NASCAR Cup Contenders Had Better Not Sleep on Matt DiBenedetto in 2021

When the prognosticators start discussing who might win the 2021 NASCAR Cup title, the names most often mentioned will probably be Harvick, Truex, Logano, Hamlin, Keselowski, or Kyle Busch. There’s one name however that likely won’t be among the discussion.

It’s not that Matt DiBenedetto isn’t popular, he in fact is. Never was that more evident than on that August night in 2019 when he very nearly won at Bristol Motor Speedway while racing for an underfunded team. The laps he led that night and his ultimate runner up finish had crowds cheering and even the driver who beat him for the win, Denny Hamlin, saying he felt bad after it was over.

“Matty D” as he is known by most, often flies under the radar. The California native is a very low-key sort of guy, something few NASCAR drivers are known as.

“I am probably on my personal time, a little more introverted maybe, than people would think,” he said this past week. “I enjoy just time at home, and I don’t like big crowds. Those would be things that people might find interesting. Don’t like going to big gatherings, I just like very small, group-oriented type stuff and going to play, maybe playing just golf or just doing little more peaceful things on my personal time.”

DiBenedetto embraces his role as a NASCAR Cup driver and the things that come along with that role, besides simply driving a racecar for a living.

“I would say the coolest is, a couple of things, but having the ability to make an impact on people’s lives,” he said. “That seems crazy to me because I’m just little old me. But for people to remember stories of whether it’s just taking a video with them, or pictures, or just talking with them, things like that, that go a long way with people forever. That’s always crazy for me to think about. And also having the ability to raise money, through fans, like sending in cameo videos, like requests to me and our local animal rescue; things like that are very neat.”

That August 2019 Bristol race came near the end of a season where DiBenedetto had taken a chance. He left a secure ride with another underfunded team, to hopefully secure a ride with one that could give him a better chance of winning. He landed at Leavine Family Racing, itself an underfunded team, but at least a bit less underfunded than Go Fas Racing, the team he left.

Things didn’t work out for DiBenedetto and Leavine Family Racing though. Just a few days before that pivotal race at Bristol, Matty D learned that he would be replaced by up-and-coming driver Christopher Bell leaving DiBenedetto to wonder what the future held for him. That question was answered a month later when long-time NASCAR team Wood Brothers Racing announced he would drive their Ford made famous by the likes of Hall of Fame drivers David Pearson, Neil Bonnett and Bill Elliott stating in 2020.

DiBenedetto ran well last season scoring three top five finishes including two more runner-up appearances. His first win, however, remains elusive. He enters 2021 with again, an uncertain future beyond this season. The Wood Brothers announced last October that this season would be DiBenedetto’s last. He will be replaced next season by Austin Cindric.

The first Cup win for DiBenedetto couldn’t come fast enough. He’s motivated not only by wanting a win for his current team, but to show his potential to other teams for next season. Of course, there is also personal motivation to win.

“I would say yes to all of that,” he said. “I would say winning a race for the Wood Brothers is probably top of the list. I want that win 100 and a win with the Wood Brothers so bad. They are family to me and my wife and family, so… It would be huge. And then obviously, for me personally, that’s been my goal, my entire life is to win in the Cup Series and we’re right there at it. So, I can’t wait to click that one off.”

DiBenedetto he hasn’t really started looking for his next opportunity just yet. As he proved with his improbable second place finish at Bristol in 2019, he plans on letting his performance on-track do the talking.

“I think the nice thing is having such a good team behind me and our second year together, where we were just getting rolled the second half, especially the last third of last season, everything was really clicking,” he said. “So having that momentum to start off the year, it’s nice because I think the performance will be able to do most of the speaking for me.

“My focus is really just on my team and our performance. And it’s amazing to have that opportunity to have such a good team behind me, where that’s all I have to focus on is just going out and us kicking butt together and performing well and trying to win and make the playoffs again. And then contend in them, run well all the way to the very end of the season.”

He was replaced at Leavine (which has since shut down) by a younger driver. Cindric, who will be replacing him at the Wood Brothers is another young up-and-coming driver. Despite having to find another full-time ride, the 29-year-old DiBenedetto said he isn’t looking over his shoulder though, nor does he hear the footsteps of other, younger, drivers approaching.

“No, honestly, I don’t,” he said. “I actually feel like I have a much bigger advantage, no knock on them. But man, the more experience you gain, the better you get.

“I am far better today than I was two years ago and I’ll be far better… I’m far better today than I was even after last year, we learned together and got better and better.

DiBenedetto said he has some advantages.

“Being a rookie in the Cup Series is really, really, really difficult and takes a learning curve,” he said. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to hone in on all those skills and gain a ton of experience. And now we’re up front competing for wins and things like that, which is very hard to do in the Cup Series. And this year I think could be our best year ever. So, I feel like I have an advantage by being still a younger guy, but with having a lot of years of experience at this point to where I can be plugged in and go. Me, personally, and our team, we’re ready to win.”

The adage of “old age and wisdom beats youth and experience” then is something he fully supports.

“If you asked me that a handful of years ago, I was probably naive and was like, ah, no, you can just hop in and go,” he said. “But now I’ve learned like, “Oh my gosh, I wish I’d have known 1% of the stuff back then that I know now. And I’d be far better.” That’s part of just learning that everybody goes through a learning curve. So yes, I think, as far as being a race car driver, having experience is incredibly important.”

DiBenedetto may not be in the 2021 Cup championship talk just yet. But he is in a good spot to score a career-best finish one spot better than he has and grab his first win. With the experience he’s gained, no one would be surprised if he did just, and the quiet, unassuming driver could find himself right in the middle of a championship discussion before the seasons over.

Matt DiBenedetto is an interesting free agent candidate for 2022. We think he’s in for a big 2021. What say you? Let us know in the comments section below.

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