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DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - AUGUST 29: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford, looks on prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - AUGUST 29: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford, looks on prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Matt DiBenedetto makes the NASCAR Cup Playoffs for the first time.


WHAT IS YOUR OVERRIDING EMOTION RIGHT NOW? “Man, I don’t even know to be honest with you. That was so stressful. Man, it is just so much appreciation to a level that it is hard to describe. You guys all know my career path and you just appreciate what I would call usually the little things but this one is a big one. I appreciate it so much. When you are driving for the Wood Brothers and having all these great people around you it just means so much to be able to do it here with this team. To answer your question better I just got off FaceTime with my wife and she was crying non-stop. She couldn’t stop crying because of the excitement obviously and knowing how much this means to us and not only making the playoffs but knowing we can really contend as a team.”

YOU HAVE HAD SOME HIGHS AND LOWS, HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO WHEN YOU FINISHED 6TH AT BRISTOL AND HOW BIG A MOMENT THAT WAS. HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO ANY OTHER MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER? “I think I put them all in a pretty similar ballpark. Each step of the way I feel like is kind of proven myself and my worth in the sport and scratching and clawing to do the best job I can for the team. I am so lucky to have each one of these opportunities. Making the playoffs and doing it for the Wood Brothers is huge. This goes at the top. Definitely along the top of the list of accomplishments and probably my biggest – definitely my biggest accomplishment in my Cup career. Doing it for the Wood Brothers is really special. It means a lot. Like I said, we can contend and I feel like we can really do a good job.”

YOU MENTIONED THIS WAS THE MOST STRESSFUL SITUATION YOU HAVE BEEN IN DRIVING A RACE CAR. HOW DID YOU FEEL HAVING A SUPERSPEEDWAY AS THE REGULAR SEASON FINALE AND RELYING ON THIS BEING YOUR FINAL SHOT? “Man, that was a high level of stress inside the race car. You couldn’t have scripted it any crazier. We had a decent points cushion and we were really getting in a groove and then the last few weeks were rough on us and that is part of it. The whole season is all collectively one. Coming into here that is by far the most stressful situation I have dealt with behind the wheel and coming into this week. But I have to thank my career path and the opportunities I have gotten before this – last year at this time I didn’t know if I would drive a Cup car again in my life. I am appreciative of the stressful situations I have been through because it has made me extremely mentally tough and be a good leader with my guys on my team and not let it get to me and always do my normal deal and not change how I drive under pressure.”

CAN YOU TALK ME THROUGH HOW YOU GOT THROUGH THE INCIDENT BEFORE THE OVERTIME RESTART? “Man, that was a close call. Really, it was kind of a hope and pray type situation. The 22 had trouble and I ran into him and had to make an evasive maneuver to get around him and you kind of go with your instinct. I thought I could get around him on the outside. You don’t have time to look in your mirror and see if you are clear high so I went up around him and prayed that we could sneak through him. It was really tight and close and we got bounced around a little but thank goodness we got through that and ultimately that is what allowed us to make the playoffs.”

THE IDEA THAT YOU COULD BE A CHAMPION 10 WEEKS FROM NOW: “Unbelievable. I knew at the start of the season that we had work to do as a team and this year, 2020, is crazy. We kept getting better and better and through the mid part of the stretch I feel like we hit our stride as a team and were running up front weekly. We hit a few tracks that were a struggle but overall we are as ready as ever to contend for a championship, especially when we are at our best, working together as a team. It is perfect timing for us. That is why it was so important for us to make the playoffs because we knew that if we made them that we deserved every bit to be in them as a team and that we can really compete and make a heck of a splash and contend down the end. Especially since everyone knows there are a lot of short tracks and 750 horsepower tracks which are right up our alley and this team performs really well at.”

DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU GOT IN THROUGH LUCK OR WAS IT MORE THAN THAT TONIGHT? “It definitely involved luck. I think it was just trying to make decent decisions and be smart all day and not be the cause of the crash. That was my goal, to not make silly moves. I missed a couple opportunities to jump out and get out to the front a couple of times. There are some things to learn from and get better at. Ultimately I wouldn’t change them at this point because it led us to avoid that crash. There are always going to be some luck involved in these things and on top of that you have to be a smart racer and not do anything too crazy. We came out clean and that is all that mattered.”

DID YOU THINK YOU WERE THROWING IT AWAY IN THE SECOND STAGE WITH THE STRATEGY YOU GUYS HAD? “No. I think we had the right strategy for sure. I think if we did everything over the same I wouldn’t change anything at this point. I made a couple decisions I could have done better through the race. Our strategy was fine. Saving fuel on the second stage which was crazy, that and then the guys that pit for fuel ending up bunching up with one to go. You couldn’t have scripted this race with the stages and the finish and the whole thing, you couldn’t have staged it any crazier for our playoff battle between me and the 24 and 48.”

THIS IS YOUR FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO BE IN THE PLAYOFFS AS A DRIVER. HOW WILL BEING CONNECTED TO PENSKE AND THE WOOD BROTHERS HELP YOU? “It is huge. It is so awesome driving for the Wood Brothers and the support we get from Ford is unreal. Obviously the support from Team Penske is really what makes this team so strong and allows us to be able to continue to build this team better and better each week and hopefully for a long time to come together. It is great to be aligned with such strong forces for us to go into these playoffs and have that confidence knowing that we have incredible equipment underneath me. The best I have had in my career. Great guys around us. That is definitely the exact way you want to go into this, into these playoffs with all that support.”

YOU HAVE TALKED ABOUT COMING INTO THE FINAL WEEKS OF THE REGULAR SEASON YOU WERE HITTING YOUR STRIDE. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE CLOSE TO YOUR FIRST VICTORY? “Oh yeah. I think early in the season we had to work on some execution and were a new group working together and the pandemic hit and no practice and all that. Then we really started to hit our stride mid-point of the year. Going into the playoffs it is the perfect time to feel we are at our best as a team. Especially since starting the year we were a new group working together. I don’t put too much emphasis on flat out winning. I focus on doing the best we can as a team and hope the win falls our way. But I think we are most ready and capable to win now coming into the playoffs which is the perfect time and knowing that we have a lot of good racetracks coming up. We have improvements to make at Darlington. It wasn’t a strong one for us but a lot of these short tracks are really great race tracks for us coming up in the playoffs so that is really encouraging.”

WHAT DOES MAKING THE PLAYOFFS DO TO SOLIDIFY YOUR PLANS FOR 2021? “It is definitely a big deal for all of us as a team. When I came over here to the Wood Brothers and to this team and our alliance with Team Penske and all, it was really encouraging that they heavily expressed that my contract was a multi-year opportunity with them and they wanted it to be a relationship that we build for a long time to come and build this team and continue to improve and get it to where we are winning and consistently running up front. That was really encouraging. A lot of my situations have been one year type deals and really make or break. You always have to perform. I am really proud of the team and wanted it bad for all of them. We honestly haven’t even talked the tiniest bit about next year or moving forward or anything. We, and I included, were so focused on just getting through Daytona and making the playoffs. I never even brought it up. I just wanted to get through this moment. I am happy we did and happy we made the playoffs. It is huge for my career and for this team.”

YOU ARE IN THE PLAYOFFS AND HAVE A THREE RACE STRETCH COMING UP. BRISTOL IS THE CUT-OFF FOR THAT FIRST ROUND. WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE GOING INTO THESE THREE RACES? “I am super pumped about the fact that we made the playoffs and the part I am most excited about is knowing that we have some great tracks coming up. I love any of the short tracks we go to. Bristol is one of my favorite tracks we go to all year. I think we have a lot of strengths coming up as a team. It is neat that a lot of people know that and have taken notice of our strength as a team as the season has gone on and we have become more of a contender at the perfect time and know that those tracks are right up or alley. I think we can go and have some consistent races and make it into the next round and make the next round after that and keep on fighting like we always do.”

— Ford Performance —