The 21-car "Big One" pile-up of the first red flag of the 2018 Daytona 500 has turned NASCAR star Matt DiBenedetto's "most incredible" day into a "heartbreaking" one.
In his first race with the Leavine Family Racing Toyota team, DiBenedetto was a contender for victory and led almost a quarter of the distance.
It was a remarkable performance for a driver and team who had never passed seventh in the World Cup, but it was over when Paul Menard started DiBenedetto in a lap with 10 laps to finish fourth.
The crash of several cars that followed brought together 20 other drivers.
"It was the most incredible and heartbreaking day of the day," said DiBenedetto.
"It was unbelievable how fast my car was, it was heartbreaking, but it was really nice to drive so many laps."
Ménard quickly apologized to DiBenedetto after the crash, a gesture immediately accepted.
"It was just a race contract – nothing intentional," DiBenedetto said.
"I have an excellent relationship with Paul, I think he was trying to sneak into my outside but was not quite there."
"When he hit me, he cut me off the right back and tilted me in. It was just the race."
Menard called the crash "my worst" and confirmed that he had just tried to make an out-of-line exit.
"It was" go "and I pushed number 95, said Ménard.
"It seemed like he was trying to get to the center, so I tried to go outside, I just hung and destroyed a lot of cars."
DiBenedetto begins his fifth season of Cup after having started with BK Racing before passing 2017 and 18 with Go FAS Racing.
He announced late last season that he would be heading in a different direction for 2019 and was later revealed to the position of full-time substitute of Kasey Kahne in Leavine.
The small team from Leavine – whose previous riders included former Formula One rider Scott Speed - was hoping for a breakthrough in 2018 after signing the winner of the 18 Kahne Cup Cup after losing his Hendrick Motorsports seat. .
But Kahne had a difficult start to the year, then announced his retirement, before ending his NASCAR career following health problems related to extreme heat exhaustion.
In the midst of this disappointment, Leavine got a transformative offside contract by getting additional support from Toyota and a technical alliance with NASCAR brand leader Joe Gibbs Racing.
Gibbs – who finished 1-2-3 at Daytona with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones – had capacity for a new team partner after the closure of Furniture Row Racing, which brought Martin Truex Jr to the 2017 title with the JGR support.
Instead of moving from one team of outsiders to another, DiBenedetto has therefore launched in 2019 with the support of one of the most powerful and successful organizations in NASCAR.
"I'm used to different situations where we have worked with small, underfunded teams and made the most of what we had," DiBenedetto said.
"But that … I had a lot of equipment under me."
Although only credited with a 28th place in a race, he was a true contender for victory, DiBenedetto left Daytona optimistic.
"There is still a lot to do," he said. "I'm heartbroken, but there are a lot of positives.
"We built these cars quickly, we had a lot of changes with this team and we went out and drove as many laps as possible.
"We have a lot of momentum for the season."