Poor pit strategy output, a recent dip in restart performance and an organization heavily focused on tracks outside of the driver’s wheelhouse has left Matt DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing below the playoff cutline with six races left in the regular season.
And if driver and team didn’t hit rock bottom during the Coca-Cola 600, they sure came close.
Crew chief Greg Erwin went long on the first stage’s pit cycle — a completely viable plan given the minimal lap-time degradation on worn tires at Charlotte — pitting DiBenedetto more than 10 laps past the point when the majority of the field had pitted. But this tactic went too far. It dropped DiBenedetto from 24th to 27th in the running order and failed to take into account the pace of race leader Kyle Larson, who lapped the No. 21 car before the end of the stage.
The 600-mile race doled out more points than any other regular-season contest, a treasure trove of value for a team on the playoff fringes. Instead of merely attempting to stay on the lead lap — and in the hunt for point-paying stage results — Erwin’s gambit ran DiBenedetto a lap down. The team would eventually find their way back onto the lead lap, but only after three stages had been settled.
DiBenedetto left Charlotte with an 18th-place finish and 19 points, none from stages. Nine days later, Erwin was replaced as crew chief by Team Penske engineer Jonathan Hassler.
From the onset, this season has been rocky for DiBenedetto, who learned late last year that he’ll be replaced by Austin Cindric in 2022. While Brad Keselowski’s impending departure has thrown a curveball into the plans of the Penske affiliation, DiBenedetto’s future still isn’t known, and his year to date hasn’t helped his chances of a Wood Brothers U-turn or in landing a new gig with a different team.
His Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or contribution, is down after 20 races — currently a 0.650, ranked 24th — compared to last season’s 0.986, ranked 16th. After a disastrous first three races in which the team earned just 14 points, the ship was righted until Darlington, when a string of eight straight top-16 finishes was snapped. He earned just one top-16 finish (a 10th-place score last Sunday at Road America) in his nine most recent starts.
Throughout it all, he mostly enhanced his reputation as a superb short-run driver; his 85.7% position retention rate on preferred groove restarts ranks fifth in the series, while his 3.383 PEER in races containing at least one late restart ranks fourth. But his overall retention rate has taken a hit in recent weeks. In the five-week stretch from Dover to the first leg of the Pocono doubleheader, all eight of his choose-rule restarts from inside the first seven rows originated from the statistically non-preferred groove. He successfully defended his position on just 25% of those attempts and now ranks in the 50th and 47th percentiles among all drivers for restart defense and offense, respectively, visible in the team’s track position spider chart:
But as restarts provide some form of daylight when all is going well, his long-run prowess does not. Across all non-drafting tracks, he’s a minus passer, having earned an adjusted pass differential 52.6 positions worse than his statistical expectation. And while straightforward passing outside of the restart window is indeed a weak area of DiBenedetto’s repertoire, it’s something that can be supplemented by a crew chief’s ability to seek out positions, predominately during green-flag pit cycles.
Erwin, though, did not provide this assistance. His strategic designs defended DiBenedetto’s running position on just 53.1% of green-flag pit cycles — the series-wide rate is 67% — and netted a 35-position loss. These marks represent improvements over Erwin’s 2020 numbers — 40% retention and a 40-position loss — but the crew chief’s yearlong effort in a playoff-worthy campaign were clear signals of a shortcoming that appear to have gone unattended during the offseason.
The strategy component combines with a key stylistic difference: DiBenedetto’s 1.278 PEER on tracks utilizing the 550-horsepower package ranks 15th in the series and is markedly better than his production split for 750-horsepower tracks (0.136, ranked 26th). Penske competition director Travis Geisler admitted to an organizational choice to focus on 750-horsepower tracks prior to 2020; this means DiBenedetto might not receive a fully optimized effort towards his best tracks.
Still, this is an excuse only to an extent for DiBenedetto, whose team ranked 17th in average median lap time under Erwin. Two slower teams — Joe Gibbs Racing with Christopher Bell and Front Row Motorsports with Michael McDowell — captured wins in the first two races of the season to lock in playoff spots. Better finishes, including wins, are not off the table for the Wood Brothers team.
This was evident last Sunday at Road America when DiBenedetto engaged Cindric, his anointed replacement, in a testy battle for the lead that began with a white-knuckled split of Martin Truex Jr.’s machine on the lap-17 restart:
He led 10 laps en route to his top-10 finish. It was a feistiness mixed in with enough legitimate speed that’s necessary in contending for a win in one of the two remaining road course races prior to the start of the playoffs. Given his recent history of road course finishes, namely a fourth-place run at Sonoma in 2019 and a sixth-place finish later that season at Watkins Glen, the upcoming race on the Indianapolis road course and this season’s tilt at Watkins Glen represent somewhat realistic opportunities for a shock victory.
Barring an implosion from one of the four winless teams currently above the playoff cutoff, it’d take a win to guarantee him a second year of “postseason” racing. But with a change atop the pit box and an undecided future, the entire second half of 2021 provides DiBenedetto and his team a chance at improved performance, providing a more accurate assessment of the driver and his rookie crew chief.
In a year containing several low points and shared blame, capitalizing on the remaining races would represent a positive trajectory, beneficial for all parties involved.