NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

The NASCAR Cup Series heads Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Sunday’s race is one of the longest events of the season: 325 laps and 500 miles. Tire ware will be key, as Atlanta’s old surface wears tires down significantly after just a few laps. Here are three drivers to watch:

Kevin Harvick

Atlanta Motor Speedway has always been one of Kevin Harvick’s best tracks. His first career victory came there in 2001 and he’s won two of the last four events at the track. Harvick’s finished in the top-10 in half of his races at Atlanta (15 of 30), and he has an average finish of 15.8.

Through five races this season, Harvick’s primarily ran up front with four top-5s but has yet to secure a checkered flag. Expect Harvick to contend on Sunday.

Brad Keselowski

Similarly to Harvick, Brad Keselowski has won two of the last four Cup Series events at Atlanta. He’s finished in the top-10 in 8 of 12 races at the track with an average finish of 14.6. Keselowski hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 at Atlanta since the 2014 fall race.

Keselowski has already picked up three top-5s this season, including a fourth place effort last weekend in Phoenix. He has yet to win this season, so expect Keselowski to be there at the end.

Matt DiBenedetto

Through five races, Matt DiBenedetto has had a lot of trouble putting things together in 2021. After three races finishing 28th or worse to start the season, DiBenedetto has picked up a pair of top-20s to advance into the top-30 of the standings.

Atlanta has by no means been DiBenedetto’s best track over his career, as he’s failed to place better than 25th in five races. However, with pressure mounting on him, expect DiBenedetto to finally piece together a good run and get back into points contention.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch for this weekend in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube

The NASCAR Cup Series begins their two-race West Coast swing on Sunday, stopping in Las Vegas for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube. Sunday’s event will be 267 laps around the 1.5 mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second intermediate track of the season. Here are three drivers to watch:

Matt DiBenedetto

There’s no other way to say it, but Matt DiBenedetto has gotten off to a horrific start in 2021. DiBenedetto sits 34th in the standings with just 14 points earned through three races.

However, DiBenedetto has a great chance to turn his misfortunes around this weekend. Last season, DiBenedetto finished 2nd in both Las Vegas races, as Fords have run strong there the past few seasons. With DiBenedetto far behind in points and looking for a new ride next season, he must have a strong run this weekend. He also has the chance to win his first race, something that would be career-changing.

Joey Logano

Joey Logano has gotten off to a solid start in 2021. He’s registered 14th, 2nd, and 25th place finishes to open up his 13th full-time season. Logano’s accumulated a lot of stage points in the first two races of the season, putting him 3rd in points.

A win this weekend would be Logano’s third straight in the Las Vegas spring race. He’s placed in the top-5 six times over his career, meaning he’s shown to consistently run up front there. With a victory, Logano would punch his ticket to the playoffs and potentially assume first place in the standings.

Martin Truex Jr.

They don’t call him mile and a half Martin for no reason.

Over the past seven seasons, Martin Truex Jr. has been one of the strongest on the NASCAR circuit at intermediate tracks. 16 of his 27 Cup Series wins have come on intermediate tracks, including two wins at Las Vegas.

Coming into this weekend, Truex Jr. sits ninth in points after a 3rd place finish at Homestead-Miami. After a down year in 2020, Truex Jr. should be a major threat to put up his first victory of the season.

NASCAR: Three drivers in need of a strong run this weekend at Homestead-Miami

Through two races in the 2021 Cup Series season, we’ve seen some of NASCAR‘s top drivers have a mixed bag of results thus far. Denny Hamlin sits first in points after two top-5s to start the year, while Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are right behind him.

However, there are a handful of drivers who have gotten off to brutal starts this year. Headlined by wrecks, Matt Dibenedetto, Tyler Reddick, and William Byron are already in a giant points hole and have a lot of work to do if they want to make the playoffs. All three drivers need strong runs this weekend at Homestead-Miami to begin their points comeback.

Matt DiBenedetto

DiBenedetto has gotten off to a terrible start in 2021, getting caught up in wrecks during both the Daytona 500 and the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 Road Course race. He’s received just five points all season and sits 37th in points.

Homestead hasn’t ever been a great track for DiBenedetto, but he’s only raced there once in good equipment. He finished 14th there last season but has otherwise never placed in the top-20. This weekend’s a great time for DiBenedetto to finally get a top-10 in South Beach.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick, like DiBenedetto, has wrecked in both races to start 2021. A 27th place in the Daytona 500 and a 38th place finish at the Daytona Road Course puts him 33rd in points heading to Homestead-Miami.

This race is definitely one of the events that Reddick has had circled on the calendar for this season. Homestead-Miami is one of Reddick’s best tracks and a place where he could contend for the win. Reddick finished fourth in Homestead last year and won the Xfinity Series race there in both 2018 and 2019. Expect Reddick to run up front all day and collect a lot of stage points.

William Byron

Byron has had tough sledding to start 2021, wrecking in the Daytona 500 and finishing a lap down on the Road Course. 26th and 33rd place finishes have him 29th in points and well outside the playoff line.

In three Cup Series starts at Homestead, Byron has one top-10 and two finishes outside the top-20. He does, however, have a win in South Beach in the Camping World Truck Series and a top-5 in the Xfinity Series. Expect Byron to run up front and contend for the win and stage points.

 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Wood Brothers Racing

Matt DiBenedetto’s immediate NASCAR future is secure. But such temporary stability could set the tone for the rest of his NASCAR career.

2021 Wood Brothers Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Matt DiBenedetto 21 Greg Erwin Motorcraft/Menards/Quick Lane

History

Founded by brothers Leonard and the late Glen, Wood Brothers Racing has been a NASCAR Cup Series staple since the 1950s. Though the team has yet to secure an elusive championship, some of auto racing’s most illustrious, most accomplished names have piloted their trademark No. 21 Ford. Winners with the Woods include Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, and Dale Jarrett. The team has accrued 99 NASCAR Cup Series victories, the last coming with Ryan Blaney in 2017. Among that tally is five wins at the Daytona 500, with the most recent in that slot being Trevor Bayne’s upset win in the 2011 edition. Only Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports have won more. Though the team has struggled in modern times, Blaney and current driver Matt DiBenedetto have brought them back into contention. Blaney’s victory, earned at Pocono, was the first Wood win at a non-superspeedway race since 2001 (Elliott Sadler at Bristol) while DiBenedetto was the first non-Blaney driver to earn double-digit top tens finishes (11) since Michael Waltrip in 1996. The team now holds a technical alliance with Team Penske, where Blaney currently drives the No. 12 Ford.

2020 in Review

Taking over the No. 21 from a retiring Paul Menard, DiBenedetto continued his successful climb through the cutthroat world of the Cup Series after placing the No. 95 Toyota at defunct Leavine Family Racing in the top ten seven times during the 2019 campaign. The 11 top tens were a career-best for the driver affectionately referred to as “Matty D”, who posted runner-up finishes in both Las Vegas events, as well as a third at Kentucky. Though a win proved elusive once more, DiBenedetto reached the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career, allowing him to come home 13th in the final standings…yet another career-best. DiBenedetto is still seeking his first NASCAR victory, though he did the All-Star Open at Bristol over the summer to gain entry into the exhibition’s main event. He nearly earned that victory at Talladega’s fall event, but Denny Hamlin stole the trophy while DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish was erased due to a controversial penalty (driving below the yellow line) relegating him to 21st.

Though his playoff showing ended rather quickly, DiBenedetto was signed to a one-year extension by the Woods, though he will vacate the ride next season to make room for Penske developmental driver and defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric.

Meet the Driver

Matt DiBenedetto

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 13th
Best standings finish: 13th (2020)

It’s not surprising that DiBenedetto has gained a strong following during his NASCAR career. Rarely granted opportunities in strong equipment..save for seven races in Joe Gibbs’ Nationwide (now Xfinity) program in 2009-10…DiBenedetto has made the most of his chances in underfunded rides. He was responsible for defunct BK Racing’s best finish (6th at Bristol in 2016) and currently owns the lone top-ten Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 has achieved at a non-superspeedway (8th at Indianapolis in 2017). During the 2019 Bristol summer race, the victorious Hamlin said he was “sorry” for passing DiBenedetto’s No. 95 with 12 laps to go.

DiBenedetto has said the the confidence built over the past few seasons has offset the uncertainty looming after 2021.

“We’re ready as a team,” DiBenedetto said in preparation for Daytona. “The first bit of last year I don’t think we were ready to win because we had a lot to learn, we had a lot to learn about each other, and then it finally clicked like I was talking about and then I felt like we were ready…The best car doesn’t always win, so I think we are ready to put ourselves in position consistently to win and I think that’s how it’s gonna come for us and I feel like this year is definitely our year.”

Adding to DiBenedetto’s confidence is his strong finish to 2020. Had the Talladega runner-up posting remained, his average finish over the last seven races would’ve been 9.1.

Outlook

The time appears to be now for DiBenedetto. It might be a crushing hit for the No. 21 that one of the Bristol events has been bestowed the unpredictability of dirt, but there’s enough momentum with his team to get things rolling on a more consistent basis. It’s great that DiBenedetto worked his way into the playoffs last year (the second time a WBR vehicle made it), but he may need to both earn that elusive victory and advance a playoff round to maintain the decent equipment he’s working with. Since the No. 21 is being turned over to Cindric next year, this season serves as a de facto 36-race elevator pitch for Matty D.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR: Matt DiBenedetto to stay in Wood Brothers’ No. 21 for 2021

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Wood Brothers Racing next NASCAR season, but will abdicate the No. 21 to Austin Cindric the following year.

The number 21 proved to be both aces and bust for Matt DiBenedetto on Thursday. 

Wood Brothers Racing, the NASCAR Cup Series’ longest-running team, announced that DiBenedetto would return to pilot their historic No. 21 Ford, but only for next season. Xfinity Series standout Austin Cindric is set to take over in 2022. Cindric has also signed a multi-year with Team Penske, with whom WBR shares a technical alliance.

While the situation seems bittersweet for DiBenedetto, the 29-year-old expressed only excitement and gratitude in a statement released by the team.

“It’s such an honor to be able to continue to drive for Wood Brothers Racing and have another year to grow with this organization,” DiBenedetto said in the statement. “I am excited to learn from our 2020 notebook and I’m confident that with a full season under our belt and working together as a team, we will produce even better results. I also want to thank Ford Performance and Team Penske for their efforts in making this happen.

“These types of decisions take a lot of time, as we all know there are a lot of factors in play. All three groups want to make the best decisions for everyone involved and I’m appreciative to have the opportunity to continue to compete for such a legendary race team.”

Founded by the titular Wood brothers (Leonard and the late Glen) in 1950, the No. 21 Ford has been a staple on the Cup Series tracks. Previous drivers to take the wheel include A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett, and Ryan Blaney. The team has won 99 Cup Series, its most recent coming with Blaney in a 2017 race at Pocono.

While DiBenedetto is still seeking his first Cup Series win, he has gained himself a strong following after working his way up through the lower-tiers of auto racing. He raced for several low-budget teams at the Cup Series level prior to joining WBR, posting respectable results in subpar equipment. DiBenedetto’s patience was rewarded with his first NASCAR playoff berth. Through 31 of 36 races, he has earned a career-best eight top-ten finishes in the No. 21. He’s also tied his personal best with three top-five postings, including a pair of runner-up results at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February and September. Another runner-up finish at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday was taken from him when NASCAR determined that DiBenedetto forced race-winner Denny Hamlin out of bounds below the track’s yellow line.

In July, DiBenedetto raced his way into the NASCAR All-Star Race after winning the All-Star Open beforehand.

Though DiBenedetto was eliminated from championship contention after the first round, he was very hopeful about what the future had in store, continually expressing interest in re-upping with the Woods.

“I feel like the Wood Brothers are an amazing family, and you can tell they ooze confidence in me, and that’s such an amazing feeling. The same with Team Penske and our alliance with them,” DiBenedetto said after his more recent second-place run in Vegas. “I can feel that everyone has confidence in me and our team and knows we’re only going to continue to get much better.”

Cindric will take over the ride in 2022, as NASCAR is expected to run its highly touted “Next Gen” racecar. He will compete for Rookie of the Year honors behind the wheel the No. 21, but he will run select races with Team Penske next season. Cindric has enjoyed a breakout year in the Xfinity Series realm, winning five races in Penske’s No. 22 Ford. He currently sits in second place in the standings with five races to go.

It’s possible Cindric could take over one of team owner Roger Penske’s current full-time cars, which include Blaney in the No. 12 and former Cup Series champions Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in the Nos 2 and 22 respectively. Each of Penske’s three full-time cars likewise made the Cup Series playoffs, with Keselowski and Logano still in contention for the title.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Sunday afternoon with the Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kurt Busch finally hits the jackpot at hometown Las Vegas

Vegas fortune smiled upon hometown racer Kurt Busch, whose first victory in Sin City moved him into the NASCAR Cup Series semifinals.

Racing at his hometown track of Las Vegas, Kurt Busch experienced a streak of good luck during the South Point 400’s latter stages. Like any good player, Busch knew when to walk…or, in this case, drive…away.

Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet led the final 26 laps of Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Sin City native earned the first win at his hometown track in 22 starts and clinched a berth in the upcoming Round of 8, which will begin on October 18 at Kansas after the next two races at Talladega and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course. It’s good for Busch’s first win in 47 races, dating back to last summer at Kentucky Speedway.

After a delirious Busch crossed the start/finish line, he was congratulated by both his younger brother Kyle and teammate Matt Kenseth.

“Matt Kenseth and I go back the furthest out of anybody,” Busch said. “It’s great to have him as a teammate right now and somebody that created stability for the 42 car, and to run with him and to share notes, it’s the best that we can be right now, with no practice and no normal sequences.

“With my little brother, our relationship has blossomed this year with being travel buddies and staying in a family bubble together and respecting the COVID process together, just to share stories and get caught up with things that we never talked about before, and to have him be the first one to give me the congratulatory donut down the back straightaway, it was a flashback of Legend car racing when we were growing up as kids together. Older brother always wins!”

Busch’s lingered at the outskirts of the top ten for most of the night but found himself leading eight lead-lap cars while the final edition of green flag pit stops got underway. While leaders and playoff contenders Denny Hamlin and Alex Bowman visited for service, the caution came out when Bowman’s teammate Jimmie Johnson lost a tire with 30 laps to go. Busch and his gang of holdouts were able to pit without losing their track position. The No. 1 paced those who came to pit road and emerged second behind Matt DiBenedetto. The latter’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford pitted two laps prior to the Johnson caution.

Over the last 26 laps, Busch immediately took the lead and held off a furious challenge from DiBenedetto to take home the win. Busch also had to deal with two further cautions but earned the race victory by a 0.148-second margin. Hamlin, who led a race-best 121 of 267 laps, finished third in front of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Bowman’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet rounded out the top five. The strong run from Hamlin comes in his first race after announcing he would start a race team with basketball legend Michael Jordan and on-track competitor Bubba Wallace.

“We needed everything to go perfect in this round to advance to the Round of Eight,” Busch said of his Sunday. “You never want to count yourself out as a championship contender, but we knew we needed to work a little harder to keep pace with (Hamlin), to keep pace with (Kevin Harvick). There are the (Team Penske) guys that are strong, and I saw the (Harvick) tonight struggling, and (Kyle Busch) was running around me a lot tonight.

“You never know when your moment is going to come and the yellow came out at a perfect opportunity for us, and so yes, we’re advanced through to the Round of Eight. I still think it’s important to grab points at Talladega and the Roval. We just don’t have any ill side effects that are going to pop up these next two weeks. So we still need to go out there and put points in our pocket.”

DiBenedetto enjoyed a strong run in the midst of a trying period. The No. 21 Ford was eliminated from playoff contention last week at Bristol and it remains to be seen that DiBenedetto will return to the car next season. However, he still feels that he and his squad have a lot to race for.

The middle stage of the three-race Round of 12 in the Cup Series postseason will come at Talladega Superspeedway’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races run at the track.

 Mandatory Credit: Gerry Broome/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

Race Notes

  • Playoff contender Chase Elliott won each of the first two 80-lap stages, but late-race shuffling relegated him to a 22nd-place finish. Elliott enters Talladega 10 points above the cutoff to ninth place.

 

  • Busch’s younger brother Kyle finished sixth. It was overall a victorious weekend for the Busch family, as Kyle’s five-year-old son Brexton earned his first win in Beginner Box Stock racing on Saturday. Kyle Busch is currently the first driver out, nine points behind eighth-place Bowman.

 

  • Austin Dillon, the Round of 12’s most pleasant surprise, lost a belt for power steering in the early portions of the third stage. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet finished 32nd after spending eight laps making repairs, leaving Dillon 32 points out of advancement.

 

  • Dillon’s day capped off a brutal weekend for RCR. Rookie Tyler Reddick was one of four cars who failed to finish after ending the second stage in the wall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

ESM’s Guide to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

As the NASCAR’s postseason gets underway in Darlington on Sunday night, ESM has you covered for the road ahead.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway at Darlington Raceway tonight. 16 drivers enter the 10-race gauntlet, with four eliminated after every three races. The proceedings wrap up in Phoenix this November, and drivers can advance to the next leg of the tournament with a win in the preceding circuit.

ESM has you covered with lineup and the road (pun much intended) ahead…

The Drivers

1. Kevin Harvick

Team: No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
2020 Wins: 7 (Darlington 1, Atlanta, Pocono 1, Indianapolis, Michigan 1, Michigan 2, Dover 2)
Best Prior Finish: 2014 Champion

In this era of lost qualifying and practice, Harvick hasn’t been making a Hall-of-Fame case. As the 2014 Cup Series champion, the man who took over for the late Dale Earnhardt, and his impact on both the Cup and Xfinity levels, Harvick was probably going to Charlotte anyway. But his sheer dominance in going from motorhome to car has been nothing short of extraordinary. Only four races have ended with Harvick outside of the top ten and only a pair of visits to Daytona has stopped him from a streak of 13 consecutive top-five finishes. Through his seven wins (matching seven stages wins as well), Harvick has earned a Cup Series-record 57 playoff points, building himself a solid cushion that could sustain him all the way to Phoenix.

They Said It: “We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had…Our theory is not that you change gears and try to do something different, it’s you better be ready and already have been in that mode.”-Harvick on building momentum for the playoffs

2. Denny Hamlin (-10 points behind)

Team: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: Chris Gabehart
2020 Wins: 6 (Daytona Winter, Darlington 2, Homestead, Pocono 2, Kansas, Dover 1)
Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2010)

At Harvick’s side every step of the way has been Hamlin. Since entering the Cup Series in 2006, his No. 11 Toyota has accomplished almost everything there is to earn on the premier levels. February saw him win his third Daytona 500 (and second in a row, the first to do that since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95) and he added five more victories, giving him 43 since starting his Cup career. His career began with a third-place standings finish in his rookie year (the first rookie to qualify for what was then the Chase for the Sprint Cup) and he reached the final four last season, nine years after a runner-up finish. All that’s missing is an elusive Cup championship. Like Harvick, Hamlin was able to build a sizable lead over the cutoffs, currently lead the first won by 47 points thanks to his six wins and tying the No. 4 for the most stage wins with seven. Since teaming with new crew chief Gabehart last season, Hamlin has visited victory lane 12 times.

They Said It: “A lot of stuff has changed on and off the race track. I think I’ve changed a little bit as a driver. I’ve just adapted quite a bit as well. It’s tough to say what has automatically just flipped the switch and made the results what they’ve been over the last two years or less than two years. Certainly, there’s a process we’ve put in to preparing for each week that is working for us, it’s working for me. Me and Chris have just kind of got a thing going that’s working for us. I don’t really know what it is, I just know that we’re performing at tracks that haven’t necessarily and statistically been strong suits for us. Each and every week we’re contending for the race win. I don’t know why that is, but it’s just happening.”-Hamlin on what’s been the difference for him over the last two seasons.

3. Brad Keselowski (-28)

Team: No. 2 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins
2020 Wins: 3 (Charlotte 1, Bristol, New Hampshire)
Best Prior Finish: 2012 Champion

The epic battle between Harvick and Hamlin has somewhat covered up Keselowski’s strong season. A strong summer propelled him to the third seed on the initial playoff grid, boosted by a streak of eight consecutive finishes no worse than 11th. Keselowski has worked his magic during his first season under Bullins, who came over from teammate Ryan Blaney’s pit stall during a Penske shakeup. He got off to a strong start in last year’s playoff proceedings, with top fives in each of the three first-round races. But a wreck at Talladega (site of five prior wins) put him in a hole and ended his chances at another trophy hoist at Homestead.

They Said It: I think I’ve been in this position now seven of the last eight years, in the playoffs, really eight of the last nine years and I’ve brought it home once, which is great. I’m super-proud of that. It’s more than I thought I’d ever accomplish in my entire life. And so I’ll always be proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wanting to stop there. It doesn’t mean that I want to leave this sport with my one Cup and go home and tell my grandkids about it for the next hopefully 40-50 years, however long I’ve got to live. I’d rather tell them about two than one, but the reality is a championship is much bigger than a driver. They put the driver’s name on the trophy, but I’ve never seen a driver win a championship. I’ve seen a lot of damn good teams win championships.”-Keselowski on his No. 2 team

4. Joey Logano (-35)

Team: No. 22 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe
2020 Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Phoenix)
Best Prior Finish: 2018 Champion

Logano was the driver to beat prior to the coronavirus-induced pause, winning two of the first four races of the season, including the winter visit to the championship site in Phoenix. He struggled to regain speed once things got rolling again, but heated up as summer rolled on. The No. 22 won each of the first two stages at the regular-season finale at Daytona before a late wreck ended his day. It broke a streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes for the Connecticut native, who is likewise working through a year with a new crew chief in Wolfe. The Cup veteran helped guide Keselowski to his championship in 2012.

They Said It: (The wins) feel like a long time ago…Way too long. We’re ready to win again, but I do feel like we’re getting close back to that same point as we were. To me, there’s no doubt when we went back racing we weren’t where we wanted to be. I even said it a few times, almost like a lost puppy not knowing what road to go down to get back to where we need to be, and it’s hard to find that direction without practice. Going to a different racetrack every week it’s hard to grow. It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year. We can get ourselves in position to win again and I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”-Logano on his 2020 season

5. Chase Elliott (-37)

Team: No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
2020 Wins: 2 (Charlotte 2, Daytona Road Course)
Best Prior Finish: 5th (2017)

The early stages of the return to action were defined by bad luck for Elliott, who was denied several further opportunities for bonus points throughout the year. For example, contact from behind from Kyle Busch denied him a win at an earlier Darlington event this season and an ill-advised move to pit prior to overtime cost him an illustrious Coca-Cola 600 trophy. Elliott was able to get back to victory lane at Daytona, winning the first Cup Series event on the track’s road course his third straight at such a track. It was part of a streak where Elliott finished no worse than ninth in six of the final seven regular-season races. Elliott will be starting on the pole for Sunday’s opener at Darlington

They Said It: “You can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the Playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet. So, I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four. So, at the end of the day, if me being confident and knowing that we can do it, and my team knowing that (too), is the case and it is, then I think that’s really all that matters to me. But it’s certainly the goal. Certainly, if you want to win a championship, you don’t have an option. You’ve got to make it. We know that and look forward to the challenge.”-Elliott on the weight of missing the final four thus far.

6. Martin Truex Jr. (-43)

Team: No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: James Small
2020 Wins: 1 (Martinsville)
Best Prior Finish: 2017 Champion

Truex has been hotter than a summer down the Shore in his native Mayetta Township, NJ. Daytona’s regular season finale saw him end a streak of seven consecutive finishes in the top three…and that was only because he finished fourth. Wins have proved elusive, but Truex has proven time and time again to possess the championship pedigree. He has appeared in the final four in each of the past three seasons and four of the past five. That includes his 2017 title, won in the No. 78 Toyota with the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.

They Said It: “You’ve got to be resilient. There’s going to be times in the Playoffs when your back is against the wall or you need to make something happen. That’s been the case for us throughout the years. Whether it’s been a season where a lot of things have gone right or a season where things have gone wrong. At the end the day, it’s 10 races to get in and you have to be resilient. You are going to face challenges along the way.”-Truex on the most necessary trait to possess to reach the final four

7. Alex Bowman (-48)

Team: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Greg Ives
2020 Wins: 1 (Fontana)
Best Prior Finish: 12th (2019)

Bowman seemed like the driver to beat in the early stages of 2020. He dominated the third race of the season at Fontana, leading 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. When the series returned to action after the pause, Bowman sat in second place in the standings after a runner-up finish at Darlington. But summer has been anything but hot for the No. 88 squad. Since that second-place posting in Myrtle Beach, Bowman has earned only six top-ten finishes. Contending for a championship would mean an extra something for Bowman, a Tuscon native who earned a surprising sixth-place finish at Phoenix when filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the 2016 season.

They Said It: “The summer was pretty rough on us. We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. So, I think we’re in a good place going into the Playoffs.”
“Darlington, for us, we were really fast there the first two races this year. The first race we finished second. The second race we had a way better race car. I started racing my competitors instead of the race track and hit the fence, so that’s on me to not do this time. But I think we can be really strong and have a really good day. I think each and every week during the Playoffs we’re going to be really good, but Darlington is one that we had circled that we can be really strong at, for sure.”-Bowman on recovering from a tough summer

8. William Byron (-50)

Team: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
2020 Wins: 1 (Daytona Summer)
Best Prior Finish: 11th (2019)

Byron’s first career win couldn’t have come at a better time. With a playoff farewell from teammate Jimmie Johnson breathing down his neck for a playoff spot, Byron took home a victory at Daytona’s finale, taking the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane for the first time since Jeff Gordon punched his final four ticket at Martinsville during his farewell tour in 2015. Byron’s playoff tour will be overseen by crew chief Knaus, who partook in each of Johnson’s record-tying seven championships.

They Said It: “I think that now having that first win of the season and first win for me and this team, I feel like we’re more focused on just executing the details of each race. Obviously, our goal going into this year was to make it further than we did last year in the playoffs, which was the Round of 12 last year. So, if we can make it to the Round of 8 this year, it would be a success, for sure. We just have to take it one race at a time. A lot of these tracks are good for us. I think the first round is probably the weakest of the tracks for us, so we just have to try to focus on that.”-Byron on how the weight of his first win is removed

9. Austin Dillon (-52)

Team: No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Justin Alexander
2020 Wins: 1 (Texas)
Best Prior Finish: 12th (2017)

Dillon worked his way into the playoffs with a hard-fought win in Fort Worth. His timing, perhaps, couldn’t have been better. Dillon was forced to turn over the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet to Kaz Grala at the Dayton road course after a self-reported positive test for COVID-19. While Dillon has ways to go in living up to the reputation the No. 3 car carries with it, he has been relatively consistent in 2020. The win at Texas gives him a small cushion to at least make it to the round of 12.

They Said It: “I love being dismissed. I think it’s a great. It’s all I’ve just kind of always been that way. I feel like maybe not that way in the trucks are Xfinity at the end of those runs, but in the Cup series, it’s been a little bit of that. So and I feel like that’s what kind of propels us, and then we sneak up on people. I was very close to making it to the third round a couple years back in the playoffs and missed it by one point to Denny Hamlin not want to transfer this on and we missed at Talladega by one so I know from that experience at every Point matters, and we just need to go out there and do our job these first three races is good good races for us, but the stage is the way they play out. You got to get points. So we’re going to be very aggressive in getting those points and hopefully messed up a lot of brackets.”-Dillon on being an underdog headed into the playoffs

10. Cole Custer (-52)

Team: No. 41 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Shiplett
2020 Wins: 1 (Kentucky)
Best Prior Finish: N/A (rookie)

Custer is the first rookie to partake in the NASCAR Cup Series postseason since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher fought their way in during the 2016 season. While the back-to-back runner-up in the Xfinity Series struggled in his first year at the wheel of the No. 41, Custer punched his ticket to the playoffs at Kentucky and kept the momentum going with three top-ten finishes over the past nine races. His opportunity to advance could come at Darlington, where he won last season’s Xfinity event (albeit via disqualification of race-winner Denny Hamlin). By qualifying for the playoffs, Custer has already earned the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year title, topping a talented class that also featured Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.

They Said It: “I think we can go in there and prove some people wrong is the biggest thing, but at the end of the day it’s about being consistent and it’s about being competitive. I think we’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys at times this year, but at the same time we just need to try and level it out more going into these playoffs. If we can be consistent and we can put it all together and put all the pieces together for these last 10 races, I think we’ve shown that we can compete with anybody it’s just trying to put those pieces together every single race.”-Custer on his playoff approach

11. Aric Almirola (-52)

Team: No. 10 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 5th (2018)

Though wins have proved elusive (his last coming in Talladega’s event in the fall of 2018), Almirola was one of the most accomplished drivers of the summer. building a streak of nine consecutive top-ten finishes. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Tony Stewart’s No. 10, though advancement through the playoff rounds have has proved difficult. He made it to the penultimate segment in 2018, but a string of finishes outside the top-ten eliminated him in the first round last year.

They Said It: “It makes no difference to me what anybody else thinks and that’s an attitude that I’ve had for a long time. I’m the type of guy that just really puts my head down and goes to work with my race team, and that’s all I really care about is working with Bugarewicz and the guys on my team. What anybody else thinks I really don’t care because only I and my race team really know what we’re capable of and areas where we need to improve and areas where we feel like we’re doing a good job. I am excited about the playoffs. I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”-Almirola on being a playoff sleeper

12. Clint Bowyer (-53)

Team: No. 14 Stewart-Hass Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2nd (2012)

The fan-favorite Bowyer has remained generally consistent in the No. 14 Ford that won the Cup Series title with Tony Stewart behind the wheel in 2011. Bowyer, who has doubled as a commentator for Fox Sports, will be seeking his first win since June 2018. His best finish came at the playoff track of Bristol, where he came home in the runner-up spot behind Keselowski.

They Said It: “Gas mask. Same precautions you have. I mean, it’s the same thing . It’s COVID. I mean, it (stinks). It’s pretty crazy to me that we’re this far along and we still really don’t know a whole lot more than where we’re at. I mean, it’s crazy times, but, nonetheless, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I’m probably not gonna go to college and hit up a keg stand. I’m probably not going to do that. I would say that would be a good opportunity to find yourself pointless.”-Bowyer on precautions he’ll be taking to avoid COVID-19 during the playoffs.

13. Ryan Blaney (-54)

Team: No. 12 Team Penske Ford
Crew Chief: Todd Gordon
2020 Wins: 1 (Talladega)
Best Prior Finish: 7th (2019)

Apologies for pointing out a theme, but it’s possible that the 2020 playoffs could well become “Penske material”. No one on the circuit perhaps knows more about bad luck than Blaney. Only four drivers on the circuit led more laps than Blaney (586), several accidents beyond his control denied him victories at several tracks this season. He has likewise been impacted by the Penske shuffle, with Todd Gordon taking over his pit stall. Gordon was on hand to guide fellow Penske Ford driver Logano to his title in 2018. Blaney heard some bad news prior to Sunday’s opener at Darlington, as Gordon was suspended and he was docked 10 points for an improperly mounted ballast.

They Said It: “It’s just been so limited with no practice. You can talk so much throughout the week on the phone and things like that, but it’s just different than being able to go through a couple practices and the whole weekend with them and talking to them. But I think we’ve gotten the best that we can. Todd and I get along really well. He’s an amazing crew chief and a championship crew chief and has won a ton of races, so I think it’s been going well. It’s a shame, but everyone is in the same boat.”-Blaney on working with new crew chief Gordon

14. Kyle Busch (-54)

Team: No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2015, 2019 Champion

Perhaps no other driver on the circuit has better personified 2020 from the average race fan’s point of view. Everything that can go wrong for the two-time Cup Series champion has indeed come to pass, whether it’s been getting caught up in wrecks, having tire or car issues, or simply being on the wrong pit strategy. It has put the defending champion in an awkward spot as the postseason begins: winless, no playoff points to fall back on, and in danger of elimination in the first round. Admittedly, most drivers would LOVE to struggle the way Busch has. But it’s clearly below the expectations the No. 18 and its driver have set for themselves.

They Said It: “This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. 2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them. This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”-Busch on how 2020 has tested him

15. Kurt Busch (-56)

Team: No. 1 Chip Gannasi Racing Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Matt McCall
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 2004 Champion

Kyle’s older brother and fellow champion (the first under a NASCAR playoff system) failed to get a win, and it’ll come back to haunt him in the playoff standings. But strong consistency led to another playoff berth and allowed him to hover in the top ten of the standings all season. He beat out Kyle for a win at Kentucky last season, but an opening crash in the playoff debut at his home track of Las Vegas ended his chances of moving on. Busch is one of two playoff drivers to have run without a playoff system, the other being Harvick.

They Said It: “What I think it’s done is it gave it a strong comparison to other sports. There’s that Playoff atmosphere. There’s that championship race, where four guys are eligible to win the championship and it’s an even playing ground. When it was a long marathon process of going through all 36 races, that was a different sequence. That was maybe not as intense when it got down to the final rounds. And so, with these 10 weeks, the Playoff atmosphere is there, and it relates well to other sports. And that’s where it draws in more fans that might not have been NASCAR fans before.”-Busch on how the playoffs have changed NASCAR

16. Matt DiBenedetto (-57)

Team: No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Crew Chief: Greg Erwin
2020 Wins: 0
Best Prior Finish: 22nd (2019)

DiBenedetto has built a strong following after earning his way to a decent ride in the long-running No. 21 car. He began his Cup career in low-budget vehicles and fought his way into the playoffs through general 2020 consistency (which includes a runner-up finish at Las Vegas). Some late struggles put him in a tough situation at Daytona, put he held off Johnson to clinch an elusive spot.

They Said It: “I would say that this week has been a release. It was so stressful and kept getting more stressful leading up to Daytona and the points closed in and we lost the gap that we had and all that. I would call this week exciting and we got to celebrate with some friends out on the lake Sunday and have a good time but come Monday it was time to shift focus and we still have a lot of racing left and a lot to accomplish. It was a relief and exciting moving forward now instead of stressful. Exciting knowing that we have an opportunity to really put a good end to our season and cap it off and have a lot more success. I am pretty pumped up about that and I am appreciative to be doing it for the Wood Brothers.”-DiBenedetto on making the playoffs for the first time as a veteran driver

The Races

(All times ET)

Cook Out Southern 500

Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, South Carolina
When: September 6
Watch: 6 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Erik Jones

“The Track Too Tough to Tame” hosts its annual Labor Day Weekend event and its first playoff race since 2004. In recent time, the race has become well-known for featuring throwback paint schemes, a tradition that will continue this year.

Federated Auto Parts 400

Where: Richmond Raceway, Richmond, Virginia
When: September 12
Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

Richmond’s short track hosted the final regular season race from 2004 through 2018. It is now the second race of the round of 16. Keep an eye on Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas, who have won four of the last five September races.

Bass Pro Shops Night Race

Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tennessee
When: September 19
Watch: 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

For the first time, the famous cramped short-track settings of BMS will host a playoff race. The night race has been particularly intriguing, known for its flaring of tempers and propensity for wrecks.

South Point 400

Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada
When: September 27
Watch: 7 p.m., NBCSN
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

The Round of 12 gets underway in Sin City, where Logano punched his ticket to the playoffs in the second race of the season back in February.

YellaWood 500

Where: Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Alabama
When: October 4
Watch: 2 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Ryan Blaney

If you thought the superspeedway proceedings that closed out the regular season at Daytona were exciting, just wait until you see what the playoffs themselves have in store at Talladega, home of multi-car pile-up commonly referred to as “The Big One”.

Bank of America ROVAL 400

Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Concord, North Carolina
When: October 11
Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Chase Elliott

Since being introduced to the playoff in 2018, the “roval”, a half-oval, half-road course at the hub of NASCAR, has created all kinds of postseason chaos. This will be the first time it ends the second round of the playoffs, previously seen at the end of the round of 16.

Hollywood Casino 400

Where: Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kansas
When: October 18
Watch: 2:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

The Round of 8 gets underway in Kanas, where Denny Hamlin has won each of the last two visits, including a weeknight race earlier this summer.

AAA Texas 500

Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas
When: October 25
Watch: 3:30 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Kevin Harvick

Texas produced a surprise winner earlier this summer, with Dillon using strategy his favor to take hom a long-awaited victory. Harvick has won each of the last three visits in the fall.

Xfinity 500

Where: Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Virginia
When: November 1
Watch: 2 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Martin Truex Jr.

A battle on a short track will determine the final spots for the season finale in Arizona. Thus, racing will be tight and tempers will more than likely flare.

NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Where: Phoenix Raceway, Avondale, Arizona
When: November 8
Watch: 3 p.m., NBC
Winner from 2019: Denny Hamlin

After nearly two decades in Miami, the NASCAR season finale proceedings will move to Phoenix. Hamlin, one of the favorites, is the defending victor, but fellow front-runner Kevin Harvick has won four times.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Fords dominate the 2020 playoff grid

The 2020 NASCAR regular season concluded on Saturday night with the exciting Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. Three spots were still up for grabs, with Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto taking two of the spots on points. The third was taken by William Byron, scoring his first career Cup Series victory.

With Bowyer and DiBenedetto now in the playoffs, it will mean that eight fords will have the chance to compete for a championship. All four Stewart-Haas drivers made it, as well as all three Penske teams and the lone Wood Brothers driver in DiBenedetto.

As for Stewart-Haas, Kevin Harvick has ran the show all year. He has seven wins, the most of all Cup Series drivers and has the number one seed in the playoffs. Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have remained winless in 2020, but have ran up-front all year. Almirola has 14 top-10s, while Bowyer has seven. Although not nearly as many great finishes, Bowyer has collected a lot of stage points. For Cole Custer, he’s in because of his win at Kentucky Motor Speedway. He has six top-10s, but would likely not have made it to the playoffs if it wasn’t for the win.

On the Penske side of things, no one driver has really been more dominant than the other. Brad Keselowski has three wins, Joey Logano has two wins, and Ryan Blaney has one. All three drivers have ran up front all year and work together incredibly well together. Each of the three drivers has double-digit top-10s.

And finally, Matt DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers. DiBenedetto has been great in the #21 car this year, and the alliance with Penske has paid off. He has seven top-10s and has scored a lot of stage points. The only concerning thing for him is that he has just two top-10s in the last nine points-paying races.

Ford has been the dominant manufacturer all year, and it shows as eight if its drivers will be competing for a championship. Will their dominance continue during the playoffs?

NASCAR: William Byron earns playoff berth in wild Daytona regular season finale

William Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series couldn’t have come at a better time, but a late wreck ruined Jimmie Johnson’s playoff chances.

The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returned to the familiar settings of victory lane, but a victorious sendoff for another iconic ride was not meant to be.

William Byron had perfect timing for his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, taking home the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. A win in the regular-season finale allows Byron to earn a last-minute berth into the NASCAR playoffs, which begin next weekend at Darlington Raceway.

“I feel incredible.  On Cloud 9 for sure,” Byron said after the race. “There was a point in that race that I didn’t really think things were going to work out in our favor to make the Playoffs, really have an opportunity next week. This was kind of one of those do-or-die situations. Kind of crossed that fork in the road tonight. We were able to be aggressive and make it happen.”

Saturday marked the first time that Daytona hosted the regular season finale, moved from a July 4th weekend schedule slot its 400-mile race had held since its inception in 1959. The track’s propensity for tightly-packed racing, speed in excess of 200 miles per hour, multi-car wrecks, and first-time winners made it a perfect site for the 26th and final race before the playoffs.

Byron becomes the 21st Cup Series driver to win his first race at Daytona, a circuit record.

“You couldn’t have picked a more pressure-packed race,” Byron said of making Daytona the season finale. “When you’re at a superspeedway, the running order changes every two laps practically, it’s incredible to put that much pressure on a couple of points. You really can’t points race, which I think is probably what they want us to do. They want us to go for wins, try to compete hard. It was a perfect format for that.”

Byron entered Daytona in the 16th and final playoff seed, five points behind Matt DiBenedetto and four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Had Byron retained the 16th seed, he could’ve been eliminated if a winless driver behind him won the race. His first career victory locked his spot up without further drama.

The jubilation for Byron, the first driver representing the No. 24 banner to win a Cup Series race since Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville in 2015, was countered by personal heartbreak for Johnson his No. 48 Chevrolet team. One of three winners of a record seven Cup Series titles, Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the season. He ran well for a majority of the evening and earned precious playoff real estate through a dozen stage points.

But with two laps to go, Johnson got caught in a wreck that began when Joey Logano, the winner of the first two stages, made contact with Denny Hamlin and bumped into an attacking Bubba Wallace who was leading a third lane for the lead. Chaos ensued, taking out several drivers seeking a crucial win, including Matt Kenseth, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, and John Hunter Nemechek.

Johnson’s crew was able to repair the car to the point it was able to meet minimum speed standards, but by then it was too late. Johnson finished 17th and missed out on the playoffs thanks to Byron’s win and DiBenedetto’s 12th place finish.

DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, makes the playoffs for the first time in his career.

With the race going into overtime, Byron held off a challenge from Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and a recovered Hamlin over a two-lap dash to earn his first win in his 98th Cup Series start. Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth while Wallace also recovered to finish fifth.

The 16-driver playoff will begin next Sunday night at Darlington’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Three races await in the first leg of the playoffs, with dates at Richmond and Bristol filling out the remainder.

Race Notes

  • Prior to the race, Kevin Harvick was presented the Regular Season Championship. Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won seven races and beat out Hamlin by 134 points entering Saturday’s race to win it. He will enter the playoffs as the top-seeded driver thanks to 57 playoff points earned through seven race wins (five points each), seven stage wins (one-point each), and a 15-point bonus for the regular-season crown. Harvick finished 20th at Daytona after getting caught up in an incident on the final lap.

 

  • Incidents were kept to a minimum, with only cautions for the first 143 laps coming for a competition caution and stage pauses. The first yellow for an on-track incident came when James Davidson and Brendan Gaughan made contact.

 

  • The first big wreck of the night came at lap 153 of 160, when Reddick’s block on Kyle Busch ignited a big wreck that took out both Busch and his brother Kurt, as well as Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Ryan Preece. Newman, making his first start at Daytona’s oval since a scary wreck at the end of February’s 500-mile opener, was critical of Reddick in an interview with NBC Sports, declaring that “the No. 8 ran out of talent”.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Matt DiBenedetto reflects on his NASCAR journey while on the playoff bubble

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