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‘Frustrating’ Dover leaves Matt DiBenedetto vulnerable in playoff battle

Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, and Jimmie Johnson will be sweating their fates when the NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale rolls around at Daytona International Speedway.

Matt DiBenedetto repeatedly said he didn’t want to be negative. But how could he not be?

DiBenedetto faces the possibility that his postseason hopes could end in Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Dover killed us,” he said Sunday after a weekend that put his seemingly solid playoff hopes in jeopardy. “We were pretty horrendous both days.”

MORE: Cup playoff grid
Two weeks ago, DiBenedetto left Michigan with healthy leads on William Byron and Jimmie Johnson. Three races later, DiBenedetto grasps a playoff spot heading to a track known for its randomness and unpredictability.

DiBenedetto is five points ahead of Byron, who holds the last playoff spot, and is nine points ahead of Johnson.

DiBenedetto’s advantage dwindled after Johnson gained 48 points on him the past three races. Byron gained 26 points on DiBenedetto during that stretch.

NASCAR Cup Series Drydene 311

DOVER, DELAWARE - AUGUST 23: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #21 Menards/Monster Energy Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway on August 23, 2020 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Getty Images

“If we miss (the playoffs) … I will be a pretty grumpy individual the rest of the year,” he said. “It is what it is. We have worked hard to be in that position. I hope we make it. I don’t want to be negative at all, but it is hard after coming out of this weekend and getting a huge deficit in points and a ton of points chopped from us because we ran so bad in both races. It is just frustrating.”

He’s not thrilled about heading to Daytona even though he has two top-10 finishes in his last five starts there.

“I am going to sit and hope and pray all week that we can just come out of there clean and make the playoffs,” he said. “We shouldn’t be this close to the bubble. It is frustrating. A couple weeks messed us up. Getting wiped out at Texas and Kansas ... really hurt us points wise. Then we come here and really hurt ourselves here. It has been a tough go of circumstances and going to Daytona is going to make it quite an uncomfortable week.”

DiBenedetto was collected in a crash triggered by Quin Houff at Texas that led to NASCAR officials speaking to Houff about his actions. DiBenedetto finished 17th. In the following race at Kansas, DiBenedetto was eliminated in a multi-car crash that also ended Johnson’s race.

DiBenedetto recovered from those incidents. He had two top 10s and two 15th-place finishes in the four races after Kansas. Then came Dover. He finished 20th Saturday and 17th Sunday. DiBenedetto scored 41 points for the weekend. Johnson scored 76 points; Byron 55.

DiBenedetto expressed on social media Sunday how frustrating his Dover weekend was.

Now comes Daytona.

“I have done a lot of superspeedway races, and I feel like I race really smart at them but it won’t help the fact that there are just so many variables at those places that you can’t control,” he said. “It is not the same kind of racing as anywhere else we go.”

DiBenedetto anticipates drivers taking more chances in Saturday night’s regular-season finale.

“If I was a guessing man,” he said, “I would say probably quite a bit more chaotic and a whole lot of desperation because this is the last attempt or opportunity for a whole lot of people to make the playoffs.”

That includes DiBenedetto, who has never made the playoffs.

If he makes the playoffs?
“I would be very excited the rest of the season,” he said.