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Matt DiBenedetto hoping to improve 1 spot at Las Vegas race

It isn’t often that a NASCAR driver whose middle name is Guido is considered among the pre-race favorites. But one could make a strong case for Matt DiBenedetto when it comes to Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The personable 29-year-old veteran from Northern California with the “Jersey Shore” middle name is still seeking his first victory in 217 Cup Series starts. But he is coming off a playoff season in which he finished second in both LVMS races and nearly spoiled Kurt Busch’s drive to his first win on his hometown track in the fall playoff race.

“Vegas was a good track for us. We were too dang close a couple of times — especially that second one,” said the driver of the iconic No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers during a recent telephone interview. “Looking forward to coming back there and hopefully improving by just one position.”

The fall race basically came down to a couple of sprints to Turn 1 matching DiBenedetto against Busch on restarts.

“We had the lead and we chose the outside (restart) line. I wish I could go back and do it over again because the outside line didn’t work out for us,” said DiBenedetto, who nearly won the 2019 Daytona 500 after leading a race-high 49 laps. “He was able to slow it down and get good launches, and I just couldn’t quite get back around him after that.”

Driven to succeed

The 1.5-mile LVMS oval has been one of DiBenedetto’s best tracks, especially in recent races. His average finish in his six starts since 2018 is 15.33, making it his third-best track over that span.

He still has a way to go to catch LVMS stalwarts such as the Team Penske tandem of Brad Keselowski (5.3 avg. finish, one win) and Joey Logano (6.0, two wins) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. (6.67, one win) atop the LVMS consistency chart. DiBenedetto is still seeking his first top 10 finish of the 2021 season, which has produced surprise winners (Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron) in the first three races.

It has been a long, difficult climb to the top of his profession, or at least close to it, for DiBenedetto since beginning his Cup Series career as a “start and park” driver.

“My path to get here has been quite out of the ordinary to say the least,” he said with a wry chuckle about starting in back and pulling off the track before the first round of pit stops to save wear and tear on equipment. “I’ve been lucky to solidify my stock in the sport, but you can never be comfortable.”

With 2020 Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric having been promised the seat in the No. 21 car for 2022, DiBenedetto is feeling a bit uncomfortable again when it comes to his racing future. But, as he says, it’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before.

“This year with the momentum we have … I think we can have a lot more success. I think I’m feeling the best I’ve ever felt,” he said before the recent infield road course race at Daytona. “I have the equipment and the team to let our performance do all the speaking for me. That’s all I could ever ask for. That’s the only position I’ve ever wanted to be in.”

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Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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Pennzoil 400 race results

Results of the NASCAR Cup race Pennzoil 400 on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.