By Cole Cusumano
Matt DiBenedetto understands what’s at stake heading into a weekend with added implications. The Pocono Raceway doubleheader can make or break any team, but a newfound positive perception of the Tricky Triangle may be what the fan favorite needs to establish himself as a playoff contender.
After parlaying a previous best finish of 13th into his first top-10 at the 2.5-mile track in back-to-back days, DiBenedetto admits nothing new clicked. Part of his troubled past in Pennsylvania was due competing in underfunded equipment, which played a factor in his four DNFs through 10 starts.
The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford is hoping to capitalize on recent success and a fresh mindset entering the most important weekend of his season thus far. Sitting 19th in the standings with a chance to double-down on points, DiBenedetto knows the task at hand.
“Go out and execute,” DiBenedetto told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “That’s all we need to do.”
In 2020, DiBenedetto went into each of the three doubleheaders in a similar situation, not being guaranteed a playoff spot. The only difference this time is he’s 30 points below the cutline. While the six events accounted for mixed results, he feels they’ve better prepared him for this crucial battle with Pocono this weekend.
As has been evident since last year, nothing is more important than unloading a properly prepared car off the hauler — especially going into a doubleheader without practice. DiBenedetto learned this the hard way at Dover International Speedway, where he failed to place above 17th and entered the regular season finale with an uncertain future.
“That’s what a doubleheader can do to you, because it’s not two different race tracks,” DiBenedetto said. “You’re probably going to run fairly similarly both days unless you can make some magic happen.”
An abysmal start to the season set DiBenedetto as far back as 37th in the standings at one point, but the No. 21 team was able to rally up to 16th before inconsistency left them stunted and stagnant.
“We got into a stretch after that just lacking speed, execution and really just falling behind,” DiBenedetto explained. “We’d love to be in a better situation where we weren’t having to fight and claw and be below the cutline for the playoffs, but that’s just part of it. That’s one of the things we’re going to have to overcome and start working on with Jonathan Hassler (crew chief). Hopefully we can start stringing together a stretch of good races and rebounding.”
Often being his biggest critic, DiBenedetto is well aware of his regressed performance in 2021. Through all the adversity, his mindset is unphased as he welcomes change in the form of leadership in an attempt to get things turned in the right direction.
Hassler, a Team Penske engineer and frequent substitute crew chief, is no slouch atop the pit box. In addition to working with DiBenedetto at Martinsville Speedway when Greg Erwin was sidelined with COVID-19, he helped guide Joey Logano to a top-five finish at Dover while Paul Wolfe was out serving a penalty.
DiBenedetto praised Hassler for his composed demeanor and methodical thought process, which he believes is a product of his engineering and racing background. Perhaps the most striking quality of his new crew chief is the resilience.
When the new pairing first got acquainted in Martinsville, they rallied from two laps down and scored a lead-lap 12th-place finish with a broken sway bar. At Nashville Superspeedway, DiBenedetto was battling engine issues after running up front and earning points in stage one, to which Hassler combated with a variety of Frankenstein-esque repairs resulting in a 24th placing.
Failing to place above 18th in the last five weeks is nothing to gloat about, but DiBenedetto believes things are looking up from a team perspective. Now, focus lies on bettering himself and shaping into form for the Pocono doubleheader.
“Preparation is going to be big from a physical standpoint,” DiBenedetto said. “I focus on sleep, hydration and feeling mentally clear. The races take a lot out of you. A lot more than people know — a lot more than I knew until I started really paying attention to the Whoop fitness tracker I use. It helped me really understand how much we burn in a race and how much recovery you need to be prepared to go again — especially a second day in a row.”
DiBenedetto compared the physical demand of the doubleheader to running the All-Star Open and main back-to-back. He burned 2400 calories in the combined 225 miles at Texas Motor Speedway but knows firsthand that running 325-and-350 in consecutive days will be even more challenging with points on the line.
Unsure if the No. 21 team will be using the same setup that brought success in 2020 at Pocono, DiBenedetto believes they may use it as a base and combine notes with their Team Penske-affiliates.
“It’s great to have the resources and alliances that we do, and I’ll trust [Hassler] to make the best decision possible,” DiBenedetto concluded.
Although it seems like DiBenedetto is still a ways off from his first victory, it’s not completely out of the question. The last time a Penske Ford won at Pocono was Ryan Blaney driving for the Wood Brothers in 2017.
DiBenedetto has been outspoken about wanting to be the driver to give the Wood Brothers their 100th win. Returning to the sight of their last triumph, he’ll look to build off recent success with a clear head to replicate magic in Pocono.