By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season for the full-time drivers in the series leading into February’s running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: Five
Career Wins: Zero
“I’m not done yet. Something will come open. It’s going to happen. I’m here to win. Something’s going to come open.”
Those are the words Matt DiBenedetto said after his greatest drive of his ongoing roller coaster NASCAR career during last August’s memorable Bristol Night Race.
The sport’s favorite underdog led 93 of 500 laps that night and had it not been for his struggle getting by the always aggressive Ryan Newman, who’s to say if he would’ve put his then-team Leavine Family Racing into victory lane instead of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.
His admirable third and final top-five of the year won a lot of fans and drivers over as it occurred days after LFR announced he won’t be welcomed back in 2020.
Let’s not forget that it was DiBenedetto himself who took the risk by leaving Go Fas Racing in 2018 to bet on himself a better opportunity.
Understandably, emotions were running high as Bristol was the culmination of a prosperous summer stretch that began with his maiden top-five at Sonoma. That day, he not only gradually gained spots, but got by one of the best drivers today in Kevin Harvick with a few laps remaining to finish fourth.
It was his first top-five result of his entire NASCAR national touring career that goes back to 2009.
This performance came at a time where he caught nothing but bad breaks such as four retirements that put him 26th in points.
Out of the four, none quite heartbreaking than the Daytona 500 where he led a race-high 49 laps after just only leading a career total of 24 laps in his previous 140 Cup starts.
For much of the race, it appeared DiBenedetto has a shot of winning “The Great American Race.” That was until Lap 192 when a massive pileup wiped out 21 cars at the end of the backstretch.
Once the enormous sparks and cars being wounded ended, DiBenedetto ended up 28th and set the tone of the first half, but after Sonoma – a dark cloud was lifted. His season turned around for the absolute better, scoring string of top-tens during the summer stretch that led to his runner-up result in “Thunder Valley.”
However, the agony appeared that his risk is leaning towards failure as it wasn’t a win that could’ve easily drawn eyeballs on owners, but one fellow competitor from a far noticed his worth throughout the year and gave DiBenedetto a shot of a lifetime.
That man would be Paul Menard, who not long after Bristol announced his retirement from full-time racing after 2019, thus leaving his iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang vacant.
The decision was straight forward for the Wisconsin veteran, put DiBenedetto in the car.
Nobody else but the 28-year-old Californian who finished 22nd in points and swept the board in career-highs – three top-fives, seven top-10s, 152 laps led, finishing on the lead lap 21 times, an average start of 20.5 and average finish of 18.3.
DiBenedetto said he’s excited to join the Wood Brothers as he’ll look to bring the team its 100th Cup win and of course, defy the odds like he’s done thus far and give them its first-ever Cup championship.
“I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020,” DiBenedetto said. “The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”
DiBenedetto will have some supporting acts coming from Team Penske, consisting of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and the man who last put the No. 21 Ford in victory lane, Ryan Blaney.
It’s not the matter of how quickly can DiBenedetto becomes a contender in even better equipment than his last two teams, but when?
Time will tell as Speedweeks, where Menard had a competitive No. 21 machine in both the Busch Clash and Daytona 500, is less than a month away.