Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – In the last 11 laps of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, Matt DiBenedetto passed seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for fifth place and 2014 Champion Kevin Harvick for fourth.
When the race ended, the driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota was closing on third-place finisher Ryan Blaney before running out of laps. But DiBenedetto nevertheless scored the best result of his career, eclipsing the sixth he posted at Bristol in 2016.
“I’m just so lucky to be doing this,” an elated DiBenedetto said after the race. “My path to get here has been so out of the ordinary and old-school, and I’m so thankful. I can’t tell you how many people took a chance on me to have this opportunity.”
One of those people was the late J.D. Gibbs, the former president of Joe Gibbs Racing who was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame on Thursday night.
“It was so much fun—my home state,” DiBenedetto said of his run. “This one is for my buddy, AJ Allmendinger for helping me so much.”
DiBenedetto also had some parting words for NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, who on Sunday at Sonoma called his last race as an analyst for FOX Sports.
“DW, this one’s for you, brother, DiBenedetto said. “I’m glad we got you a good finish. You’ve done so much for me. You’re the best.”
RYAN BLANEY FLEXES ROAD-COURSE MUSCLE IN WINE COUNTRY
Even though he ran a distant third to Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney’s fortunes at Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series road courses have been looking up.
In last year’s Playoffs, Blaney won at the Charlotte Roval after Truex and Jimmie Johnson collided in the final chicane. And in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, he enjoyed a stress-free race running behind the leading pair of Truex and Kyle Busch.
“Kind of smooth day for us,” acknowledged Blaney, who leaves the 2.52-mile road courses ninth in the series standings and well inside the Playoff cut line. “Qualified decent. The way the stages are, you can either choose to finish the stage out, get stage points, but you have to restart way in the middle of the pack.
“Or (you can) pit early. That’s kind of the strategy we wanted to do.”
Sacrificing stage points by pitting early proved beneficial at the end of the race.
“Today, even though you hate giving up stage points, you just get yourself ahead of all the mess,” said Blaney, who finished more than 33 seconds behind the race winner. “You can kind of get in your own rhythm, do your own thing, not have to worry about someone behind you and in front of you all the time.
“A real decent day for the PPG Ford Mustang. Those top two guys were just gone. All the Gibbs cars looked pretty good. They got something figured out.”
KYLE LARSON HAPPY WITH TOP-10 RUN AT SONOMA
Even though Kyle Larson won the pole for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Sonoma Raceway—for the third straight year, no less—his outlook for the race itself wasn’t one of confidence.
Though lightning fast for one lap, Larson has never been quick over the long run and had never finished better than 12th at the technical road course. Until Sunday.
Though Larson lost the lead to William Byron on the first lap and gradually fell back through the field, he recovered during the final 46-lap green-flag run to finish 10th and was far from disappointed with the result.
“It was better than normal for us,” Larson said. “I fell back early but I was just taking care of my stuff. I seem to be a lot better on long runs than normal, so I’m happy about that. And we came away with a top 10. So it was good.
“I finished better than I ever have here, so it was an improvement. We were just better on the long runs. So I was able to pass a lot of people there throughout that last stint. I was happy about it. We got stage points, which was good, so it was a good point day.”
Larson heads to next week’s race at Chicagoland Speedway 15th in the series standings, still looking for his first victory of the season.