Sunday, May 3, 2020

iRACING: Matt DiBenedetto gobbled up by the Monster Mile in digital Dover

SCREENSHOT: Seth Eggert, Kickin' The Tires
Matt DiBenedetto finished last in Sunday’s sixth round of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, the Finish Line 150 at the Dover International Speedway, when his #21 Built Ford Proud Ford disconnected after 52 of 150 laps.

Optimism was high for DiBenedetto at the start of the 2020 season. The fan favorite scored a pair of impressive runs last summer at Sonoma and Bristol, setting aside the frustration of being removed from his ride with Leavine Family Racing. When Paul Menard announced he would retire at the end of the season, he tabbed DiBenedetto to take his place at the fabled Wood Brothers team. In his first four races driving the #21, the Californian has finished no worse than 19th, completing all but two laps, and ran 2nd to Joey Logano in Las Vegas. Entering the postponed event at Atlanta, he sat tied with Brad Keselowski for 9th in points, 43 markers out of the lead.

DiBenedetto transitioned well into the current stretch of iRacing events, finishing 11th at Homestead, 15th at Texas, then 5th at Bristol – the latter fast becoming one of his favorite tracks. But while he qualified inside the Top 10 for the next two rounds, he finished no better than 27th. The slide began at Richmond, where an on-track skirmish with Ryan Preece led to a pair of accidents, and DiBenedetto being parked in the final laps. Talladega wasn’t much better as he finished 35th of the 39 starters, though he did so while wearing a giraffe onesie.

Dover offered an opportunity to turn things around. His best of ten Cup Series finishes at the track came just last fall, when he ran 7th for the Leavine team. He would also run a simple blue-and-white paint scheme on his #21.

DiBenedetto was among the 38 drivers entered for Sunday’s race, a list that shrank by two after the withdrawals of both Chase Elliott and Clint Bowyer. Bowyer’s withdrawal came after back-to-back engine failures at Richmond and Talladega, leaving open a seat in FOX’s booth rig for Regan Smith. Smith, driving a throwback #78 Chevrolet to his time with Furntiure Row Racing, qualified 29th and finished 31st after he used his one “Fast Repair” in the first 25 laps. DiBenedetto qualified 21st fastest of the remaining 36 drivers.

Starting last was rookie Cole Custer in the #41 Haas Tooling Ford. He held the spot until Lap 3, when J.J. Yeley dropped nine seconds back of the lead in the #52 Les Bourgeois Vineyards Chevrolet. DiBenedetto likely used his lone “Fast Repair” during the first caution on Lap 14, when Daniel Suarez looped his #96 Commscope Toyota off Turn 2 and collected both DiBenedetto and the #49 Smithbilt Homes Toyota of Chad Finchum. But it was Chris Buescher in the #17 SunnyD Ford that took over last place by Lap 20.

Lengthy repairs then dropped at least two drivers off the lead lap – 5th-place qualifier Corey LaJoie in the #32 Drydene Ford and Ty Dillon in the #13 GEICO Chevrolet. LaJoie took last on Lap 28 as his car was still sitting on pit road for the restart, but Dillon then took over the spot by Lap 30. By then, Dillon was five laps down. Dillon then continued to lose time, dropping up to 15 laps back by the 40th circuit. Both Dillon and LaJoie continued to run, however, and Dillon’s #13 was shown coming down pit road under a later caution on Lap 54.

The reason for this particular caution was Matt DiBenedetto, who had clawed his way back to 16th. Just in front of him entering the first corner were Kurt Busch and Joey Logano, locked in a side-by-side battle. Busch broke loose on the inside and nearly saved his #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet. DiBenedetto closed rapidly and pulled low to try and get by, but the two made contact in the low lane of the backstretch. The impact sent DiBenedetto careening up the track and into traffic, where he clipped Parker Kligerman’s #77 Valvoline Toyota. The accident ultimately ended DiBenedetto’s day, dropping him to last place by Lap 76. Dillon rebounded to finish 32nd.

Finishing 35th was Buescher, also eliminated in a crash some 26 laps after DiBenedetto’s exit. He fell out along with Kligerman, who led 11 of the first 14 laps before his day ended. Brad Keselowski completed the group with 85 laps complete in the #2 Pirtek Ford.

After flirting with last place early in the event, Corey LaJoie made the most of his final car, climbing his way to the 13th spot with 25 laps to go. Then, with just three laps to go, the engine failed, dropping him to a disappointing 20th. One spot ahead of LaJoie came J.J. Yeley, who wound up two laps down despite a blown engine that left him slowed him in front of a fast-closing pack, triggering a massive pileup entering Turn 3.

*Car #21 has finished last in just two Cup Series races at Dover – both with Citgo sponsorship on the Wood Brothers Ford. The first was on June 2, 1991, when Dale Jarrett was eliminated in a crash after 18 laps of the Budweiser 500. The other occurred on September 21, 1997, when Michael Waltrip’s adventure ended with a crash after 86 laps.

36) #21-Matt DiBenedetto / 52 laps / crash
35) #17-Chris Buescher / 78 laps / crash
34) #77-Parker Kligerman / 79 laps / crash / led 11 laps
33) #2-Brad Keselowski / 85 laps / crash
32) #13-Ty Dillon / 99 laps / crash

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