In the midst of the vaunted Hendrick Motorsports battle, Matt DiBenedetto is fighting for his own playoff life…and he couldn’t be happier.
Matt DiBenedetto has enough to worry about at Daytona International Speedway as is.
The track’s reputation for tightly-packed racing is exhilarating in the grandstands but nerve-wracking behind the wheel. Multi-car get-togethers are common, be it via pushes for position or the Big One…or Big Ones…that seem to strike in the race’s most crucial stages. His No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford also starts Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC) in the 15th position, so he has some work to do if he wants to secure the first win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
Oh, and he’s also fighting for the first playoff berth of his NASCAR career…and members of one of NASCAR’s most lauded teams will do anything to keep him out.
For the first time, the unpredictable asphalt of Daytona will sort out the Cup Series’ 16-driver playoff field. The 400-mile race held a midseason spot on July 4 weekend since its inception in 1959, but the switch over to the regular-season finale slot has cast even more drama on one of the circuit’s most unpredictable races.
“I don’t know if it’s excited or anxious or what the emotion is,” DiBenedetto said on Thursday morning. “It’s definitely different going to Daytona with so much on the line than if we were going to a regular short track or whatever you want to call it.”
Ten drivers are already in the playoffs by virtue of a victory over the previous 25 races. Three more have reserved a spot through points. Barring complete disaster, Clint Bowyer (57 points above the cutoff) likely has his ticket punched. Any winless driver that remains in the top 30 in points can earn a ticket with a win. Daytona is the ideal place to it, as the track has produced a Cup Series-high 20 first-time winners. Otherwise, the fight for the final two spots is down to DiBenedetto, and the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and William Byron.
DiBenedetto has the current 15 seed and is nine points of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, the first car out. Byron is five points behind DiBenedetto in the 16th spot…one that would automatically turn over to a driver outside the top 30 that stole a win. Such a concept is hardly outlandish. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., trapped in 23rd place, earned his most recent win at Daytona in 2017. Down in 25th, Ryan Newman was mere feet away from winning February’s Daytona 500 before getting involved in a scary accident on the final turn.
The Hendrick duo would likely be the playoff seeds that draw ratings and headlines. Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion, is looking to end his career on the right note. It’s awkward enough that Johnson is fighting a teammate, one of the heirs to Jeff Gordon’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, for a playoff spot. But Johnson is also battling the crew chief that helped him win all those titles, Chad Knaus, who oversees the No. 24’s matters now.
Frankly, there’s a bit of disappointment on DiBenedetto’s end. A visit to victory lane has yet to materialize, but DiBenedetto had been one of the series’ more consistent drivers in 2020. He has been running at the finish in all but one race this season and his average finish of 15.2 is tied with Ryan Blaney and ahead of Johnson and Byron, as well as playoff drivers like Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Cole Custer. July saw DiBenedetto take part in his first All-Star Race, winning the All-Star Open at Bristol to gain entry.
After a third-place finish at Kentucky, DiBenedetto had a healthy 84-point on the playoff’s cutoff line. But tough finishes, including a brutal doubleheader at Dover last weekend, doomed him to standings watching at Daytona.
“Our intention is going to be focused on those guys that we’re racing for the playoff spot, and also knowing that there could be a surprise winner in there, too,” DiBenedetto said when asked if he wants constant updates on the standings during the race. “Somebody could jump in the playoffs as well that’s outside of it right now. Daytona is known for situations like that, so there’s gonna be a lot of variables and things, but that will be a big part of the focus is maybe coming to the end of stages, where those guys are, and then obviously towards the end of the race.”
“It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” he continued. “He’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing, where they’re at, if they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona so we’ll probably do that what you asked within reason.”
The Hendrick group certainly wouldn’t mind any route that allows them both to earn playoff glory. If it means DiBenedetto has to be the odd man out, so be it.
“I think we have a chance and an opportunity to get both Hendrick cars in and be able to bump the No. 21 out,” Byron said in another session on Thursday. “That’s kind of our goal and, hopefully, it works out that way.”
It’s more than likely not personal, but DiBenedetto’s No. 21 will have a huge, invisible target on its back come Saturday. But that’s perhaps just the way he likes it.
“A lot of normal people would probably be freaking out and on edge, kind of like my wife is,” the driver affectionately referred to as “Dibby” or “Matty D” said. “That would be normal. She’s having a normal reaction. She’s kind of a basket case every day and having heart failure and just can’t wait until Saturday night gets here and praying every day that we make the playoffs.”
“Those are normal human reactions to this type of stressful situation, and I think I’ve just been groomed and been through so much stress and crazy situations to fight to get here that being in this really tough situation has made me extremely mentally tough and prepared for something like this to where I’m able to stay very focused.”
DiBenedetto, 29, has earned a bit of a following for working his way up to one of NASCAR’s longest-running rodes. Save for a seven-race stint as a teenager with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series program, DiBenedetto has rarely, if ever, had strong equipment to work with. His full-time Cup career began with stints at the mid-to-low-budget efforts at BK Racing (which closed in 2018), Go Fas Racing, and Leavine Family Racing (which is set to close at the end of this season).
Throughout his career, DiBenedetto showed flashes of brilliance. In 2016, he brought home BK Racing’s first top-ten finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega in their history with a sixth-place finish at Bristol. A year later, he recorded the first top finishes for Go Fas’ No. 32 Ford.
If anything, DiBenedetto knows he’s in a much better spot than he was last season. LFR’s No. 95 Toyota offered potential for exposure through a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs. But a tough start to the season, which placed him at 23rd in the standings by mid-August, led to LFR informing him that they’d be going in another direction at the end of the year.
“Luckily, I don’t think anything quite matches the emotion I was going through around this time last year when I was unsure if I had a job or anything. That was next level,” DiBenedetto said. “My situation last year and all that is what’s made me a lot mentally tougher to come up on instances like this, where there’s a lot of pressure and a lot on the line, going into Daytona, which is crazy, and trying to make the playoffs and your whole season basically rides on right now.”
Two days after his de facto firing, DiBenedetto led a career-best 93 laps in the annual Bristol night race. He was passed by Denny Hamlin with 11 laps to go, but it left a lasting impression on the NASCAR world. Hamlin even said he felt sorry for passing DiBenedetto and denying him an elusive first victory.
The runner-up finish, the best of his career, was part of a streak of nine consecutive top 20 finishes for the No. 95. Overall, they finished in the top 20 in all but two of the final 19 races, good for LFR records. DiBenedetto earned a career-best seven top-ten finishes. That was caught the attention of Wood Brothers Racing, who chose DiBenedetto to fill in the seat the retiring Paul Menard left behind.
“It’s a big deal for us, for the 21 team, for the Wood Brothers, for us to be fighting,” he said. “To make the playoffs would be an amazing accomplishment for us and for the team most importantly. It’s so cool to be having this opportunity.”
Daytona always carries the potential to turn dreams into nightmares. DiBenedetto knows that better than most, especially in more recent times. The No. 95 led the most laps (49) at the 2019 Daytona 500 but it got caught up in a big wreck (ironically thanks to contact initiated by the No. 21 driven by Menard) with ten regulation laps to go, ending any chance at victory. Another crash in the most recent edition in February denied him a stronger finish, pushing him to 19th.
But DiBenedetto knows that no matter the result on Saturday, he’s pleased where his NASCAR journey has taken him. No one, even any of his detractors watching this weekend, can take that away from him.
“I think just my path and my journey to get here has been so out of the ordinary and so tough, where I fight and claw, it’s just taught me that all I can do is worry about what I can control,” he said. “There are always going to be things that are out of my control that I really just can’t sit and worry about too much, and my path to get here has taught me that because I have pushed and pushed and pushed as hard as humanly possible and dedicated my entire life to it.”
“But even aside from all the hard work, a million different things out of my control had to happen for me to still be here and this playoff situation is another one of those instances that my whole career has been packed full of is there’s gonna be things that are out of mine and our control because Daytona is just kind of a crazy race. You can’t be in control of what everybody does in the field that can affect you, so as my dad put it this week he was like, ‘Do the best you can and the rest of it is gonna be in God’s hands, so don’t sit and worry about it too much all week.’”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags