A frustrating start to the 2021 season for Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Menards/Moen team continued on Sunday with a 28th-place finish in the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Poor finishes in the first two races of the season – both at Daytona International Speedway – relegated DiBenedetto to a starting position of 37th on Sunday, as the field was set based on results of the first two races.
For a time early in the race, it appeared that DiBenedetto and the Menards/Moen team were on their way to putting the disappointments of February behind them. After just five laps, he had driven into the top 20, gaining a few of those spots when drivers scheduled to start ahead of him had to drop to the rear and motoring by the rest.
By Lap 16 of 167 he broke into the top 15 but lost three spots by the time the Competition Caution flew at Lap 25.
DiBenedetto finished the first 80-lap Stage in 14th place. Stage Two was more of a challenge. Although crew chief Greg Erwin and the Menards/Moen crew made adjustments intended to improve the handling of the car, the changes didn’t produce the intended results, and the No. 21 Mustang was outside the top 20 at the end of the second Stage.
The third and final segment of the race saw DiBenedetto and the team continue their search for speed, and while he was able to gain spots just after restarts, as the runs went on he fell back.
An incident with the No. 42 of Ross Chastain left the Menards/Moen Mustang with what appeared to be minor damage, but when the team made repairs on a subsequent pit stop, DiBenedetto reported the repairs made his car drive better.
As the laps wound down, DiBenedetto was poised to finish just outside the top 20 but a tire problem with six laps remaining led to an unscheduled pit stop, a lost lap and a drop to 28th place at the finish.
“We were just off all night,” DiBenedetto said. “Then we got damage in the nose from the 42, and that set us back more.
“We have some work to do.”
Eddie Wood said his team did its best to make the most of a difficult situation.
“The car was too tight for much of the race,” he said. “The crew made adjustments, but the changes made the car worse instead of better, which meant they had to go back the other way on the next stop just to get back to where they were to start with.
“That was frustrating.”
Wood said that while the Menards/Moen team is off to a rough start to the season, he’s not overly concerned at this point.
“I’ve been through stretches like this many times in my years in racing,” he said. “You just have to keep working hard, and eventually things will turn around.
“And your competitors who have had things going good for them will have their fortunes go the other way.
The No. 21 team will be looking for that change of fortune next Sunday in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where DiBenedetto and the team scored runner-up finishes in both Cup Series races hosted by the track in 2020.