Matt DiBenedetto is yet again in another pressure packed situation in 2021. When he signed his contract to join the Wood Brothers for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, he didn’t expect that 2021 would be his last in the famed No. 21 Ford.
See, he said last year that his contracts was a multi-year deal with the team. The one kicker to that is, the team held the option each season. They just had to led him know by the end of September whether they would renew the option for the next year or not.
Luckily for him, he earned the ride for 2021. But, no matter what he does this year, DiBenedetto will be a free agent at seasons end. The Wood Brothers aren’t retaining him past 2021. That’s because the Wood Brothers have an alliance with Team Penske and Penske is ready to bring up Austin Cindric. They just need a place to house him.
Same deal when they brought up Ryan Blaney a few years ago. They needed a place for him so they could get the third car ready. So, Blaney drove this car in 2016 and 2017 before moving over to Penske in 2018.
With Blaney and Joey Logano on new contracts over there at Penske, Cindric needed a place to go so the Wood Brothers made the most sense. It in turn cost DiBenedetto his ride.
One would think this could cause some animosity between the two drivers (Cindric-DiBenedetto). One driver knowing he’s not coming back and his replacement is already named. Instead, both drivers don’t think this will become a problem.
They’re very good friends off the race track too and know that this decision is about either of them personally. They’re not letting this get in their way as a result.
“I’ve enjoyed my relationship with Matt and we’ve joked about it,” said Cindric on Monday of the situation. “We’ve talked about it, even throughout the process of not really knowing what next year in 2021 or 2022 looked like for either of us. We used each other as sounding boards as far as what’s going on.”
DiBenedetto echoed that sentiment.
“This sport is a business and everyone has the same goals,” he said. “Austin grew up his whole life and wanted to be a winner in racing and in NASCAR and he’s doing everything he can to perform and accomplish those goals. I have the same goals to be successful and win races and championships and everything and be around this sport for a very long time, which I know that I’m gonna be here for a long time.
“I’m confident, especially with the opportunities I’ve been given, so, no, it’s not awkward at all. It’s just part of the business and things work out the way that they’re supposed to, and I think there are gonna be great opportunities for me in the future and I’m just pumped about this year.
“I’ve been through so much to where I’m just super pumped to be driving the 21 and with our seat time that we had last year and our experience and all the momentum we have, to go out there and have the opportunities to go win and kick butt this year that’s all that I need and the future will take care of itself. So, there’s nothing weird between me and Austin. He’s a great kid.”
Now, could Penske not retain Brad Keselowski past this year and move Cindric over to the No. 2 Ford for 2022? Sure. That could allow DiBenedetto to stay put then. But, with this move announced so early, I don’t see that happening though either.
The move was done out of respect for DiBenedetto to give him more than a years worth notice so he could find something else. So, here we are again.
This same thing happened to him in 2019. He joined Leavine Family Racing and was having a career year. Unfortunately for him, LFR had a similar alliance too and theirs is with Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR needed a place to house Christopher Bell in 2020. LFR was the only option. So, despite DiBenedetto giving himself and LFR a career season, he wasn’t retained.
That’s what landed him with the Wood Brothers. But an alliance is why he’s not retained again. So, 2021 is the ultimate job interview for DiBenedetto. He’s out to show all the other teams what they can have.
“My whole career has had an expiration date,” he said. “I’ve thought it was over 1,000 times, so it don’t even phase me,” DiBenedetto said. “I’m pretty mentally tough at this point.
“I haven’t even hardly thought about 2022 just because my whole focus is on 2021 and driving the No. 21 car.”
He had three top five finishes in each of the last two years. He went from seven top 10’s in 2019 to 11 a year ago. He’s led 243 of his 266 career laps the last two years as well.
Everyone has always said that DiBenedetto has outperformed his equipment. He’s proven that true.
Now, it’s off to next Sunday’s 63rd annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) with DiBenedetto in a good race car and a chance to go into the sports’ immortality if he could win the Great American Race.
While this could be a very pressure packed and tense situation for DiBenedetto this season, he’s feeling the exact opposite in fact. He’s as confident now as ever before and blocking out anything that has to deal with his future at the moment.
“Going into this year, even with the uncertainty you can call it about 2022, I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my career going into this year even without knowing my plans for next year,” DiBenedetto said. “This is all I can ask for. To have the seat time that we had last year together, to have the speed, have the equipment behind me, all the things that are lined up for success for this year and if we go out there, we win, run up front consistently, compete in the playoffs, all the things, I know that we are 100 percent capable of doing this year more than ever, the rest will take care of itself.
A win though would certainly open up more doors in the silly season to get him a job offer for 2022. He’s only 29. He won’t be 30 until June. He has so much time left in him to make himself and a team a potential champion one day.
2021 is a shot for him to further show that.
As of now though, he says he has nothing lined up for ’22. He hasn’t even talked to anyone about it, yet. He’s focused on 2021 and doing everything in his power to get the Wood Brothers their 100th win in Cup.
“I so badly want to get that 100th win for the Wood Brothers because they are family. When you drive for them, you’re not friends but you’re family to them,” said DiBenedetto. “They are family and I want it so bad for them. That would be an amazing accomplishment, but we got to go out there.
“Now that I know that we’re ready as a team, I feel the last bit of last year and going into this year that we are 100% ready to win. I’m honest. Early last year, we had a lot of things to work on and you have to perfect. I did not feel like we’re a winning team because of those circumstances. We had the people and equipment, but we needed time and we got that now. I think it’s our time and the goal is to win, run out front and compete at the end because I know we can do it.”
It’s audition time.