The Toyota Owners 400 came to an end in wild fashion after Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman passed Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin to reach Victory Lane for the first time this season. He became the eighth NASCAR driver to win in 2021, but he was not the only one drawing attention after the checkered flag waved.
While the attention is shifting to the upcoming Geico 500 at Talladega, there are still some important takeaways from the Toyota Owners 400 to revisit. One team continued to improve after some early-season struggles while another continued to dominate in a variety of ways.
Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing highlights the list after he posted a top-10 finish for the first time in 2021. The driver of the No. 21 Ford Mustang, DiBenedetto reached the playoffs in 2020 and continued to create conversations about his talent. However, this year’s schedule started off poorly for the 29-year-old.
The Wood Brothers team has fought through numerous issues
DiBenedetto has dealt with several problems that ruined the early portion of the schedule. His team’s air gun broke during a tire change, forcing him to complete one race with only three fresh tires and another completely worn. He cut a brake line in another race and even kicked off the 36-race schedule by only completing 14 laps of the Daytona 500 due to a massive wreck involving several other drivers.
DiBenedetto started the season with 33rd, 37th, and 28th-place finishes in the first three races before making his way into the top-20 at Las Vegas. He has since continued to race in the top-20, even recovering from suspension damage at Martinsville Speedway and finishing 12th overall.
Weekend in review pic.twitter.com/0BCd1F2lt5
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) April 19, 2021
Sunday’s race at Richmond was DiBenedetto’s best outing of the season. He raced near the front of the pack all afternoon, reaching the top-10 late in Stage 3. The team fell one lap down after Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano lapped DiBenedetto, but he continued pushing, made it back on the lead lap, and finished the day with some stage points. To cap off the performance, DiBenedetto did so at a track where his previous best finish was 14th.
“Feel like it was long overdue, but we got into the top 10 finally, so that’s good,” DiBenedetto told reporters after the race, per FrontStretch.com. “We’ve had some rough circumstances that put us into a hole at the start of the year, but we knew that we had plenty of speed and obviously, a great team. It was good to come here and at a track, too, that I really wouldn’t consider one that I’ve had a ton of success at in the past, so that was definitely rewarding.”
Denny Hamlin’s winless start to 2021 is not a concern
The driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota Camry came within 10 laps of winning his first race of the 2021 season, but Bowman took away this opportunity with his late pass. Despite finishing second once again, Hamlin revealed that he has no concerns about his playoff positioning.
According to Jeff Gluck of The Athletic, Hamlin said after the Toyota Owners 400 that he would rather be where he is in regard to the bigger picture. Bowman won the race, but Hamlin said that the No. 11 team is “smashing everyone.”
Hamlin currently leads the entire field in points. He has 434 points after eight top-five finishes in nine races. He holds an 81-point lead over Martin Truex Jr., who has won two races in 2021. Logano sits in third with 352 points while Bowman is 13th overall.
The playoffs feature 16 drivers — the regular-season points champion and the 15 drivers with the most wins. Hamlin and Truex are essentially locks to reach the playoffs after nine races due to their strong performances each week. Other drivers are less certain considering the 16 races remaining in the regular season. If new drivers continue winning each week, there is a scenario where previous winners may not reach the playoffs.
The Stewart-Haas stable continues to struggle with bad luck
Some big moves by @Aric_Almirola secure him a Top 10 finish and momentum headed to 'Dega.
We're ready for the big one next week. pic.twitter.com/znMfgFPPo9
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) April 18, 2021
When the 2020 playoffs started, the Stewart-Haas team was in a prime position to pursue a championship. All four drivers — Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, and Cole Custer — were above the cutoff line while other drivers missed the playoffs.
Fast-forward to the 2021 season, and the Stewart-Haas stable has continued to struggle. Harvick, Almirola, and Custer remain winless along with rookie Chase Briscoe, who replaced Bowyer. Although Harvick is still eighth in points after posting two top-five finishes to start the season.
Two drivers continued to struggle on Sunday at Richmond. Briscoe and Custer finished 22nd and 23rd, respectively, after spending the majority of the race near the back of the field. Harvick turned in one of his better performances for the first 381 laps, but a flat tire ruined his chances at another top-five finish. He slid into the wall and crumpled the rear of the No. 4 Ford Mustang, ultimately returning to the track to finish 24th.
Almirola, one of the most consistent drivers in 2020, has crashed three times in 2021 and has rarely cracked the top-20 after what he called a string of bad luck. Almirola was back in contention for a top finish on Sunday, avoiding mistakes and on-track incidents. He raced his way to sixth place and scored his first stage points of the season.
Almirola will have an opportunity to build some momentum with a trip to Talladega Superspeedway. He and the other Stewart-Haas drivers will compete in the Geico 500 and try to score some much-needed playoff points. The race will take place at 2 p.m. ET on Fox.