It will be a weird feeling for Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday.
He and the rest of the Cup Series will embark on a 500-mile race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first true short-track race of the season.
It will be DiBenedetto’s first trip back to the hall-mile track since last August, when he came within 12 laps of earning his first Cup Series win. Instead, he finished second to Denny Hamlin in his best career finish. For DiBenedetto, Bristol represents the site of “probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life” and one of the “most rewarding.”
“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But 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 enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing. But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
“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 Sunday, 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.”
As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”
DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.
“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said. “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.
“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”
But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.
“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast. It’s an insanely fast short track. You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.
“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”
DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.
After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.
“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.
“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”