500.
“I feel like I’ve actually become a much better plate racer over the last couple of years. I had a lot to learn,” he pointed out. “I went to work on it, really studied, and learned from some of the guys that are really good at it. That’s where I feel like we always put ourselves in a position. Even though I’ve been in underfunded equipment that may not have had the speed of others, we still put ourselves in a position to have a shot at winning or have a shot at a top-five or top-10 at the end of most all these things.
“Now, with having even better equipment, this is the best opportunity that I’ve had,” DiBenedetto added. “There’s no reason that we don’t have a very legitimate shot at winning it.”
If he could do so, it would be an incredible full-circle moment for DiBenedetto, whose career first launched into the spotlight with Joe Gibbs Racing and the Toyota development program a decade ago.
“It’s just crazy,” said DiBenedetto of rejoining the Toyota family. “That’s why you never burn any bridges and always keep good relationships. Who would’ve thought that nine or 10 years later, I’d be back with Toyota? It’s been really neat.”