While William Byron raced his way into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs after claiming a thrilling first career win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, there was another competitor who was left beaming following the race. That competitor was Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Ford Mustang for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing Ford team, after the Grass Valley, California, native made the 2020 Cup Series Playoff field following an eventful 12th-place run at Daytona.
Starting 15th, DiBenedetto came into Daytona with a nine-point cushion above the top-16 cutline and battling names like Clint Bowyer, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson for one of three open spots to the Playoffs.
DiBenedetto did not finish in the top 10 following the first stage (50 laps), but he was able to record a seventh-place result following the second stage (100 laps) and collect a handful of stage points for himself and for the Wood Brothers Racing team. By then, he was still ahead of Byron and Johnson in the points standings. Throughout the final stage of the race, while DiBenedetto was racing around his Ford teammates and towards the lead pack, he was able to dodge two multi-car wrecks, including the second one with two laps remaining that occurred right in front of him, to nurse the No. 21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford Mustang across the line in 12th place. In the end, DiBenedetto claimed a spot in the postseason after he finished five spots ahead of Johnson (17th place) while Byron also secured a spot after winning.
Even after climbing out of his car with his mask on, his grin could be seen as he accomplished his goal of making his first NASCAR Cup Playoffs as a title contender in his sixth season in NASCAR’s premier series and first driving the iconic No. 21 car for the Wood Brothers Racing team.
“We made it!” DiBenedetto exclaimed on NBC. “I don’t care how we did it. I wasn’t, obviously, super thrilled with the finish. We couldn’t get going there on the restart. I don’t care. My goal was to come in here and make it. We had some really good competitors. Obviously, Jimmie [Johnson] and Willy B. [William Byron]. Congrats to him on his first win. Man, I wanted this so bad for this team, for Menards, Dutch Boy, Motorcraft, Quicklane and the Wood Brothers! Man, driving for the Wood Brothers. It’s something special. We’ll celebrate tomorrow and have a good day. It’s gonna be time to get to work, but I’m so glad we made the Playoffs. This team deserves this. I’m mentally tired after that one.”
The result left DiBenedetto both jubilated and emotional following a six-year voyage and journey to his first Cup postseason appearance as a title contender, from starting his Cup career with BK Racing before competing in two seasons with Go Fas Racing. Then came last season, where DiBenedetto had a career year while driving for Leavine Family Racing that included an opportunity to win at Bristol Motor Speedway in August, only to have the win taken away by Denny Hamlin in the closing laps. Fearing that his racing career was in jeopardy following his loss at Bristol and with no racing plans originally established for 2020, he was given an opportunity to drive the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers Racing team and take the next step up in his racing career.
Since the Daytona 500 in February through the regular-season finale at Daytona, DiBenedetto was able to record seven top-10 results and notch enough consistent runs inside the top 20, including the regular-season finale, to make the Playoffs based on points. DiBenedetto’s accomplishment marks the second time the Wood Brothers Racing team will be part of the NASCAR Cup Playoffs. In addition, DiBenedetto joins Cole Custer as the lone newcomers of this year’s Cup Playoffs.
Even throughout the race at Daytona, DiBenedetto had to fend off the stress of competing for a postseason berth against some of NASCAR’s elite while also navigating his way to the finish at Daytona International Speedway in one piece.
“That was the most stressful situation inside a race car I’ve even been in my life hands down,” DiBenedetto added. “I’ve never been in a situation like that. It’s unreal that it came down to the three of us and racing like right next to each other at Daytona where it shuffles around like crazy. I was calm going into the week and I really have to thank my career path for grooming me for this type of situation ’cause it’s been a tough fight and it makes me so appreciate of these situations. I was calm, but my wife wasn’t. My wife, Taylor, I know she is crying happy at home…I held it together and just had to deal with it the best in the car.”
DiBenedetto’s first run as a title contender in this year’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will begin on Sunday, September 6, at Darlington Raceway for the Cook Out Southern 500 at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.