Race Weekend Central

Wood Brothers Season Review

Matt DiBenedetto: 13th place
36 starts, 0 wins, 3 top-5’s, 11 top-10’s, 91 laps led, average finish 14.8

When Matt DiBenedetto fires the engine on his No. 21 Ford for the 63nd running of the Daytona 500 next February, his second full year for the team, the Woods Brothers will be starting their 68th season in NASCAR: five more years of stock car longevity than the Great American Race itself.

In a sporting context, legendary is an oft misused word; a title that’s bandied around and lightly bestowed – ascribed often without anything like the necessary credentials to back it up. But in the case of the venerable Woods Brothers, the term is both well and hard earned over just shy of seven decades of commitment to the craft.

Big picture wise in 2020, making the playoffs, a career first for the driver, and finishing 13th in the final standings represents a really solid season for the team especially given the unique challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. DiBenedetto also recorded career bests in top-5’s (3, equal), top 10’s (11) and average finish (14.3) besting his previous high water mark by some 3.5 spots – a significant improvement.

“We had a lot thrown at us, and it was especially hard on us being a new group,” said DiBenedetto. “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.”

The chase for the elusive 100th victory will, however, continue into 2021.

In what is becoming something of a hallmark of his career, DiBenedetto came close to the maiden victory he — and his team — so craves on three separate occasions in 2020. For the record, the last Wood Brothers Cup victory came in June 2017 at Pocono Raceway with Ryan Blaney winning his ever first Cup race. Before that it was Trevor Bayne’s upstart and unexpected victory in the 2011 Daytona 500.

The Grass Valley, Ca. native’s first near miss came at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where an untimely caution on the white flag lap saw him miss out on one last shot to catch race winner Joey Logano. “This is all just too surreal,” said DiBenedetto post-race. “Tough to be that close, but, hey, this is only the second race of the season. So it was the strength of this team. It’s so cool to have the backing of all the people that allow me to drive this thing.”

DiBenedetto finished ninth at Darlington Raceway in the second race back post-lockdown, seventh a few weeks later at Martinsville Speedway and sixth at Pocono in the second race of the double header weekend. DiBenedetto would also finish better in the second race in both the other double header weekends at Michigan International Speedway and Dover International Speedway.

In the 17th race of the year at Kentucky Speedway, DiBenedetto finished third behind debutant winner Cole Custer with a strong finish. “I think if I’m correct we went from 18th to third in the last, like, seven laps,” said DiBenedetto. “We made a monstrous restart. My spotter Doug Campbell deserves a lot of credit for helping me. We went around most of the field on the outside, made a power move. Credit to him, the team, Wood Brothers for giving me a super-fast car.”

As the playoffs drew closer, DiBenedetto’s once comfortable points advantage was whittled away to the point that it was decidedly meager with just the regular season finale at Daytona remaining – a scant five points over William Byron and just nine markers ahead of seven time himself, Jimmie Johnson. And by the end of the first stage, DiBenedetto was already on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff line. But in the end after a race replete with drama, Matty D snagged his playoff spot.

“You couldn’t have scripted it any crazier than that,” DiBenedetto said of his Daytona experience. “We had a decent points cushion, and we were really getting in a groove, the last few weeks were just rough on us. And that’s just part of it.”

DiBenedetto didn’t make it past Stage One of the playoffs – finishes of 21st, 17th and 19th not being nearly enough to progress but just making it represents success that he can build on in 2021. The fourth playoff race was another of Matty D’s near misses – finishing second again – this time behind an ebullient Kurt Busch.

“Man, I’m just so proud. I want the Wood Brothers 100th win so bad,” said DiBenedetto. “I love driving for this team, I hope I get to drive for them for a long time to come….It’s tough to come that close, but really proud of the team, pit crew, my crew chief Greg Erwin, all these guys. We’ll get us one.”

DiBenedetto would go on to finish second yet again at Talladega but in the final reckoning a penalty from NASCAR for pushing William Byron beneath the yellow line saw him relegated to a 21st place finish. Having led the field to green at the final restart, it was certainly another tough result. “I feel like it’s the same story. A lot of times, it’s just heartbreak,” said DiBenedetto and it’s hard to disagree with him.

The crushing disappointment of Talladega was, however, quickly erased just four days later with the announcement that he would return to the 21 car in 2021. Austin Cindric will be waiting in the wings to take over in 2022 but for now, DiBenedetto’s future is secured.

“I want to get the Wood Brothers their 100th win and some more as well,” DiBenedetto said. “I want that 100th win more than anything. The Woods are a great family, and it’s a great honor to drive for them – a dream come true…. I will remember this time for the rest of my life.”

Here’s hoping that next year Matty D finally makes the break through and gets the elusive win. What a Victory Lane celebration that would be.

About the author

Frontstretch.com

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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