Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Menards/Duracell team put the disappointment of dropping out of the playoffs behind them by scoring a strong second-place finish in Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
DiBenedetto started the race from 19th place and began moving forward from the drop of the green flag.
He broke into the top 10 for the first time at Lap 34 and was rarely outside that elite group for the remainder of the race.
After leading the race during a cycle of pit stops he ended the second Stage in eighth place, earning three bonus points.
DiBenedetto continued to work his way to the front and took second place for a time with a bold, four-wide move with 71 laps remaining.
His biggest break came during the race’s final round of green-flag pit stops when crew chief Greg Erwin’s strategy of running long paid off when the caution flag flew for debris while DiBenedetto was on pit road.
When the scoring was sorted out, DiBenedetto had the lead with 25 laps to go.
From then on to the checkered flag, he battled with eventual winner Kurt Busch for the top spot, while also holding off the charges of drivers behind him on fresher tires to score his third top-three finish of the season and his eighth top-10. He moved up two positions to 14th in the points standings, six points behind 13th-place Ryan Blaney.
“It’s tough to come that close,” DiBenedetto said. “I just wanted it so bad for this team. I love driving for the Wood Brothers. I want that [win] number 100 for them so bad and for Menards, the whole family and everything they do for us and the team.”
He offered his appreciation for his backers, including Menards/Duracell, Motorcraft/Quick Lane, Ford, Roush Yates Engines, and all the people that put a fast Ford Mustang under him.
DiBenedetto said his Mustang was at its fastest at the end of the race, but he just couldn’t overcome Busch on the late restarts.
“Kurt, did a great job,” he said. “We had completely different ratios for the restarts, and once he gained control of the race, he played the right games on the restarts.
“Man, it’s tough to come that close. I just want it so bad, but I’m proud of the team. They did a great job. My pit crew did a great job tonight and really earned that one for us.”
Eddie Wood said he was glad to see DiBenedetto and the team score a strong finish, both for the team’s sponsors and for Marnie Howiler, whose name was above the driver’s door as part of the Nominate a Cancer Hero program spearheaded by the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation.
Howiler, from Cornelius, N.C., is the granddaughter of the late NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Isaac and was diagnosed with Stage IV Wilms Tumor at five years old and underwent eight months of treatment.
“We’re happy for Menards and Duracell, Motorcraft and Quick Lane and for Ford, and we’re especially glad to have a great race for Marnie.
“Growing up, I knew Bobby and got to spend a lot of time around him, especially when David Pearson drove our car.
“Bobby and David were great friends, and they were our friends too.”
DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Wood Brothers team now head to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s YellaWood 500.