Craig Murto

Craig Murto

Daytona did not disappoint, despite expectations to the contrary.

Following some rather boring qualifying races on Thursday, plus an Xfinity race on Saturday of mostly single-file action, fans expected Sunday’s Daytona 500 to be boring. The most exciting thing all week was Joey Logano’s last-lap pass to win his qualifying race, and the Friday night Gander Outdoors Truck Series carnage that resulted in only nine trucks running at the end of the race.

They were wrong.

Aided in part by the warmest day all week in Daytona Beach, fans saw incredible side-by-side racing. The cars are sensitive to track surface temperature, and for the first time all week the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars were able to line up on the bottom and make the bottom groove work as afternoon temperatures rose above 80 degrees.

Thanks in part to his incredible racecraft in Thursday’s qualifying races. Joey Logano was the favorite heading into the 500, according to online gambling sites. But it didn’t take long for the crowd and TV viewing favorite to emerge as Matt DiBenedetto.

Last season DiBenedetto made one of the gutsiest gambles a racer could make; he announced he was leaving his ride with Go Fas Racing when he had nothing else offered to him. He simply felt he had to make himself available, and hoped an opportunity arose. It was a risky gamble on himself.

His gamble paid off when Leavine Family Racing (LFR) announced they parted company with Kasey Kahne and hired DiBenedetto. Not only that, but LFR entered into a technical agreement with Joe Gibbs Racing and hired former Denny Hamlin crew chief Mike Wheeler to sit on the pit box.

For much of the race, DiBenedetto was the top-running Toyota. In the record books he led the most laps. But with the laps counting down, while battling in the top 10, Paul Menard misjudged and turned DiBenedetto, causing the first of two red flags before the race could finish.

The best thing about DiBenedetto is that he didn’t buy his way into the top level of the sport. Blue collar fans can relate to him. His parents moved from California to the East Coast so that he could race Late Models, which he did successfully in the now defunct United Auto Racing Association (UARA) tour, where he won top rookie honors in 2007. But his parents couldn’t afford to buy his way any farther up the ladder; he forged those opportunities himself.

In a way, DiBenedetto has come full circle, now that he drives for a team that is a Joe Gibbs satellite operation. In 2010 he ran part time for Gibbs in the Xfinity series, scoring two top-10 finishes in six races.

As heartbreaking as the end of the race was for DiBenedetto, he proved that not only is he in good equipment, but he knows how to wheel it. The season is young, and there will be plenty of chances for DiBenedetto to shine.

In the end the race had a storybook, emotional ending. Joe Gibbs Racing’s co-founder and Joe Gibbs’ son J.D. Gibbs died a month ago of a neurological disorder at the age of 49. Emotions ran high when Gibbs cars finished the 500 in first, second and third, and Hamlin dedicated the win to J.D. Joe Gibbs himself stated that even considering his three Super Bowl wins, the Daytona 500 win and one-two-three finish on Sunday in honor of J.D. was the greatest victory he ever experienced.

The 500 destroyed half the cars entered, but all of them will be headed to the junkyard. When the Cup competitors arrive at Talladega, they’ll have new engine and aerodynamic packages to compete with. Hopefully it’ll make the cars naturally competitive, and not lead to the single-file racing fans saw most of last week.

The big question is what the competition will look like at Atlanta with the new high-downforce package, similar to that used in last year’s all-star race at Charlotte. We’ll see when cars hit the track this weekend.

The closest race all weekend was on two wheels in the Monster Energy Supercross Series, which competed in Arlington, Texas. Cooper Webb on a KTM caught Ken Roczen’s Honda at the end to win the 450 class by inches in the closest finish in Supercross history. Webb also grabs the point lead with the victory.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.