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Matt DiBenedetto eyes bigger prize after making playoffs

A "mentally tired" Matt DiBenedetto delivers the quote of the night at Daytona after qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs when he says "that was the most stressful situation inside a race car I've ever been in."

In a little more than 10 weeks, Matt DiBenedetto could be a Cup champion.

While the notion that a driver who has never won a Cup race becoming the series champion seems implausible, so is DiBenedetto’s path to his first playoff appearance.

His career includes start-and-park rides, lack of sponsorship, leaving a team in 2018 without the security of another ride at the time and questions a year ago of if he would remain in Cup and if that ride would be competitive.

So, yes, while Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will be the title favorites— and some might not even have DiBendettto advancing past the first round — DiBenedetto has a chance. That’s all he wants.

“I knew at the start of the season that we had work to do as a team and this year, 2020, is crazy,” DiBenedetto said after securing the final playoff spot with a 12th-place finish Saturday at Daytona.

“We kept getting better and better. Through the mid-part of the (season), I feel like we hit our stride as a team and were running up front weekly. We hit a few tracks that were a struggle but overall we are as ready as ever to contend for a championship, especially when we are at our best, working together as a team.

“It is perfect timing for us. That is why it was so important for us to make the playoffs because we knew that if we made them that we deserved every bit to be in them as a team. We can really compete and make a heck of a splash and contend down the end. Especially since everyone knows there are a lot of short tracks and 750 horsepower (package) tracks which are right up our alley and this team performs really well at.”

Before he could think about the playoffs, he had to hold off William Byron and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the two remaining spots.

Byron earned a playof spot with his first career Cup win. DiBenedetto beat Johnson by six points to secure the final playoff spot. But the difference came down to an 11-car crash that set up the overtime finish.

Johnson’s car suffered significant damage, ruining his playoff hopes. DiBendetto’s car narrowly missed a similar fate as Johnson’s car.

“Man, that was a close call,” DiBenedetto said. “Really, it was kind of a hope-and-pray type situation. (Joey Logano) had trouble and I ran into him and had to make an evasive maneuver to get around him and you kind of go with your instinct.

“I thought I could get around him on the outside. You don’t have time to look in your mirror and see if you are clear high so I went up around him and prayed that we could sneak through him. It was really tight and close and we got bounced around a little but thank goodness we got through that and ultimately that is what allowed us to make the playoffs.”

When the checkered flag waved, DiBenedetto was bound for the playoffs with his Wood Brothers Racing team.

“That was so stressful,” DiBenedetto said. “Man, it is just so much appreciation to a level that it is hard to describe. … I appreciate it so much. When you are driving for the Wood Brothers and having all these great people around you it just means so much to be able to do it here with this team.

“I just got off FaceTime with my wife and she was crying non-stop. She couldn’t stop crying because of the excitement obviously and knowing how much this means to us and not only making the playoffs, but knowing we can really contend as a team.”

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