By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Both Matt DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing are entering the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season with mesmerizing confidence and ready to win races.
There’s a catch, it’ll be their final season together as Austin Cindric will take over the No. 21 Ford Mustang in 2022.
Momentum is on his side as his mental strength was strengthened following a run of four top-10s in the last seven races of 2020, highlighted with a runner-up finish at Las Vegas.
The popular veteran openly expressed he’s in his best form that he’s ever been in his entire NASCAR career.
“This is the best I feel about it because I have such a good team behind me and especially because we had all that time last year together where we were really rocking and rolling the last part of last season,” said DiBenedetto.
“So 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 because this is all I can ask for is 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 – hardcore – 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.”
Although DiBenedetto won’t be back with WBR after this season, there’s zero animosity between him and Cindric.
The reigning Xfinity Series champion, who’s looking to qualify for the 63rd Daytona 500, said it’s the polar opposite as they’ve built a good working relationship ranging from daily conversations about racing to sending stupid photos to each other.
“I’ve enjoyed my relationship with Matt and we’ve joked about it,” said Cindric. “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 backed Cindric’s comments and while racing is a business with both coming from different backgrounds, they share similar goal, but also built a tremendous bond.
“Actually, Austin is a great friend of mine. We text, snapchat. We literally snapchat each other every single day, so if that explains to you our level of friendship. We get along excellent. I love hanging out with Austin. It’s not weird at all,” DiBenedetto on his friendship with Cindric.
“This sport is a business and everyone has the same goals. 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.”
Perhaps the most compelling development about the 29-year-old’s upcoming season is that he isn’t alone regarding 2021 being a contract year. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski is also on the same boat.
Keselowski said that winning is extremely vital when it comes to drivers who must make a statement if they’ll either stay with the team or find greener pastures elsewhere. More so when there’s only a few drivers that win on a regular basis, a feat he can proudly claim that DiBenedetto can’t at this time.
“I think there’s been obviously a fair amount of not just talk on the media side but actual movement within the sport of the car owners transitioning to younger and, quite frankly, less compensated drivers and I think in some ways that’s been really good for me and in some ways that’s been really bad for me,” said Keselowski.
“It’s obviously bad because it lowers the market, but it’s also been good because, quite frankly, they’re not winning and if you want to win races it’s pretty clear there are only about six drivers that can consistently win multiple races in Cup, and it’s nice to be on that list. I think I’ve won multiple races the last five or six seasons, so I feel good about going out there and my ability to do that again in 2021.
“There are certainly a couple of tracks that we have circles that I feel really, really good about. And then obviously a shot to run for the championship on top of that, so I think if I focus on performing the way the market is right now, and there only being a very select few amount of drivers that can consistently win multiple races, I feel like it’ll take care of itself.”
Indeed, winning will take care of things for DiBenedetto’s future and compared to last year where he didn’t felt ready to win, he’s 100% sure he’ll be the man who’ll cross the finish line first and bring WBR its 100th Cup victory.
“You got to win and perform and we’ve been so dang close that it’s painful. That’s a good sign because when you have that momentum and you’re that close and in position as many times as we’ve been now, knowing that we’re going into the season with momentum, we can do it much more consistently,” DiBenedetto explained.
“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. 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.”
The last time the Wood Brothers won a Cup race was at Pocono in June 2017 when Ryan Blaney scored his maiden win.
In fact, the last three drivers who won in the No. 21 Ford were first-time winners. Those being the aforementioned Blaney, Elliott Sadler (Bristol 2001), and Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500).
Cindric fully expects the team fulfilling that milestone which was on his mind when explaining his relationship with DiBenedetto.
“That’s something they’ve been looking for for a lot of races now, a couple seasons, and I think he’s the guy to do it,” Cindric on the No. 21 team’s goal of reaching 100 Cup wins.
“I fully expect to be racing for triple digits by the time I get in the car, so I look forward to seeing him do that and prepare for that. They’ve built a great team between him and Greg (Erwin) and looking forward to stepping into that program and putting my best foot forward.”
DiBenedetto will have his first shot of punching his ticket into his second straight playoff appearance Sunday, February 14 when “The Great American Race” commences live at 2:30pm ET on FOX.
Wood Brothers Racing have won the Daytona 500 victories five times with Tiny Lund (1963), Cale Yarborough (1968), A.J. Foyt (1972), David Pearson (1976) and Bayne (2011) being the men who were triumphant of the 200-lap race.