By Cole Cusumano
Much has happened since Matt DiBenedetto’s breakout season in 2019. He’s become an underdog fan-favorite, who finished top-five in the Most Popular Driver voting last year. Upon his departure from Leavine Family Racing, the California-native locked down a ride in the famed No. 21 for Wood Brother Racing. And now, he’s on the cusp of potentially securing his first playoff berth.
Through 25 races, his stats have mirrored his efforts from the year prior. The difference-maker? He’s picked up stage points, led laps and been competitive each week. As a result, he sits 15th in the standings heading to the regular season finale.
Sounds like he’s in a favorable position, right? Perhaps under different circumstances.
The gap between him and a determined seven-time Champion in his final full-time season is a skinny nine-point margin. Daytona International Speedway now serves as the cutoff event , so it’s quite literally anyone’s race to win. If that wasn’t enough, the No. 21 will roll off 15th on Saturday in the middle of a virtual hornet’s nest, making the task at hand all the more sensitive.
“We drop the green and I’ll be what I call patiently aggressive — my normal style,” DiBenedetto told Popular Speed. “I would like to work our way up there in a smart fashion. I always try to make sure I’m a guy at speedways that people feel comfortable and confident being around.”
Not a bad game plan heading into a mess of uncertainty, where dependency is everything for yourself and your competitors. To strengthen the brawny driver’s cause, Fords account for 15 cars in the 40-man field.
It’s also quite comforting when the Wood Bros. affiliate, Team Penske, has developed such a respected reputation at superspeedways in recent years. DiBenedetto admits it’s hard to strategize for racing at Daytona, and while nothing has been concretely confirmed, he knows his three teammates will come to his aid when “the situation presents itself.”
The raw speed is there with the Roush-Yates engine under the hood, but it will undoubtedly be a true test of stability and perseverance for DiBenedetto to make it to the Round of 16 at Darlington Raceway.
“We have all the great things to know that we have a race car to work our way up there, but there’s a lot of variables and you kind of have to play it by ear and by feel,” the driver of the No. 21 concluded.
Tune into the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC to see if DiBenedetto can further both his and the Wood Bros. legacy in what’s bound to be a battle for the ages at the World Center of Racing.