Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team came away from the first half of a Cup Series double-header at Pocono Raceway with a 13th-place finish in the Pocono Organics 325, plus 10 Stage points that allowed them to move up one spot in the points standings to 14th.
And they did it with a fast Ford Mustang, which has the team optimistic heading into Sunday’s Pocono 350, where DiBenedetto will start eighth in the same car he drove on Saturday.
DiBenedetto started 21st as the line-up was set by a modified draw for positions.
Knowing his best chances to advance toward the front would come on the initial start and on restarts, he went to work right away, with great success.
By the end of the second lap he was up to 12th place and kept moving forward for the rest of the first Stage.
“The engineers and the rest of the crew deserve a lot of credit for unloading a car that was really fast,” he said. “We had damage from the first lap on due to contact with the 42. It damaged the right side and affected the aero pretty good, but it was still fast.”
He said it took some “really aggressive” driving to gain 10 spots on the opening lap.
“I drove through the middle and around the outside of a couple of them,” he said. “It was a handful.”
He gained another spot the next lap and held that spot until the competition caution flew at Lap 13, and restarted ninth since he did not pit during the caution period.
He gained two spots on the restart and held seventh place until the end of the first Stage, which earned him four Stage points.
He stayed on track during the caution period following the first Stage and moved into the top five on the restart.
On Lap 45, he made his first pit stop of the day, which dropped him to 31st in the running order. But as others made their pit stops he climbed back through the field, breaking back into the top 10 on Lap 70. He was running sixth when the caution flag flew with six laps remaining in the second Stage, and gained two spots in the last two laps to finish fifth and earn six more Stage points.
Back under way, he stayed on the track and moved as high as third place before making his second and final pit stop with 37 laps remaining, taking fuel and four tires.
He rejoined the race in 21st place and climbed back to 13th place at the finish in a race that ran the entire final stage without a yellow flag that would have allowed him to make more use of his four fresher tires.
“We were basically running a road-course strategy,” DiBenedetto said, adding that there was no way he could have done a no-tire or two-tire stop on his final trip down pit road.
“The engine sputtered so we had to take a full tank of fuel, and you might as well take four tires while you’re getting the fuel.”
He said a small hiccup on the final stop might have cost him a few finishing positions, but overall he was pleased with the efforts of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team.
“It was nobody’s fault, just a little mishap,” he said. “If not for that we could have gotten stage points and a top 10.
“The strategy was good.”
DiBenedetto said the team’s performance on Saturday has him looking forward to a repeat performance.
“Now we know more about the track and about what the car needs,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot less nerve-wracking.
“We’ll just have to make a few tweaks on the car, and the crew deserves a lot of credit for that. Then it will be another strategy game and just trying to get everything you can on restarts.”
Sunday’s Pocono 350 is set to get the green flag just after 4 p.m. with TV coverage on FOX Sports 1.