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DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 09: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Busch Clash at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on February 09, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Difficult Start to 2021 Season has Matt DiBenedetto Buried in Points as Wood Brothers Look for Rhythm

By Dustin Albino

The month of February was none too kind for Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto. But don’t give up on him yet.

“The luck aspect of it is worse than I’ve ever had in my whole career,” DiBenedetto told earlier this week. “I’m not a big believer in luck usually, but a lot of these circumstances have been out of our control.”

Through the first three races of the NASCAR Cup Series season, DiBenedetto has a best finish of 28th, coming last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He enters Las Vegas Motor Speedway 34th in the standings.

Sounds terrible, right? 

On paper it isn’t attractive, but think of the first three races: Daytona 500, which puts Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” to the test; the Daytona International Speedway road course, a weak point for Team Penske; and Homestead, a track that DiBenedetto’s best finish is just 14th in seven starts. 

Prior to the season even beginning, the races in February were concerning for the No. 21 team.

“I joked with my spotter Doug (Campbell) before the season even started and said how I couldn’t wait to get to March because March starts a much better string of tracks for us than the start of the year,” DiBenedetto recalled. “Before the season even started, I was just looking to get to this whole string of tracks we have coming up, so luckily we’re there now.” 

On the positive side, none of DiBenedetto’s incidents this season have been self-inflicted wounds. 

In the Daytona 500, DiBenedetto was caught up in the “Big One” on lap 14, taking out many of the frontrunners, including the No. 21 car. The plan was to drop to the back the following lap, believing the action was a bit too dicey in the opening laps. At the road course, he was having an average run when his right rear tire exploded after running over debris. The end result was finishing 37th, in the garage. Last weekend in South Beach, the Wood Brothers Racing team was running in the low teens, when Ross Chastain put a block on the No. 21 car on a restart, puncturing a hole in the nose of his Ford.

Surely, DiBenedetto wasn’t pleased about that.

“I talked to [Chastain] after the race because that ruined the rest of our day, and it was far too early for moves like that to be happening,” DiBenedetto said. “It was very, very extreme, and it was uncalled for.

“We were fine and had a good discussion. I was very stern, very angry and very direct in what I said, to say the least.” 

DiBenedetto said it was important to reach out immediately because he wants to race the No. 42 car respectfully for the remainder of the year. At the same time, he wanted to voice his displeasure. 

But given the No. 21 team has an average finish of 32.7, and has scored a total of 14 points (behind the likes of rookie Anthony Alfredo, Josh Bilicki, James Davison, Joey Gase and Jamie McMurray (who ran only the Daytona 500), DiBenedetto has quite a hole to dig out of. And oftentimes, he takes the frustration of a bad run home with him. 

“I’m not great at putting things behind me sometimes, just because of how passionate I am about what I do,” he said. “I come home, and it puts me in a crappy mood. It will take me all week to just somewhat get over it. It’ll really take me until we have a good run and get on track to try to get over it, if that.”

Admittedly so, DiBenedetto looked at where he ranks in the point standings on Monday, and it was hard to stomach. 

“To be starting this buried, we could have just skipped the first three races of the season and not be much different in points,” he said. “That’s a huge, huge disadvantage to where we’re at.

“I know people can say, ‘Oh, it’s early in the season,’ but now, this is like three throwaway races and that digs you in a hole where you can’t have things like that happen, or you have to go win a race. Not that we can’t rack up a bunch of points, but we have to be perfect from here on out.”

Another negative for the No. 21 team is the three victors so far — Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William Byron — two of which DiBenedetto beat out in the regular season last year. 

“As a fan, you like seeing [new winners], but as a competitor, it’s tough because those are some guys that we would normally race in points or feel like we have a good chance to beat in points when we get into our normal routine,” DiBenedetto added. “Having first-time winners changes the dynamic of the playoff situation, where it makes it harder and harder to point your way in when you get a lot of different guys winning these races already.”

The good thing is, DiBenedetto knows he’s with a quality race team that made it to the postseason just last year, finishing 13th in points. Once the No. 21 bunch gets into a flow, he believes he’ll work his way up the rankings. 

But still, DiBenedetto sits 53 markers outside of 16th. 

DiBenedetto stated, “This stuff has been circumstances, not really anything to do with our team or we can look at and be like, ‘Hey, we need to do this better.’ It’s been crap luck or things not working out well.

“I think we just have to get into the rhythm of how we finished last season, really strong week in and week out.” 

Fortunately for the No. 21 crew, there’s no better place on the schedule to go than Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which is the next track on the circuit. Not only does Team Penske have a stellar track record at the track, but DiBenedetto finished runner-up in both events in Sin City last season.

He knows this is a good week to start to turn the ship. 

“I would say [Las Vegas] is a good one to be optimistic about going to, to kind of reset and have a fresh start and actually feel like we can get our season going and start racking up points,” he added. “I know we have a good notebook from there, good setup and have figured out what I like.”

Heading into the weekend, the goal is to place the No. 21 inside the top 10. From there, if DiBenedetto can climb inside the top five, then he’s in a position to possibly capitalize on a victory. 

But despite the slow start, he’s not entering must-win mode yet. 

“I don’t want to go into that panic mode three races in,” DiBenedetto said. “I think it’s just, we’ve got to really go out there and keep track position, execute races from start to finish and be incredibly consistent. That way, we can rack up a lot of points and get up where we belong.”