Matt DiBenedetto was in kindergarten the last and only time the Wood Brothers won NASCAR’s All-Star Race. That was 1996.
At age 5, the Grass Valley, Californian could never have imagined that one day he would race for one of motorsports' most beloved teams in the star-studded event.
Fast forward to 2020. The six-year Cup veteran has a new opportunity in the No. 21 Ford—and the confidence that comes with competing in top-notch equipment. The All-Star Race has a new stage at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the driver finished a career-best second to Denny Hamlin last August.
The conditions couldn’t be more favorable for DiBenedetto.
“I’ve always been excited as soon as they said it was at Bristol,” DiBenedetto said. “Obviously, I’m biased because I’ve had a lot of success at Bristol, and I love that place. It’ll be a lot of fun.
“Now that we know where we’re starting and everything, we have our work cut out for us. It’s not gonna be easy. We’re starting 10th. There are a lot of really good cars in front of us and that race is super-short, so we’ll have to work hard, but as fast as our cars have been lately, I have pretty good confidence in that, for sure.”
Sure, DiBenedetto has to transfer from 85-lap qualifier to run the main event. The Open consists of two 35-lap segments and a 15-lap shoot out. Should DiBenedetto win any three of the stages, he would transfer to the All-Star Race.
The event has moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway, which has hosted the event for 33 years, DiBenedetto believes the racing at the .533-mile short track will be intense.
“It’s way different, because at a big track like at Charlotte, with the way the rules packages—not knocking it, but this is the way the big track racing is versus small track now—we literally cannot get to somebody’s bumper and move them out of the way or anything at a big track because of the dirty air fact and such,” DiBenedetto said.
“You could see aggressive moves on restarts and things, but Bristol's a short track with the low-downforce package and stuff you can definitely get to somebody’s bumper, so that could make it extra exciting for the fact that we’re doing this on a short track and people will be extra aggressive.”
If ‘Guido’ wasn’t DiBenedetto’s middle name, ‘aggressive’ could be. The 28-year-old masterfully draws every ounce of performance from his race car whether it was with a back marker team such as BK Racing in his earliest Cup days, to the three top-10 finishes he squeezed out of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota last year.
After two top-10 finishes in his last three races, DiBenedetto has moved into the top 12 in the NASCAR Cup standings. With nine races remaining in the regular season, DiBenedetto is poised to earn his first playoff berth in the premier division.
“I think Matt sees himself as a contending driver,” said crew chief Greg Erwin. “He sees himself as a top 10 driver. The races this year where we’ve struggled to get there, he carries that burden pretty heavy. He was pretty upset when we weren’t able to perform right out of the gate, and I think this last stretch of four races has gone a long way for him mentally. It’s probably gone a long way for the team to see that we can put this guy in good track position and give him a close race car and he can stay there all day, so that’s really good for team confidence in the driver and the driver confidence in the team.
“What do I think we can do once the playoffs start? If I say, ‘Man, at the start of the season people were asking can we get this 100th win?’ Sure we can, but what I really want to do is get to the point where I can run inside the top 10 every week because when I can run inside the top 10 every week, I know that win is coming.”
If all the pieces fall into place, that win could come on Wednesday night at Bristol. DiBenedetto wouldn’t be surprised if it did—especially coming off of his second podium finish of the season last Sunday at Kentucky. DiBenedetto is fully aware of the potential of the No. 21 Wood Brothers, team and he’s determined to make the most of it.
“The opportunity is insane,” DiBenedetto said. “I’ve had a dream my whole life of obviously just racing in the Cup Series. We accomplished that and then my goal and dream is I’ll do anything, sacrifice anything, lay it all on the line to have an opportunity to drive for a top tier team where I can go contend for wins in the Cup Series, and then my dreams and goals got exceeded by a million times by the fact of not only did I get to do that, but I get to do that driving the 21 car for the Wood Brothers, who I’ve been a fan of my entire life.
“It’s way, way past surreal, so that’s the coolest part. So going to contend and hopefully make this All-Star Racing and doing it in the 21 car is pretty special, so I hope first off we can race our way in. It’ll be tough, but I hope we can do that and then, obviously, if we can get a shot at a million bucks for the team and driving the 21 car on top of that in the All-Star Race at Bristol for the first time, that’s gonna be a neat opportunity.”