NASCAR Cup: Matt DiBenedetto hoping for a win in midst of momentum swing to secure playoff spot

HAMPTON, GEORGIA - JUNE 07: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #21 Menards/Knauf Ford, and crew stand for the national anthem prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 07, 2020 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Coming off a 13th place finish in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series standings, Matt DiBenedetto had high aspirations for the 2021 season. He had just announced his return to Wood Brothers Racing and the No. 21 car, the first competitive full-time car the 30-year-old has driven in his career. DiBenedetto was in contention to win races several times in 2020, and things looked encouraging towards a successful 2021 campaign.

Unfortunately, things haven’t gone as smoothly as hoped for DiBenedetto this year. Currently sitting 18th in the playoff standings, DiBenedetto is in a must-win situation with two races left in the regular season. He’s mathematically eliminated from a playoff berth on points, meaning a win is his only option to get in.

While a win may seem unlikely, many factors over the next two races are in DiBenedetto’s favor. Michigan and Daytona are the next two tracks on the schedule, and both are places where DiBenedetto has had success. He had a pair of top-15 finishes at Michigan last season and has been one of the fastest cars at restrictor-plate races in his Wood Brothers tenure.

“Michigan should be a good one. Hopefully a decent race for us, but Daytona is its own animal,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s just crazy how many different winners we’ve had and then you throw Daytona in the mix and there’s always an opportunity for a surprise winner. Obviously, it’s good for us in a sense because the last two years in a row we’ve been leading on the white flag at superspeedway races, so me and my team do a really good job and our cars are fast at them, so it’s good on our end.”

Most importantly, the No. 21 team has momentum building with five consecutive top-11 finishes. The team has struggled with consistency this season, but the has much improved since the Pocono Doubleheader weekend.

“We’ve been trying to get a win for Matt and still through the rest of the year, we’re trying to get that 100th win for the Wood Brothers,” crew chief Jonathan Hassler said prior to last weekend’s race at Indianapolis. “We’re just trying to put the best race cars together we can each week, improve from one week to the next, and let the results and the outcomes from the results kind of take care of themselves.”

It took the No. 21 team nine races to break the top-10 this season but rattled off three consecutive finishes of ninth or better to follow. After DiBenedetto’s mini-streak, the team returned to mediocrity with eight consecutive finishes of 18th or worse. DiBenedetto felt the team needed a personnel change, and he requested to part ways with then crew chief Greg Irwin. The team appointed Jonathan Hassler to the top of the pit box, and within four races of his leadership, DiBenedetto returned to the top-10. He’s now finished 11th or better in all five races since the Pocono Doubleheader.

“I’m very fortunate for what has happened, [and] that Jonathan Hassler came and took over this team and [that] our worst runs are 11th-place finishes,” DiBenedetto said. “Our team is rocking and rolling. It’s clicked. The whole dynamic is there and our performance, if you look at it, is significantly improved. I talk about it all the time. Performance is what does all the speaking for me and for us, so I’m very fortunate to have Hassler that has taken over this team and to have such an incredible entire group”.

Momentum is on DiBenedetto’s side with two races remaining in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season. However, to race for a championship, DiBenedetto will need to find victory lane at either Michigan or Daytona.