Did You Notice? … Matt DiBenedetto will spend 2021 racing for his NASCAR survival… again?
An Oct. 8 announcement DiBenedetto will remain with Wood Brothers Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021 was paired with the reality he’ll be kicked out by 2022. Ford made the decision to keep the 29-year-old driver in the iconic No. 21 a second season while promising it to its Xfinity Series talent, Austin Cindric, over the long term.
It leaves DiBenedetto a one-year lame duck, keeping the seat warm for someone else. It’s exactly what happened in 2019 at Leavine Family Racing, where he was unceremoniously removed by Christopher Bell just one year in as Toyota needed a place for its top prospect. Now this 2020 decision means, barring a shocking turn of events, DiBenedetto will start 2022 with his fourth team in five years.
That’s if he even gets another opportunity. The advent of NASCAR’s NextGen car is a giant curveball, a perfect opportunity for younger prospects to make the jump to the Cup Series. What better time to compete against the top drivers in the country than when the playing field is leveled for everyone?
It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out too much in modern-day NASCAR. DiBenedetto’s often the victim when he’s done everything right in terms of development. A driver who brought no funding to the table, he started in Cup with underfunded organizations and worked up the ladder the hard way. A look back at his career to date shows he’s improved the performance of every team with which he’s ever raced.
We’ll start with his first two full seasons driving for BK Racing. DiBenedetto came into Cup in 2015 with limited NASCAR experience; he had one full-time Xfinity season driving for unsponsored Key Motorsports. 23 years old at the time of his promotion, DiBenedetto had just two top 10s in 49 career NXS starts. He found himself placed with an organization best known for mechanical failures and failing to fulfill its driver contracts.
But DiBenedetto found a way to make the most of it. His sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016 was the best run for BK in 520 Cup starts over seven seasons. His average finish of 32nd as a rookie was nearly four positions better than the team’s former driver, Ryan Truex. The next year, he improved his average to 30th, the best in the No. 83 car since Landon Cassill in 2012. And one could argue Cassill’s 27.5 average was when BK was at its best, running its first season with Red Bull Racing’s old Toyota equipment.
From BK, DiBenedetto moved on to a slightly better-funded organization, Go FAS Racing, for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. His first year with the team, an average finish of 27.1 blew predecessor Jeffrey Earnhardt’s 33.9 out of the water. They were by far the best runs the teams had achieved other than when Terry and Bobby Labonte, former Cup champions, would fill in and run the restrictor plate races. DiBenedetto also scored three top-10 finishes, including an eighth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017. To date, that remains the only time GFR has run inside the top 10 outside the major superspeedways of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
LFR owner Bob Leavine took note of DiBenedetto’s development. When Kasey Kahne unexpectedly retired, he hired him to drive the No. 95 car in its first season running Toyotas in 2019. Finally armed with decent funding, DiBenedetto wasted no time making a first impression. He led the most laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 (49) and was in contention for the win until a late wreck doomed his chances.
As the year wore on, team and driver clicked under the capable hands of former Denny Hamlin crew chief Mike Wheeler. They posted three top-five finishes, seven top 10s, an average finish of 18.3 and wound up 22nd in points. DiBenedetto ran second at Bristol in August, nearly winning it before Hamlin’s No. 11 passed him in the final moments.
It wasn’t enough. LFR, in its first year paired with Joe Gibbs Racing, wanted to be the perfect partner and felt it had an ace in the hole with Bell. The NXS star won 15 races in two seasons and Leavine had visions of playoff glory with Toyota’s top prospect.
So DiBenedetto was pushed out. But LFR? It’s two months from being dismantled, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Bell has fallen flat as a rookie. He’s got an average finish three positions lower (21.3), has led just seven laps and only has a single top-five result. That means, barring a shocking turnaround, DiBenedetto was the best driver in the No. 95 team’s 10-year history.
That brings us to the Wood Brothers, which scooped DiBenedetto from the unemployment line at the urging of longtime former driver Paul Menard. The hope was a fresh face with major upside would inject new life into one of the sport’s legendary organizations.
And once again, DiBenedetto came through. He made the playoffs, just the second time in seven years the Wood Brothers qualified. Three top-five finishes to date are the most since Ryan Blaney drove for the team in 2017. Three times, DiBenedetto’s been on the brink of his first 2020 win only to come up just short: he posted runner-up finishes twice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was a yellow-line controversy away from Talladega triumph.
His 15.2 average finish with the Wood Brothers is its best since Morgan Shepherd in 1994. All the pieces appeared to be in place for DiBenedetto to build on his performance in year two.
Maybe he will. After all, this guy’s spent the better part of five years fighting for his NASCAR life. But what’s missing? How can teams be so impatient?
The answer is simple when you look at DiBenedetto’s replacement. Make no mistake, Cindric deserves a Cup opportunity; the 22-year-old has five NXS wins and is a co-championship favorite with Chase Briscoe. But Cindric also has an automatic in, the same way Cole Custer has a seat for life at Stewart-Haas Racing. When your dad’s the team president of a major organization (father Tim, Team Penske) they’re going to find a car to put you in.
Like Custer, Cindric isn’t exactly a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. level of popularity, oozing millions in sponsorship; he has roughly 10% of DiBenedetto’s following on Twitter. But Tim Cindric, just like Stewart-Haas Racing President Joe Custer, will squeeze out some money in the boardroom.
That’s where DiBenedetto seems to fall short even though he’s become the sport’s lovable underdog. In the 1980s, Fortune 500 favoritism didn’t matter; you earned your promotions on the racetrack. Guys like Ken Schrader would go this route, running three to four years making underfunded teams better before getting a top-tier ride at Hendrick Motorsports. Ernie Irvan? He wound up at Morgan-McClure Motorsports, then Robert Yates Racing after a couple of years taking top-30 cars and turning in the occasional top 10. Owners noticed. Sponsors noticed. On-track performance was all you needed.
It feels like DiBenedetto would be a sponsor’s dream with the way he uses social media. But it hasn’t been enough. Every stop, he’s struggled to retain major backing which makes you wonder how sponsorship is even being achieved these days. Bubba Wallace’s recent burst of financial support has proven to be the exception, not the rule. Manufacturers and Fortune 500 partnerships with NASCAR owners in their other industries is what’s driving the majority of funding for these top teams.
Those partnerships are very particular in what drivers they want; the idea of a funded driver is almost commonplace in NASCAR’s lower levels. DiBenedetto might have been better off taking a month off the Woods, rounding up $20 million in investment partners and then coming back to strike a deal.
No such luck. All he’s done is make every team better the second he straps behind the wheel. Maybe he’ll win a few races next year, go deep into the NASCAR playoffs and Ford’s hand will be forced.
Will even that be enough? In NASCAR these days, the answer remains unclear.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- So much for a two-man FOX booth. Clint Bowyer moving to television in 2021 opens up a spot for Briscoe at SHR. Interesting how Ford took two opposite paths with its top prospects this season, but, after all, Briscoe called his shot and won eight NXS races. That was his bar to move to Cup and now he gets a top-tier opportunity. And as for Bowyer? His personality should be a nice mix with Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy as the booth finishes its transition to a younger generation.
- I’d give Trackhouse Racing Team and new owner Justin Marks a little bit of attention. It leased a charter, guaranteeing a spot in the field for 2021. Daniel Suarez was specifically looking for a ride he thought could win races over the long term. Former Michael Waltrip Racing executive Ty Norris is part of the main leadership group. Michael Jordan’s new team will get all the publicity, but don’t be surprised if Trackhouse overachieves next season.
- Spire Motorsports now has three charter teams, even though its one current NASCAR program has just a single top-10 finish in 67 starts (the Daytona upset in July 2019 with Justin Haley.) For a team that feels like it’s not giving 100% to fielding a competitive car, it’s sure collecting a lot of assets. Spire and Rick Ware Racing now combine to own 22% of all charters on the 36-car Cup grid.
- Kyle Busch winning the Charlotte ROVAL to keep his Championship 4 streak alive? You never count out the reigning NASCAR champion until the final lap. It’s a weekend of reckoning for a winless season filled with bad luck and uncharacteristic mistakes that has caught up to the No. 18 team at last.