DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was an effort that probably shouldn’t have happened, but Matt DiBenedetto’s smile told it all after the journeyman driver climbed from his beaten and battered race car at the end of Sunday’s Daytona 500.
DiBenedetto finished ninth in the 59th running of The Great American Race, his second-career top-10 at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level and a stunning result, considering that his Go FAS Racing crew only consists of 15 total workers compared to staffs of hundreds that make up the powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports lineups.
Add to that the fact that his No. 32 E.J. Wade Foundation Ford was involved in the day’s biggest incident — a 17-car pileup on lap 129 sparked when Jimmie Johnson was tipped into the pack and cars upon cars piled in — and still managed to survive when cars began running out of fuel in the final three laps, and you’ve got a success story that even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted.
You could tell DiBenedetto knew it, too. The excitement as he thanked his crew before talking to the media was palpable.
“That’s a heck of a way to start the year. Holy cow,” he grinned. “We survived. We got in that one crash and we hit pretty hard. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s gonna be a long day,’ but the guys did a great job patching it up. It still ran fine. I had good speed. The motor ran great all day, so it was cool.”
“We have the E.J. Wade Foundation on the car for the first time here and it’s awesome to get them a top-10 in their first outing, so it’s a great cause for what they do. I’m excited to be back racing and thankful to have a ride.”
Through all of the drama of stage racing and the late-race carnage that he had to survive, one of the first things that DiBenedetto admitted after the race was that he had no clue where he had actually ended up — he was simply focused on getting to the checkered flag.
“I didn’t (know we were ninth), honestly. The whole race we were pitting multiple times, just trying to make sure it was fixed properly and taking our time. We just kept picking them off one at a time … and it turned out to be a great day.”
It was an effort that seemed as improbable as the fact that such a battered race car could even make it to the checkered flag, a car that had been through the wars just as 500 champion Kurt Busch’s had been.
After all, 15 crew members and a driver who was displaced from the BK Racing squadron during the offseason and just needed a home on the grid couldn’t possibly take on the likes of the elites in the sport’s biggest race, could they?
But they found a way. And they made DiBenedetto’s move from Ron Devine’s team to Archie St. Hilaire’s equally low-budget team look like a genius one, at least for one night on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
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