Matt DiBenedetto has been here before.
Twice, in a manner of speaking.
For the second time in a month, DiBenedetto will face possible championship elimination. He successfully qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs last month at Daytona by virtue of surviving the Coke Zero Sugar at 400.
He will have to do a little more than survive on Saturday at the Bristol Night Race. He may have no other shot to advance other than winning the race. That’s because the Wood Brothers Racing team enters the weekend with a 25-point deficit.
For DiBenedetto to advance without a win, he’s going to need some help. The first two stages pay up to 10 points, descending to one, throughout the top-10. If he can run inside the top-10 throughout the first half, combined with early struggles from the likes of Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola or Clint Bowyer, there could be another way in.
But it’s a long shot.
1. Kevin Harvick (Advanced)
2. Brad Keselowski (Advanced)
3. Denny Hamlin (Advanced)
4. Joey Logano +51
5. Martin Truex +38
6. Austin Dillon +36
7. Chase Elliott +28
8. Alex Bowman +27
9. Kyle Busch +18
10. Aric Almirola +7
11. Kurt Busch +7
12. Clint Bowyer +3
13. William Byron -3
14. Cole Custer -8
15. Matt DiBenedetto -25
16. Ryan Blaney -27
“This is different than Daytona,” DiBenedetto said. “Daytona was really hard. Our primary, number one goal of the season was to make the playoffs and then everything after that is an opportunity.
“So that was extremely stressful and something I don’t want to go through ever again.”
Now that DiBenedetto has made the playoffs, everything that follows is complimentary, not that it’s diluted the sting from the past two weekends.
The No. 21 struggled to run inside the top-20 at Darlington and Richmond. This was especially surprising since they entered the playoffs with a 15.3 average finish. That should have been enough to compete on the bubble to advance to the Round of 12.
Instead, they haven’t been close, with finishes of 21st and 17th and zero stage points.
“These first two races have been terrible, and things just haven’t fallen our way,” DiBenedetto said. “Darlington was just tough. Richmond, we just didn’t have an opportunity to recover because of no cautions.”
On the bright side, Bristol is DiBenedetto’s absolute favorite track.
“I still look at it as opportunity going to my personal favorite racetrack, a track where I know we can perform really well at,” DiBenedetto said. “Yeah, it’s pressure for sure, but I still look at it as opportunity for us and there’s no other track I would choose other than Bristol to be in this situation and to go out there and perform at our very highest.”
It’s the second year in a row that DiBenedetto’s career might be riding on the Bristol Night Race.
Last year, he was driving for Leavine Family Racing and needed a win to make the playoffs, with the underlying realization that he would be replaced by Christopher Bell in 2021. He led 93 laps but finished second after getting passed by Denny Hamlin with 12 laps to go.
He landed with Wood Brothers, but possibly faces a repeat scenario with Team Penske potentially needing to graduate Austin Cindric out of the Xfinity Series, with its satellite Wood Brothers team having an opening.
The Wood Brothers hald an option on DiBenedetto’s contract that must be picked-up by the end of this month if they are to continue working together.
DiBenedetto wants to remain with the team and advancing into the second round will certainly help his case.
“They heavily expressed they wanted this to be a long-term relationship, something that we build for a long time to come,” DiBenedetto said. “All those things — so that was very encouraging when I came over here. I do not want to go anywhere. I love driving for the Wood Brothers. It’s been a dream come true.
“They are family … I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes. I’m just waiting to hear. Hopefully, it works out. Hopefully, I’m not going anywhere. I love being the driver for our team.”
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