Matt DiBenedetto's future has never been this cut-and-dried — even if it is exceedingly unique. DiBenedetto, 29, will definitely drive the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford this season. And when the season ends, he'll definitely be looking for a new job.
These circumstances are the product of forces from multiple angles. Chief among them is the rise of Austin Cindric as a budding talent in Team Penske's Xfinity Series program. The Penske outfit wants to make room for Cindric at the Cup level no later than 2022, and its affiliation as a technical partner with WBR offers the perfect fit. The schedule to keep DiBenedetto in the No. 21 through 2021 provides a bridge of continuity that likely culminates in the best possible on-track results this season.
Accepting a job offer knowing that you'll automatically be let go at a specific time is never the best-case scenario. But for DiBenedetto, it offers clarity that has been hard to come by during his NASCAR career. He's a veteran of back-of-the-pack teams like BK Racing and Go Fas Racing. Even in the last two seasons, DiBenedetto has raced on one-year contracts with the unknown of the following season clearly weighing on him. Now, he gets to prove his value in strong, playoff-capable equipment, and he's free to work on 2022 options before the 2021 season begins.
For a driver known for wearing his heart on his sleeve — look no further than his emotional reactions to nearly going to Cup Victory Lane at Bristol in 2019 and Talladega in 2020 — having a clear view of what's to come might prove beneficial. There's even history to go by: His unique one-year deal with WBR was announced last fall on Oct. 8, and in the remaining five races DiBenedetto netted three top 10s to finish the season.
The late-season improvement last year can also be attributed to DiBenedetto finally getting his bearings with his team after the pandemic-shifted season. Aside from the pre-pandemic first four races of 2020, DiBenedetto and crew chief Greg Erwin had to do all of their in-car setup development while competing in race conditions.
"We had a lot thrown at us, and it was especially hard on us being a new group," DiBenedetto says. "There are a lot of things we would have learned in practice and been able to apply to the car in a normal year. Instead, we had to learn during the race."
Despite the challenge, DiBenedetto still landed WBR in the postseason. It ended a two-year drought for the team in the Playoffs dating to Ryan Blaney's appearance in 2017. DiBenedetto never won but leveraged 11 top-10 finishes and three top-5 runs to earn a spot on points. The team was eliminated after the first round but still earned its best overall average finish for a full season effort (14.8) since 1994.
"Matt has been able to find success this year under very difficult circumstances," said Wood Brothers Racing team president and co-owner Eddie Wood. "Since he joined our team, he only had limited time working with our group due to the pandemic. While it's been an entirely new organization, he found a way to consistently run up front and make the Playoffs. We have learned a lot together this year and we look forward to continuing to build with Matt in 2021."
Prior to finishing eighth in the season finale last fall at Phoenix International Raceway, DiBenedetto offered a prediction for his final season behind the wheel of the No. 21 Ford. "As a team we're just now getting on the same page," he said. "We're meshing better, and now we are able to turn bad days into good solid runs. That's what strong teams do. We'll be way, way further ahead when we start next season."
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 50/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)