As more and more of NASCAR‘s veteran drivers continue to retire, a new generation of young drivers has begun to roll in. Two new young stars include William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports and Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing. While Byron was fortunate enough to land a big-time ride straight out of the Xfinity Series, DiBenedetto has had to work his way up from underfunded teams.
Both drivers have started to make a name for themselves with strong finishes over the past few seasons but haven’t quite broken out with major success. Will 2021 be the year that both Byron and DiBenedetto finally have a breakout season?
After 2 1/2 years of inconsistency, William Byron finally picked up his first Cup Series victory in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway in August 2020. The event was the last race of the Cup Series regular season, and the win secured Byron’s spot in the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
However, unlike 2019, Byron failed to make it to the second round of the playoffs. He finished 5th at the Southern 500, but 21st and 38th place finishes at Richmond, and Bristol helped sink the 23-year-old’s championship hopes.
Although back-to-back playoff appearances are impressive, he’d have more success over the course of a season if he could limit how bad the bad days are. In 108 Cup Series races, Byron has finished 30th or worse 17 times. Those are the results that derail a season, putting a driver in a bigger points deficit with each poor finish. If he can find consistency and avoid wrecks, there’s no reason why Byron can’t win multiple races in 2021 and compete for a championship.
However, he’ll have to do so with a new Crew Chief. Chad Knaus, Byron’s Crew Chief the past two seasons, is taking off the headset to become the Hendrick Motorsports Vice President of Competition.
Replacing Knaus atop the pit box will be Rudy Fugle, Byron’s former Camping World Truck Series Crew Chief. In 2016, the duo won seven times and finished fifth in points. This will be Fugle’s first Cup Series job after spending seven seasons with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
With a new Crew Chief and budding success in 2020, William Byron’s looking to finally breakout with a strong 2021 season.
There might not be anyone more needing of a breakout season than Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing. DiBenedetto was offered an extension with the team through 2021, but its already been announced that young Austin Cindric will drive the iconic No. 21 in 2022.
That makes 2021 another contract year for DiBenedetto, as he’s looking to hold onto a top ride.
The 2020 season was the first time DiBenedetto saw a top ride, previously jumping around with underfunded teams. He spent the 2019 season with the now dismantled Leavine Family Racing, almost pulling an upset victory in the Bristol night race. That race helped get eyes on him, leading to the Wood Brothers deal.
With 3 top-5s and 11 top-10s in 2020, DiBenedetto made the Cup Series playoffs for the first time in the career but failed to make it to the second round. 21st, 17th, and 19th place finishes in the round of 16 led to his elimination at the Bristol night race. Seven consecutive finishes outside the top-10 ruined the No. 21 team’s momentum, with that trend carrying into the playoffs.
However, DiBenedetto is ready to forget about his early departure and focus on the 2021 season. He knows how much is on the line for his career with this upcoming season and hopes to stay in competitive equipment.
But for DiBenedetto to do so, the team needs to avoid a late-season fall-off as much as possible and maintain consistency. The team has top equipment, meaning there’s no reason why DiBenedetto can’t break-out in 2021 and make a deep playoff run.