For the first time in three years, Wood Brothers Racing is chasing championship contention with Matt DiBenedetto.
Nine races remain in the regular season, and DiBenedetto holds down a spot on the playoff grid. He is 12th in the overall standings and has already surpassed the top-five and top-10 finishes put up last year for Paul Menard. Not since 2017 with Ryan Blaney has the organization made the playoffs, which remains the first and only time the No. 21 Ford has been in the postseason under any of its iterations.
The hiring of DiBenedetto appears to have reinvigorated the group. DiBenedetto carries the confidence he can succeed at the NASCAR Cup Series level and believes his team can be every bit as fast and relevant as their Team Penske teammates.
Crew chief Greg Erwin has seen that confidence from his driver. Last weekend at Kentucky Speedway, DiBenedetto drove angry the final few laps and turned into a top-five finish. Under COVID-19 restrictions, Erwin doesn’t get to spend the usual amount of time around his team away from the racetrack; however, he does still see a difference in their mentality with their success and a goal to reach ahead.
“What I can tell is different is when the race is over, and the guys that are there at the track with us walk down pit road to go see the driver, you can tell there’s a little bit of anxiousness there, like, ‘We can do this. We’re this close,’” said Erwin. “We got a good sense of it at the second race of the season; we wound up with a second at Vegas, pretty very near the same looking kind of wild finish (as Kentucky).”
In both Las Vegas and Kentucky, a late-race restart allowed DiBenedetto to muscle his way to the front. Both of his top-five finishes this year came in those races with a second-place at Vegas and a third-place finish at Kentucky. Vegas was critical for the team because right out of the box, it showed “we’ve got something here,” according to Erwin, and since then, there has been the belief if the team can position themselves near the front late in the race, they will have a shot.
The team left the Pocono doubleheader with a combined 72 points. DiBenedetto then added 72 more points between Indianapolis and Kentucky. Furthermore, DiBenedetto has picked up points in the last eight straight stages.
The recent stretch has been good mentally for both driver and team. DiBenedetto is also gaining more confidence and comfort from the car as Erwin and his staff build specifically to DiBenedetto and haven’t been copying the Penske setups as much anymore.
“There has been some relief in that what we’re doing now is working,” said Erwin, “and I think there has been a little expectation that if we can get ourselves comfortably inside the top 12, to the point where we’re not going to Daytona the last race before the playoffs looking over your shoulder wondering if a guy behind us in points wins and bumps us out, and that this is all going to go away through the course of one race. So, we want to make sure we build enough of a points cushion that we can go down to Daytona and race for the win.”
Qualifying for the 16-driver playoff would ensure that DiBenedetto earns a career-best finish in the points. Statistically, there is enough time left in the year for DiBenedetto to also earn career-highs in top-five and top-10 finishes, as well as laps led and his overall average finish.
And making the playoffs would also be a first for DiBenedetto, who is in his sixth full season.
“Going into this season, that was probably goal number one,” he said. “You enter the boxes you want to check and knowing the strength of the team – we had some work to do, we’re a new group working together, and we don’t practice or qualifying or any of that, so we’ve had to work really hard on our communication and learn some stuff together. But knowing the strength of our team coming in, that was probably goal number one. Making the playoffs in itself is tough, but knowing the strength of the team, I knew we could work at it and do it, especially now that we’ve been on this good streak lately of having a lot of speed and racking up stage points and another good finish this past weekend.
“I think there’s a lot more of that to come, which is really encouraging for the rest of the season. And as we keep building and getting better as a team and a group working together, we not only want to make the playoffs but when we get in them, we want to make a splash and then keep going as far as we can. If we keep improving like we have been, I think we can turn a lot of heads.”