With the pressure of an extremely close battle for the final spot in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs squarely on their shoulders in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto and the crew of the No. 21 Menards/Dutch Boy Mustang came through when it counted and now head to Darlington Raceway among the elite 16 teams in the sport.
DiBenedetto dodged several multi-car crashes in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 to finish 12th and secure his first Playoff appearance and the second for his Wood Brothers team in five full-time seasons under the current playoff format. The final margin was just six points, as DiBenedetto and the Menards/Dutch Boy team earned the 16th and final Playoff berth, fighting back a spirited charge from seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team.
“First off, I’m so happy for this team and Menards, Dutch Boy, the whole Menard family, Motorcraft/Quick Lane and the Wood Brothers, Ford, our alliance with Team Penske, you name it,” DiBenedetto told a network TV audience upon climbing from the No. 21 Mustang. “This means so much to get this for them.”
“I’m glad we were able to take it home. I wasn’t happy with the finish, but I came in here saying all that mattered was I just wanted to make these Playoffs, and the finishing position didn’t matter too much.”
DiBenedetto, who picked up four Stage points as the team employed a fuel-saving strategy in the second Stage and ran in the lead pack for most of the race, said the moment of making the Playoffs was made more special by the fact that his parents drove down from North Carolina and were in the stands at Daytona along with his brother who is in the United States Air Force and was accompanied by his girlfriend.
“This is very big, really special, and I’m glad we’ll be able to get to work and do the best we can the rest of the season,” he said. “We have a lot of really good tracks and short tracks coming.”
DiBenedetto said that he and the No. 21 team are in a good position, performance-wise, as they start the Playoffs
“I knew at the start of the season that we had work to do as a team, and this year, 2020, is crazy,” he said. “We kept getting better and better, and through the mid part of the stretch I feel like we hit our stride as a team and were running up front weekly.
“We hit a few tracks that were a struggle, but overall we are as ready as ever to contend for a championship, especially when we are at our best, working together as a team.
“It is perfect timing for us. That is why it was so important for us to make the playoffs, because we knew that if we made them that we deserved every bit to be in them as a team and that we can really compete and make a heck of a splash and contend down to the end.”
DiBenedetto acknowledged that luck was on his side as he dodged one wreck after another at Daytona, but Eddie Wood said there was more to the team’s success than good fortune. Wood said he was proud of the way DiBenedetto and the Menards/Dutch Boy crew led by Greg Erwin stepped up at Daytona.
“They had the weight of the world on them, but Matt drove a great race, and Greg made some great calls,” Wood said. “They handled the pressure like the professionals they are. They had a plan and they stuck to it.”
But that didn’t mean Wood was relaxing during the race as DiBenedetto battled Jimmie Johnson and eventual race winner William Byron for one of the two remaining Playoff berths.
“Matt was close to all the wrecks but managed to avoid getting damage,” he said. “And it seemed like he was always around the two drivers he was battling for the Playoff spots.”
Wood said that in the minutes after the checkered flag fell, his phone lit up with 60 messages and showed no signs of slowing up.
Most were from people that support the team and have become more like family members than business associates.
“Playoffs or no Playoffs, there are so many people that have helped to put us in this position. Edsel Ford, Jim Farley, all the people at Ford Performance, Motorcraft/Quick Lane, Menards, the Menard Family, John and Paul Menard and all the great people at Team Penske. It’s a long list, but when you boil it all down, good things happen when you are surrounded by good people.”
“They all treat us like family, and they always have.”
DiBenedetto will start the 10-race, season-ending run to the championship, which begins Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, from 16th place. His points total will be reset to 2,000, and he starts the Playoffs 57 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. In between them are six other Ford drivers, giving the Blue Oval contingent half of the Playoff spots.
“We’re excited for Ford to be so well represented in the Playoff field,” Wood said. “And we’re proud to be a part of that.”