While the Hendrick Motorsports’ showdown between seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and young teammate William Byron has stolen the Playoff headlines over the last two weeks, don’t overlook Matt DiBenedetto.
The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford is not only in contention for one of the two potential Playoff spots, but he’s five points ahead of Byron with Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 set to decide the post-season grid.
After six years of grinding on the tour without advancing to the Playoffs, the 29-year-old Grass Valley, Californian is looking to make the most of this opportunity.
“I don’t know if it’s excited or anxious or what the emotion is,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s definitely different going to Daytona with so much on the line than if we were going to a regular short track or whatever you want to call it.
“Am I excited that we have a shot to make the playoffs? For sure. Am I frustrated that we had a much bigger cushion and we had a bad couple Dover races and lost a whole bunch of points? Yeah. Am I a little uneasy knowing that the cutoff race is Daytona and not like a short track or some more straightforward race? Yeah…Luckily I think my experience will pay off--and the fact I don’t really get spun out. I’ve been through extremely stressful situations in my life.”
Following the Daytona Road Course race, DiBenedetto had built a 19-point cushion over Byron. But after finishing 20th and 17th in the two Dover contests last weekend, DiBenedetto watched his advantage diminish. And those were just the latest data points in a downward trend. After the second race at Michigan, DiBenedetto was 57 points ahead of Johnson.
Now the margin is nine.
Certainly, that wasn’t a scenario the driver had hoped for entering a venue that’s as unpredictable as Daytona. Like most competitors, DiBenedetto’s history at the 2.5-mile superspeedway has been inconsistent at best.
But in his last two starts in the summer race, DiBenedetto has survived with two top-10 results.
“Daytona and superspeedway racing is already hard enough as it is, so my big thing is to make sure that we don’t over-complicate it, and I think our team is pretty good about that,” DiBenedetto said. “I know my spotter, Doug (Campbell), and everybody is very good about that. We understand that there’s only so much that you can plan for. So I think we’re making sure we focus on some of the things we can control and pay attention really well through the race.
“But we’re not gonna over-do it and over-plan. We’re still gonna try and execute it just like any other race for the most part because we can plan all day long and then you drop the green flag and it’ll all go right out the window because there are so many other cars out there trying to get up front and do their thing, especially when you get to the end of the race. All hell will just break loose most likely, so we don’t want to over-think and over-plan it.”
Nothing in NASCAR has come easy for DiBenedetto. With a little luck and a ton of hard work, he has diligently come from competing with backmarker squads to one of the most beloved teams on the circuit.
And although the Wood Brothers remain a single-car operation, the support they receive from Team Penske has been invaluable and should benefit DiBenedetto on Saturday night.
“The thing about Daytona is you can only plan so much, but I think the things we as a team could count on is obviously that we have excellent teammates in Brad (Keselowski), Joey (Logano) and Ryan (Blaney), and a lot of great Fords out there,” DiBenedetto said. “I think the things we can count on is when the situations present themselves, I know that they will work with us well. We’ve always worked with each other very well and I think that they will be sure to not put us in a bad situation.
“It may be hard to plan. You can come up with all these great plans and be like, ‘We’re gonna work together and we’re gonna line up and do this and that,’ but there are also a lot of other race cars out on the track that will interfere with those plans. But what you can try and do is to not put each other in bad positions and maybe that’s more something that you can plan on and work for, so it’s very tough to plan things at Daytona. But I know we’ll work together very well and they’ve said they’ll work with us.”
With points being tallied throughout the stages and the race, some form of team orders is likely to come into play as DiBenedetto is tag-teamed by the Hendrick contingent. While Clint Bowyer basically has to start the race to lock himself in, a driver who has yet to win this season could be a wild card in determining the final 16 drivers.
Still, as long as DiBenedetto scores more points at the end of the race, unless Byron or Johnson wins, they won’t be able to stop him.
“Our intention is gonna be focused on those guys that we’re racing for the playoff spot, and also knowing that there could be a surprise winner in there, too,” DiBenedetto said. “Somebody could jump in the playoffs as well that’s outside of it right now. Daytona is known for situations like that, so there’s gonna be a lot of variables and things, but that will be a big part of the focus is maybe coming to the end of stages, where those guys are, and then obviously towards the end of the race.
“It’s probably gonna be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be, but we’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing, where they’re at, if they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona.”