Matt DiBenedetto turned in a strong performance in the second of two Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night, running as high as second place before being shuffled to seventh at the finish.
That earned him the 16th starting spot for Sunday’s 62nd annual Daytona 500 and four Stage points that he’ll carry throughout the season.
DiBenedetto started his Duel from eighth place but quickly latched onto the rear bumper of fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick. The Blue Oval duo sliced their way through the field and were running 1-2 after just five laps.
They maintained their spot at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, including through a round of pit stops.
But as the laps wound down, with Harvick and DiBenedetto out front in the bottom groove, a strong run developed on the top side among some Chevrolet drivers who made late pit stops for fresh tires. What followed were some daring moves by others, putting the Ford duo in a precarious spot.
At one point Harvick wound up below the yellow line, but DiBenedetto’s quick reaction kept him and Harvick out of harms way and left them with two fast Ford intact and ready to compete in the 500 on Sunday.
“We were just a little bit of a sitting duck there,” DiBenedetto said of his late-race situation. “I slept a little on a block. I felt like I could have gotten up there.
“[The Chevy drivers] were going to go where we weren’t regardless, but I could have tried to stall them out a little bit [but] we learned some good stuff and kept the car in one piece when everyone got real squirrely on the backstretch.
“Kevin got off the track. I let him back in and just made sure we didn’t tear up cars because we still have a good car that we want to keep for Sunday.”
Overall, DiBenedetto said he was happy with what he learned in the race and with the way his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang performed in race conditions.
“It was good to get all that stuff out of the way like getting on pit road and making sure the brakes are good in a race situation,” he said. “It’s different when you all pit in a pack versus practice, so there were little spots where I was conservative and like, ‘OK, on Sunday I know I can get a little bit more here. I can get in the pit stall and get a little bit more here,’ and then peeling out.”
He said he learned what kind of blocks he can make, and in general was able to get back in the rhythm of racing.
“It was a good test,” he said, adding that he was still kicking himself for not being more aggressive in the final laps. “I should have been a little bit quicker getting up there, so I guess just knocking a little bit of rust off and trying to not crash the primary car.”
Eddie Wood said he liked what he saw on Thursday night.
“It was a good start,” he said. “We had people working together for the first time, and they all performed well. We had a good pit stop and ran up front for most of the race.”
Wood also said he was impressed with the racing in general.
“It was good to see tandem racing – or a least a form of it – back in play,” he said. “And I thought both of the Duels were good races. I think this package is going to work.”
DiBenedetto and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team will return to the track on Friday afternoon for a practice session, which will be followed by another on Saturday afternoon.
Then the 62nd annual Daytona 500, which has been declared a sellout, is set to get the green flag just after 2:30 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage on FOX.