Matt DiBenedetto certainly came into the Daytona 500 as one of the legit underdogs to walk away with the Harley J. Earl trophy. Daytona International Speedway, the site of the Daytona 500, is one of the tracks where practically any driver in the field can win. Given the new surroundings for DiBenedetto coming into the new year, it certainly gave him a fresh outlook coming into the seasons most prestigious race for NASCAR.
This last offseason, DiBenedetto joined Go Fas Racing to pilot the No. 32 Ford full-time in 2017 with numerous sponsors. It marks the first season that the single-car operation will stick with one driver all year round as numerous drivers piloted the ride over the last few years.
The California native qualified 29th last Sunday, which placed him 15th in the first Duel 150 race on Thursday. DiBenedetto ran a clean race and finished two spots higher to place him 25th on the Daytona 500 starting grid.
Since finishing 40th last year, it was no secret that DiBenedetto had a little chip on his shoulder coming into the 59th annual Daytona 500.
The Daytona 500 would be a clean day for DiBenedetto for the most part. He would be involved in only one accident over the course of the race, which occurred on lap 129 involving 16 other drivers. The accident wouldn’t impact them much as they would continue on determined to leave with a solid finish.
Since being involved in one of the cautions, there would be three more that would impact contenders other than DiBenedetto. It allowed the small team to work their way even more towards the front to have a shot at the grand prize.
Staying clean through the rest of the way, the California driver finished ninth to capture his best finish at the Florida track in four starts there. He’ll also leave the track sitting ninth in the driver standings as the series moves onto Atlanta Motor Speedway next weekend.
“That’s a heck of a way to start the year,” said DiBenedetto after the race. “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.”
DiBenedetto did not leave the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway with his best career finish, but he did walk away with his second career top-10 finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. His best came last year when he took BK Racing’s No. 83 Cosmo Motors Toyota to a sixth-place finish last April at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“It was definitely different,” said DiBenedetto when asked to compare the two finishes. “This one was a little bit more survival. That one was a little bit more racing up there, so I would say they’re different feelings, but being in the Daytona 500 in the first place is unbelievable, so I’m gonna say this one does feel really good just because it’s the Daytona 500 and it’s been my dream since I was five to even be in it, so to get a top-10 in it, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”
The team, according to DiBenedetto, only employs 15 people. The bigger teams, like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart Haas Racing, employs 500-plus to run their day-to-day operations. Also, the small teams do not have the same resources as the bigger teams do. With all of this considered at the end of the day, it certainly makes the finish much more special for Go Fas Racing.
“We’ve taken the team and brought in some really good people,” DiBenedetto continued. “I’m so lucky to have my crew chief, Gene Nead, who came in and assembled some of the best guys we could possibly get, so we have some real quality people, some of the folks that were at BK with me. It’s amazing to have that tight of a group, where they are so dedicated to follow me and Gene wherever we go. That’s special. You don’t find that often, so we have such a great relationship and I think that’s where we’re gonna turn a lot of heads this year and surprise everybody. You’re only as good as the people around you and we have really good people. I’m fortunate to have them. We’re gonna turn some heads. We have 15 employees total versus some people who have 400-500, but we have 15 good, quality people and our goal is to overacheive all year.”
The team owned by Archie St. Hilaire has fielded cars in NASCAR’s premier series since 2012. The finish in Sunday’s 59th annual Daytona 500 marks their best finish in the series as an organization through 99 starts. Series veteran Bobby Labonte captured the team’s previous best Daytona 500 finish in 2015 with a 24th. Terry Labonte took Go Fas Racing to their previous best overall finish of 11th back in July of 2014 at Daytona in the Coke-Zero 400.