Matt DiBenedetto will return to the famed No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing this upcoming season in the NASCAR Cup Series. 2021 will be his second year with the Woods but also his final, as Austin Cindric is set to take over the reins in 2022.
So there is much to prove for the fan-favorite DiBenedetto as he looks to pad his resume while in the search of yet another ride. Nonetheless, the 29-year-old is driving the best equipment he has ever been in, and if 2020 was any indication, 2021 holds plenty of optimism.
A Look Back
2020 was easily a career year for DiBenedetto, as he finally made it into nearly top-notch equipment after scratching and clawing his way through Cup in primarily underfunded rides the five seasons prior. The Team Penske-supplied equipment helped propel DiBenedetto into the playoffs for the first time in his career.
A big reason for DiBenedetto’s success was his consistent ability to stay on the track and out of trouble. Just one DNF sidelined the No. 21 thanks to a crash at Kansas Speedway in July.
11 top 10s weren’t too shabby either, including a pair of runner-ups at both events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a third place at Kentucky Speedway. Much of this performance came thanks to a hot start for the No. 21 team. In the first 18 events, DiBenedetto finished outside the top 20 just three times, which put him in prime playoff position.
But it was down the stretch toward the postseason where the team really struggled. They lost their consistency and competitive edge, dropping positions in the points nearly every week as the playoff cutoff at Daytona International Speedway approached.
When it all was said and done, DiBenedetto narrowly squeaked in by the slimmest of margins as the 16th and final playoff driver. He just barely edged out seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the final race of the regular season. Just as quickly he made the playoffs, DiBenedetto was eliminated, chalking up a 13th-place final points position. As disappointing as it was, it was his best points result by far and a significant uptick for the Wood Brothers compared to Paul Menard’s tenure the two seasons prior.
Since he’s been in better equipment, DiBenedetto has readily excelled at short tracks, road courses and flat ovals. While he does not have much past experience turning left and right, DiBenedetto has seemingly found himself upfront at road courses over the last two years. With a whopping seven twisting circuits on the schedule, it is easily plausible that DiBenedetto could be contending for his long-awaited first career win on at least one of them in 2021.
While he wasn’t as formidable at short tracks in 2020 as may have expected, who could forget his gritty sixth-place run in 2016 or his runner-up in 2019 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Unfortunately for DiBenedetto, he will lose an event on The Last Great Coliseum’s concrete surface, as Bristol will be covered in dirt this spring. He’ll likely need to get it done on the few other tracks under a mile.
— Ryan Ellis (@ryanellisracing) December 10, 2020
Mile-and-a-halfs and two-mile circuits have been historically difficult for him, with Las Vegas a surprising exception. Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Michigan International Speedway have statistically been his worst. This track type was his downfall last season, contributing to his late-season skid.
After the 2021 schedule shakeup, there are seemingly more opportunities for potential success on paper. The execution is critical for DiBenedetto’s performance. If the team can clean up some of its gremlins on larger tracks, DiBenedetto has the opportunity to take his stock to the next level and impress some prospective car owners along the way.
If they can become consistent throughout the entirety of the season, DiBenedetto looks to be a lock on the lower half of the playoff grid. Unfortunately, the Wood Brothers have lacked their historic success ever since their return to full-time competition several years ago.
However, the driver and team already have a year under their belts together, and although they will be splitting up at the conclusion of the season, their relationship and performance will likely grow.
The best-case scenario is just that. The Wood Brothers are still unbelievably looking for their coveted 100th win. DiBenedetto has as good of a shot as ever to get it. Even if they don’t win, a slight uptick in their performance could put DiBenedetto solidly in the postseason this time, and he could have a significantly deeper run. All of that will definitely turn some heads.
If he could nail down a season like this, there are already rumors of a Kurt Busch retirement and a potential 23XI Racing expansion, meaning top quality seats for 2022 are available.
On the flip side, the Woods are likely receiving the fourth-best equipment from Penske. This also could have its downside. DiBenedetto could regress based upon his equipment and the newness of the schedule. In addition, imagine having to race for your job, your livelihood for an entire year. The pressure is immense, and it could take its toll on performance. While it’s certainly plausible for DiBenedetto to make the playoffs, don’t be surprised if he stumbles and ends up way outside the postseason.
While he has had far too many of them, this season is probably the most pivotal of DiBenedetto’s career. While there is no question he can drive, DiBenedetto is yet again in the all-too-familiar murky waters in regards to his future. While it must weigh heavily on him, can DiBenedetto put the uncertainty behind and have yet another career year? He almost has to.