Coming off his first NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearance and earning a one-year extension with the Wood Brothers, Matt DiBenedetto was itching to come out strong in 2021.
Instead, he was eliminated in an early crash at the Daytona 500, waylaid by mechanical problems at the Daytona road course, and hampered by a subpar race car in Miami.
The finishes: 33rd, 37th, 28th.
But DiBenedetto and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team have slowly recovered.
He’s finished no worse than 16th in the past six races, and last week at Richmond, he finished ninth to record his first top 10 of the season.
“It is funny – or maybe funny isn’t the right word, but now I can laugh about it a little bit,” DiBenedetto said Tuesday about his early struggles.
“Ending the season last year, we had three straight top 10’s and consistency and all that. All I was talking about all off-season was about firing off with that momentum. Insert foot in mouth. We did the opposite of that. It wasn’t anything of our doing. It was just bad circumstances.
“I am a little bit surprised. If you would have shown me the standings after a handful of races and how rough the start was, I would be like, ‘Whoa, what the heck happened?’ It goes to things that were just out of our control. We are prepared for the challenge though.”
And a challenge still remains. With nine races now in the books – and eight different drivers having won – DiBenedetto has ground to make up in the playoff picture.
Entering Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega (2 p.m. ET, FOX), he sits 18th in the playoff standings at 39 points behind Kurt Busch in the 16th and final playoff position.
A win, which would be DiBenedetto’s first in NASCAR’s premier division, would make it a moot issue.
He came tantalizingly close to finally taking the checkered flag in a triple-overtime affair last fall at Talladega. But he was edged at the finish line by Denny Hamlin.
DiBenedetto was subsequently penalized for forcing William Byron below the double yellow line on the final lap. He was moved from second to 21st place.
But while admitting he was speechless to the point of being “pretty much a zombie” for the next few days afterwards, DiBenedetto also took away confidence from holding his own in a classically chaotic superspeedway finish.
“There is a lot of luck involved and a lot of skill involved in your decision making and studying for making the right moves when (the race) comes down to the line and you have a shot to win,” he said. “Me and my spotter, Doug Campbell – I give him a lot of credit because we spend a lot of extra time on the superspeedways as far as the craft.
“That was encouraging and it showed the things that we work so hard on translated directly to the race track and we had a shot to win. We got lucky to survive and then when we were there at the end, we were making the right moves to have a good shot at it, leading coming off Turn 4.
“But those (superspeedway) races are frustrating. It is hard. There is so much out of your control and you have to figure out the right strategy. Sometimes, I feel like if I ride around in the back, that will be the one race we finish 25th. Then the ones you race and are up front, you get tangled and caught up in something. Things just have to go your way.”
Whether it goes your way or it doesn’t is only a matter of a split second at Talladega, where a dozen cars can be taken out in a snap. Such an outcome for DiBenedetto would put him in an even deeper points hole.
That leads to a question that serves both his hopes at Talladega and his hopes for making the playoffs: How do you balance gunning for a season-changing win with the need to minimize risk?
For DiBenedetto’s part, he says he’s been described as “patiently aggressive.” He agrees with it himself. And as he and the No. 21 team move forward, he’s not changing that.
“Knowing the speed we have and the capability and that we can continue to climb in the points standings, all we need to do is continue to race like I always do and (we) do our jobs and put our races together smart and smooth,” he said.