After a disappointing 21st-place finish in the Southern 500 to open the playoffs, Matt DiBenedetto is “anxious” about what awaits the Cup Series this weekend.
The Wood Brothers Racing driver – who is 15th on the playoff grid and 17 points behind the cutoff – heads to Richmond Raceway for the first of two short-track races – followed by Bristol – to close out the first round.
But this visit to the .750-mile track (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN) is different than every other fall trip to Richmond for the Cup Series.
Because of NASCAR’s 10-week shut down earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this will be the series’ first and only race on the short track this season.
The 400-lap race will be held on a different tire compound than last year and will see the series use its low-downforce package there for the first time.
“This is one that I am kind of anxious to get to and interested to see how it goes because we are in the playoffs and this is the first time that we are running at Richmond when otherwise we would normally have had a race under our belt and that would allow you to know without practice where we need to roughly be because we would have learned it at the first race,” DiBenedetto said Thursday. “We don’t have that. I think it is interesting. I actually talked with my crew chief (Greg Erwin) and engineer to kind of see what the strategy is and how they come up with their starting setup.
“Man, it makes my head hurt all the information that they look through to try to get a close or what they think will be a close starting setup for the race.”
DiBenedetto said his team uses “a whole bunch of different equations and aero stuff” in order for them to “take their best guess” at what his No. 21 Ford needs off the hauler.
“We have to kind of jumble it all up and put it in simulation and hope it spits out a close setup,” DiBenedetto said. “But man, there are a lot of variables and nobody is really going to hit it perfect right off the truck. We will have to see how it goes and we will have to be really good on pit stops, adjustments and communication with the team.”
While the tire being used this weekend is new to Richmond, the Cup Series has used it this year at Phoenix and New Hampshire.
DiBenedetto is a fan of it.
“This tire has been really good,” DiBenedetto said. “This has been my favorite tire we have ran on this year because it has a lot more wear and fall off. Goodyear did a good job with this one. Hopefully it makes for a good race.”
DiBenedetto finished 13th at Phoenix and sixth at New Hampshire. His best result at Richmond in 10 starts was 14th last fall while driving for Leavine Family Racing.
DiBenedetto said tire fall off at Richmond is “huge.”
“I think you are going to see a drastic amount of fall off,” DiBenedetto said. “I think the fans will enjoy watching that. The tire makes a big difference in how the race plays out, more than anything at Richmond. … I am predicting with this tire that it will be more drastic than ever, but if you have a guy that comes in and bolts on a set of tires and everyone else is on old tires, they will drive by everyone like they are in reverse. It is that drastic and that much fall off. I am really anxious to see how this tire races here.”
As a playoff driver, DiBenedetto has another reason to be anxious about the next two races.
Entering Richmond, DiBenedetto is tied with Ryan Blaney for the last spot on the playoff grid.
Despite that, DiBenedetto is still “pretty optimistic” he can move on in the postseason.
“I know these next two race tracks, while Darlington was a weak one for us, these next two I feel really good about,” DiBenedetto said. “I think if we can go out there and continue the momentum of races we had through the middle of the season when we were in the top five and top 10 on a weekly basis, if we can do that at a couple tracks that are great strengths for us, we need to rack up some points. I feel really optimistic that we can do it.
“This weekend will be a big teller. The next two races will have to be very strong for us. It can’t just be one good one and one mediocre or bad one. They will both have to be really good.”