The fact that Matt DiBenedetto, who scored his second runner-up finish of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season Sunday night in the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, doesn’t know for sure whether the option in his contract for the 2021 season will be picked up by Wood Brothers Racing, with just a couple of days left on the deadline, is unfathomable.
DiBenedetto, 29, has driven the iconic No. 21 Ford Mustang with class this year, and he has quietly put together the team’s best season since Morgan Shepherd was with the team back in the 1990’s.
I know Ryan Blaney fans are going to come out of the word work to remind me that Blaney won the 99th race for Wood Brothers Racing back in a 2017 season that saw Blaney finish ninth-overall in the Championship standings. Yes, Blaney’s second full-time season with the Wood Brothers was a good season, and the win at Pocono Raceway over Kyle Busch was certainly impressive. However, Blaney was quite inconsistent during that year.
Blaney recorded five DNF’s (did not finish) that year all coming by way of crashes, DiBenedetto, meanwhile, has just one DNF with six races remaining in 2020.
DiBenedetto’s average finish this season (15.0) is the best of any driver of the No. 21 machine since Morgan Shepherd had a 12.7 average finish in 1994. DiBenedetto has also reached Blaney’s 2017 total of lead lap finishes (21), again, with six races remaining in the season.
In many crucial metrics, the California-native is wildly surpassing any recent seasons by drivers of the No. 21 car.
It’s also worth noting that this is DiBenedetto’s first campaign with Wood Brothers Racing, or a somewhat top-tier team in general and it has come in the oddest season of them all in general due to COVID-19.
In times of driver changes to new teams, you expect a driver to take a period of time to gel with the new organization. Well, how about a multi-month stoppage after your fourth race with a new team, and then protocols being put in place that don’t allow you to spend time with your new team to build rapport?
Then, throw on top of all of that no practice or qualifying to help your team hone in on how to adjust the car to your specific needs.
This is what DiBenedetto has successfully guided the No. 21 team through this season.
DiBenedetto started his career toiling around in BK Racing, Go Fas Racing and Leavine Family Racing equipment before finally getting the opportunity of a lifetime this season.
It’s been an incredible old school meteoric rise for a driver who has worn his heart on his sleeve and earned the love of fans in the process.
What has DiBenedetto done with his opportunity? Only make the Playoffs in his first attempt with the team and tie his career-best finish (second), twice.
Obviously, complicating things for DiBenedetto is the fact that there is a log jam in the Ford development driver carousel with Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe winning early and often this year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Both drivers look ready for the jump to Cup, and if a team comes calling, I wouldn’t blame them for wanting to move one of those young talents into their car for 2021. But their elevation to the NASCAR Cup Series should not come at the expense of DiBenedetto, who has surpassed expectations and returned the Wood Brothers Racing team to the Playoffs, and damn near victory lane.
DiBenedetto’s season has been good enough to warrant another year behind the wheel in the No. 21 car. The only question is: Will he get what he deserves?
That remains to be seen, but I sure hope so as DiBenedetto is one of the rare cases left in modern NASCAR of a driver thrashing their way from nothing to the top without massive help from huge corporate backing or gobs of family money. He’s gotten where he is at out of sheer determination and the will to succeed, and we need more of that in the sport these days.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.