An early exit from the 2021 Daytona 500, and finishing the two succeeding races off the lead lap sums up what has been a rocky start for Wood Brothers Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto.
The team has been able to turn their progress around following a shaky start to the season, as the No. 21 team got their first top-ten finish of the season in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond.
The race itself was quiet and consistent for the team and their second-year driver, which is exactly what they needed.
“It definitely feels long overdue that we got that top 10 finally, so that’s good,” he said following the race. “We’ve had some rough circumstances that sort of put us in a hole to start the year, but we knew that we have plenty of speed and obviously a great team. It was good to come here and at a track that I really wouldn’t consider one that I have a ton of success at in the past, so that was definitely rewarding. All good stuff and something to build on. We’re climbing out of that hole in the points and gaining a lot quick.”
P9 today, felt good to snag stage points and get a top 10 that is much deserved for our team! pic.twitter.com/bVHERJi6Mp
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) April 19, 2021
After rolling off 16th thanks to the performance matrix and a 12th place finish in Martinsville, the California driver was able to climb as high as 14th in Stage one, before finishing the first stage in 18th.
During a cycle of green-flag pit stops in an incident-free stage two at that point, DiBenedetto found himself in third after running on an extended run on old tires. A spinning Ryan Newman caused the first incident-related caution of the day, sending the No. 21 team over the wall for service.
Thanks to pitting his second stop earlier than many, he found himself at the end of Stage two in sixth place, earning five stage points in his slow climb in the season point standings. The team continued to stop for service earlier than much of the field in the final stage, putting the team in a good position for the final run to the finish.
“They did a good job on the pit stops, getting all the lugs on and taking care of the important stuff,” he said.
A spinning Kevin Harvick with 20 laps left came at an inconvenient time for the No. 21 team, as DiBenedetto had just dropped out of the free pass position.
“I said right when that caution came out when the 18 had just passed us my quote was, ‘Perfect timing,'” he said. “Some things just don’t work out exactly right, but I can’t complain because we had everything go smooth the rest of the day before that.”
The team was able to take the wave around under caution. A short sprint to the finish gave the Wood Brothers Racing team their first top-ten finish of the season, with their driver coming home in ninth place.
“It was just a nice smooth day,” DiBenedetto said. “That was the most rewarding part of it, and getting some Stage points was big.”
The best finish of his season gives the fan-favorite driver his fifth consecutive top-15 finish of 2021, dating back to Phoenix. While this time last season he was finishing better and in a higher points position, the monkey seems to be off their back after an abysmal start to the season.
“It’s rewarding,” said DiBenedetto. “I’m glad we’re finally getting on track and the runs that we deserve. We started the year and just was nothing of our doing. We couldn’t even look at it and say they were self-inflicted, it was just kind of bad circumstances, so something that was out of our control — not as bad a luck as Aric Almirola, but it just goes to show between him and I and kind of the rough starts to the season that sometimes things have to go your way and as easily as that momentum can be pretty bad, it can flip around and we haven’t even really had smooth races until today, but we’ve still be climbing up in the points.”
Thanks to the finish, the No. 21 team jumped a whopping five spots in the points from 23rd to 18th with their sights on the Playoff cut line.
Getting back on track hasn’t been just thanks to the driver, but the team and organization behind the famed No. 21 car. It takes more than one to get a team back where they need to be.
“I think what I was proud of and have been proud of is that our entire team is like a family,” he explained. ” I get along and have relationships with every guy on our team and that’s how it has to be, so I don’t know if I could credit one person, but everybody on the team from Greg Erwin to Billy, our car chief, Doug Campbell, my spotter, the over-the-wall guys have kept a good attitude even through the start of the season when we had rough luck, just because we knew there’s nothing self-inflicted. I have to give credit to everybody on the team. They’re attitude is great, which is a big deal.”
The challenges are not all behind the team, however. Statistically speaking, the high banks of Talladega have not been kind to DiBendetto. Of his last five races, his best finish is a mere 21st and three finishes of 30th or worse. The most recent visit would have changed everything for the team and driver as DiBenedetto finished the October race just a few feet behind eventual winner Denny Hamlin in a photo finish. NASCAR later penalized Driver No. 21 for forcing William Byron below the yellow line in Turn three, designating the Ford driver from second, to 21st.
Fans can see the Geico 500 from Talladega on Sunday, April 25th at 2 PM EST on FOX and the FOX Sports app.