The storied Wood Brothers Racing team has been stuck at 99 wins since Ryan Blaney piloted the No. 21 Ford to Victory Lane at Pocono in 2017.
But this weekend could be the race in which they get that hundredth win with Matt DiBenedetto, who will be making only his 29th start for the team. And if he does reach Victory Lane, he would be the 19th different driver to win for the Woods and stamp his name into the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
DiBenedetto, says that his nerves heading into Saturday night’s Round 1 elimination race are nothing like they were last month for Daytona. See, he had to have a solid night at the Daytona International Speedway just to make the playoffs to which DiBenedetto notes was the main goal of the season. That was in his opinion more pressure than what he’s facing Saturday at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.
Yes, he doesn’t want to downplay what’s at stake this weekend either though. There’s an enormous amount of weight that’s on him this weekend, but he’s also playing with house money right now because they accomplished what they set out to do which is to make the playoffs.
If he gets eliminated on Saturday night, he’ll be upset but know that it’s not the end of the world. Plus, Bristol is his best shot at a win he thinks. Daytona is a place where nothing is in your element. Something beyond your control can take you out in a split second. At Bristol, you’re in more control and that’s what makes DiBenedetto so confident heading into this weekend despite what’s on the line.
See, it’s not a must win, but it’s close to it. That’s because he hasn’t came out of the gates hot to start the postseason. He notes that he had a good car by the end of the race last Saturday night at Richmond, but he spent so much time a lap down after an early race problem that he couldn’t do anything with it.
That’s part of not practicing right now. He says that if they had practice then they would have found that issue out before and been in good shape. So, on to Bristol in which they still won’t have practice and need to hit the setup right early.
He starts last (16th) among playoff drivers. He needs points and needs them quickly. Stage points are so crucial but you don’t have time to dial your car in like he cited to what happened to them last weekend. You need to go on the drop of the green flag, which puts more pressure on them than anything else. You have to hit the setup right this week.
Luckily, they’ve had two races at Bristol this year, one back in May and the other an All-Star race. So, they have data to go off of. Now, it’s just time to execute and make it happen. That could lead to what DiBenedetto says is a future next year with the Wood Brothers. He said he signed a multi year deal with them for this season and beyond but the team holds the option each season. The deadline is at the end of the month for him to know if he will be back in 2021 or not.
A win and an advancement to the Round of 12 would certainly help that cause although DiBenedetto hopes that his future doesn’t come down to one race.
Also, last fall then driving for Leavine Family Racing, DiBenedetto came oh-so-close to capturing his first career win at the Bristol short track. Late in the race, he lost a large lead he had on Denny Hamlin while trying to put Ryan Newman a lap down. After DiBenedetto led a race-high 93 laps, Hamlin caught him with a dozen laps to go and held on for the lead.
The emotional second-place result for DiBenedetto was a career-best finish – matched earlier this season at Las Vegas with his new team. He admitted this past spring that he still can’t watch the end of that race because it’s too painful.
“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it. It would be too much.
“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Weekend, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”
While that finish is tough for him to swallow, he does know the value for his future that it brought him.
“Ultimately, it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”
DiBenedetto also scored a top-10 finish at Bristol in 2016 while driving for BK Racing, placing sixth in the spring race.
And Wood Brothers Racing has a history of bringing a driver to his first career win at Bristol. In the spring race in 2001, Elliott Sadler won his first NASCAR Cup Series race. He started 38th, the deepest in the field that a race winner has started from at Bristol.
DiBenedetto, needs to win Saturday’s race to get into the second round of the postseason.