Sunday, February 21, 2016

CUP: Matt DiBenedetto trails shortest Cup field since 1996

Matt DiBenedetto picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in Sunday’s 58th Annual Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway after his #93 Dustless Blasting Toyota was involved in a multi-car wreck after he completed 91 of 200 laps.  The finish came in DiBenedetto’s 34th series start.

Seven years ago, the Grass Valley, California native made his XFINITY Series debut at Memphis, where he came home 14th as a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing.  Two years ago, he was start-and-parking for The Motorsports Group on a nearly full-time basis, but still broke through with an 11th-place finish at Road America.  Last year, he made his Sprint Cup debut at Phoenix driving for BK Racing, then soon after finished a career-best 18th at Talladega.  And when time trials were over last Sunday, Matt DiBenedetto had locked himself into his first Daytona 500 field with a qualifying lap of 192.686 mph, good enough for 24th-best of 44 entrants.

DiBenedetto finished a strong 9th in Can-Am Duel Race 2 on Thursday - tops among the four Open teams competing in that race - and driver and team continued to fine-tune their machine for Sunday’s race.  He was among the 31 drivers to participate in Happy Hour on Friday, running 22nd among that group, and was set to roll off 20th in “The Great American Race.”

In the aftermath of the Race Team Alliance’s arrangement over the offseason, just 40 cars rolled to the starting line for Sunday’s race.  This made the 500 the shortest Cup Series field since September 29, 1996, when 37 cars lined up for the Tyson Holly Farms 400, the final Cup event at North Wilkesboro Speedway.  Stating in that 40th spot was Robert Richardson, Jr., called away from farming on a Texas ranch to run as one of DiBenedetto’s teammates in the #26 Stalk It Toyota.  Joining Richardson in the rear were five backup cars sent there due to crashes in the Duels: Matt Kenseth, Brian Scott, A.J. Allmendinger, Jimmie Johnson, and Martin Truex, Jr.

At the end of Lap 1, Scott’s #44 Albertsons / Shore Lodge / Ritz Triscuit Ford had fallen to 40th, trailing a group of five cars that were already lagging behind the leaders.  Next on Lap 2 was Michael McDowell, in his open #59 Thrivent Financial / K-LOVE Chevrolet.  On Lap 4, Austin Dillon was struggling with the handling on his #3 Dow Chevrolet, putting him 40th for a moment before Richardson fell behind him on Lap 5.  Richardson and Dillon lost touch with the pack during the opening twenty circuits: at one point, Richardson was 8 seconds behind the field.  This gap went away completely when the first caution flew on Lap 20.

20-year-old Chase Elliott made headlines when he won the pole for the Daytona 500 in Jeff Gordon’s iconic #24, now sponsored by NAPA Auto Parts.  He was still among the leaders on Lap 20 when his car suddenly hooked left off Turn 4, causing him to cross the nose of Carl Edwards’ #19 ARRIS Toyota.  Elliott kept his car off the inside wall, but wound up in the grass, where the splitter was ripped from his machine.  Dropped to last as the entire field went by, Elliott was stuck behind the wall for nearly a quarter of the race as the Hendrick Motorsports crew attached a new nose to the #24.

Had Elliott finished last on Sunday, it would have been the first last-place finish for the #24 in Sprint Cup since April 6, 2008, when Jeff Gordon’s DuPont Chevrolet crashed 124 laps into the Samsung 500 at Texas.  It would also have been the first last-place run for the number in a Cup points race at Daytona since July 1, 1989, when Johnny McFadden’s Alliance Training Centers Pontiac crashed on the first lap of the Pepsi 400.  And it would have been the first last-place run for the #24 in the Daytona 500 since February 22, 1970, when Cecil Gordon’s unspsonsored 1968 Ford followed Richard Petty’s Plymouth Superbird to the garage area with a busted a-frame after 7 laps.  Instead, Elliott returned to the track on Lap 58, 40 laps down.

Meanwhile, DiBenedetto was fighting to stay with the lead pack.  His #93 had run around 20th for most of the early stages, but near the halfway point was beginning to fade toward the rear of the field.  Then, on Lap 93, his car broke loose entering Turn 1 and collided with the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford of rookie Chris Buescher, sending both cars hard into the outside wall.  Both drivers walked away uninjured, but both cars were unable to continue.  Elliott managed to not lose another lap for the rest of the afternoon and passed both DiBenedetto and Buescher on Lap 132.  A few laps later, Elliott also passed Richardson, whose #26 went behind the wall with a broken valve.  The #24 came just ten laps short of passing pre-race favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose #88 Nationwide Chevrolet spun in nearly the same spot as Elliott before hitting the inside wall.

*This marks the first time that both the #93 and BK Racing have ever finished last in the Daytona 500.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #93 in a Sprint Cup points race since October 26, 2014, when Clay Rogers’ own BK Racing entry, the Burger King / Dr. Pepper Toyota, overheated after 25 laps of the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville.

40) #93-Matt DiBenedetto / 91 laps / crash
39) #34-Chris Buescher / 91 laps / crash
38) #26-Robert Richardson, Jr. / 135 laps / engine
37) #24-Chase Elliott / 160 laps / running / led 3 laps
36) #88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr. / 169 laps / crash / led 15 laps

1st) Matt DiBenedetto (1)

1st) BK Racing (1)

1st) Toyota (1)

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