Matt DiBenedetto shakes off ‘Dega near-miss, looks ahead to Kansas

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On Thursday, Matt DiBenedetto told reporters that he had brought himself to watch his latest near-miss at Talladega Superspeedway.

But having done so, he’s not second-guessing his decisions on last Sunday’s final lap, where he led at the white flag only to finish fifth after being passed by eventual winner Brad Keselowski.

“(Ryan Blaney) kind of got shuffled and that line broke apart, so the circumstances could have been where it was, ‘Oh man, Matt. You made a great move taking that run and that momentum from the 12 car. You got shoved out, stayed out in the lead and won the race,'” DiBenedetto explained.

“You could be saying that same thing, so, no, I’m not beating myself up. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I would have stayed on the bottom,’ because if I would have known that lane and all that momentum broke up on the back straightaway and (Tyler Reddick) pulled out of line and all of that, but I didn’t. So, no, I’m not beating myself up over it.”

Frustrating as it was to come close again to his first career Cup Series win, DiBenedetto and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team still have momentum entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, FS1).

Six straight finishes of 14th or better, along with a stage win at Talladega, have pushed DiBenedetto to within 12 points of the final playoff spot held by Chris Buescher.

Following the third race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, DiBenedetto was 34th in the standings and 53 points – nearly a full race’s worth – out of a playoff spot.

DiBenedetto finished a dismal 28th at Miami, but has since progressively bettered his results on 1.5-mile tracks: A hard-luck 16th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a steady 11th at Atlanta.

Out of those three tracks, Las Vegas is a more “standard” 1.5-mile track that’s similar to Kansas. And DiBenedetto’s performance in Vegas could be an indicator of what he’s capable of this Sunday.

In that race, he finished the opening stage in eighth after starting 30th on the grid. He maintained that top 10 speed throughout the day until his final pit stop, where an air gun failure compelled crew chief Greg Irwin to have him complete the race on three new tires and a heavily worn left-front tire.

But the No. 21 team’s luck has improved since then, and DiBenedetto is confident he’ll have the same speed in Kansas. And, unlike Vegas, he’ll get to roll off from a top five starting position.

“We have strong race cars pretty much everywhere, but I have a lot of confidence in the fact that we usually start with our setups pretty darn close,” he said. “Our engineers and team do a great job of starting close and it’s nice that we have the track position to go along with that, and we can start our day up front and be in front of the mess and hopefully, keep it up there and have a good, solid day.

“It’s a big deal. Even though I know it’s a long race, starting up front is a big deal on top of having fast cars on these mile-and-a-halves.”

Starting up front also means a great chance to score valuable stage points that can potentially move him into the top 16 of the playoff standings.

When asked if he felt extra pressure to make the most of that chance, DiBenedetto demurred, citing the various ups and downs of his career that he said have made him “almost numb” to pressure.

“We’ve gained so many points in such a short time and recovered at a level that I didn’t even know we could recover that quickly in such a short time, and we’re still on the up,” he continued.

“I feel like we’re just getting started, so instead of pressure, I probably look at it more as exciting like, ‘Heck yeah, we’ve got a top five starting position.’

“We’ve got great momentum. We’re putting together smooth races. We know we have fast race cars, a great team. All of that would probably be – right or wrong – that would just probably be my personal perspective in how I look at it and approach it.”