No matter the sport, almost everyone loves a good underdog. NASCAR, of course, is no exception, and there’s at least one fairly well-known driver who fits the underdog description to a tee.
BY JOSEPH WOLKIN, @JoeWolkin
That driver is Matt DiBenedetto, whose struggles to win NASCAR Cup Series races could easily be compared to now-retired Cup Series driver Mark Martin’s struggles to win a championship.
Despite finishing runner-up in the series standings a record five times over his 30-year career as a full-time, or mostly full-time, driver in NASCAR’s premier series, Martin – who retired in 2013 – was never able to accomplish what is every driver’s ultimate goal.
Entering this season, DiBenedetto had 22 top-10 finishes, including three runner-up results, in NASCAR’s premier division. But, after 212 starts, he was still in pursuit of his first trip to Victory Lane – a place that Martin actually visited 40 times.
Given how much success Martin, a 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, enjoyed over the course of his career despite not claiming the sport’s ultimate prize, it’s no surprise that DiBenedetto is unbothered by the comparison.
“I’ve looked up to Mark my whole life because I really liked his driving style, and I would call him patiently aggressive, and that’s kind of what I’ve been called before,” DiBenedetto said in an exclusive interview with NASCAR Pole Position Magazine a few weeks before the 2021 season. “I try to drive smart and calculated but aggressive at the same time. It’s painful to come so close to winning, but also, I know that when you continue to come that close, the stars will align – especially the better that we keep getting as a team.
“When you keep putting yourself in contention to win, it will work out in our favor.”
Last season, DiBenedetto landed what was his first consistently competitive Cup Series ride when he took over the iconic No. 21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing, which holds a close technical alliance with the powerhouse Team Penske organization.
With such a wonderful opportunity at hand, DiBenedetto seized the moment by scoring a career-high 11 top-10 finishes that included a pair of runner-up results at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway.
DiBenedetto was also in the mix for the win on the final lap of the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway, crossing the finish line in second-place but later being scored with a 21st-place finish for what in NASCAR’s judgment was forcing another car below the yellow out-of-bounds line.
Nevertheless, DiBenedetto reached the playoffs for the first time and finished a career-best 13th in the standings. Therefore, it’s not surprising that he’s ratcheted up his own personal expectations considerably for 2021.
“We were a new group working together last year, and on top of that, with the COVID situation, we had no practice, no qualifying, none of that, so we had to really learn each other in the race,” he said. “Then you saw that last third of the season, we were really on fire and consistently up front and contending for wins and a lot of top 10s and all that. It was strength that I knew we had, but it just took us a little bit to figure each other out and really start maximizing our races, and it clicked.”
DiBenedetto, who grew up in Grass Valley, California, wasn’t born into a racing family like many of today’s Cup Series stars. Nor were DiBenedetto’s parents financially affluent enough to essentially buy him a competitive NASCAR ride like some drivers today. So, it took toiling away for five years in the Cup Series with lower-level teams for DiBenedetto to be able to prove himself enough to join the Wood Brothers in 2020. As a result, fans can relate to DiBenedetto not just because of the heartache he’s endured with all the near-victories, but also because of his journey to even get to this point. And now that he’s arrived, he couldn’t be any more gracious or thankful – another endearing quality.
“My parents raised me to appreciate everything I have but also to work extremely hard – even if it failed – because we were realistic, too, knowing what we were up against and that we didn’t have the money and the funding and the sponsors and stuff behind me,” he said. “We knew it was going to be nearly like the odds of winning the lottery, but I was taught and raised that you put every single ounce of effort that’s in my body into it, and then if it fails and it’s out of your control, I can kind of live with that. I think that’s been why I’ve been fortunate to get to where I am.”
In the following exclusive Q&A, Matt DiBenedetto talks about how he fell in love with racing, why he’s unconcerned about being a lame duck driver, why he tends to get so emotional after good finishes and much more.
It always humbles me just seeing how much support I have personally, and especially teaming up with the Wood Brothers and combining those forces together is pretty dang incredible, but, yeah, that’s always meant so much to me and my family just how much support we’ve gotten. I think it’s maybe because I’ve always been a real open book and shared my journey all along the way very openly, and I think people have kind of gotten a feel for how appreciative I am of what I do because of the struggles I’ve endured through the journey.
I feel like I’ve had to go about it a blue-collar, hard-working kind of way, and I’ve just always tried to be myself and be real and share my story all along the way and be a real open book with the fans.
I owe 100 percent of that to my journey of getting here. It’s really humbled me a lot. I always laugh and say the only way I could explain how crazy my journey has been to get here, how lucky I’ve been, and how humbled I’ve been, and how many bad times there were and how many times I thought my career was over, for people to get a grasp on that, I’d have to write a book on it one day. No kidding, I literally would, because it’s been such a crazy journey, but that has shaped me and made me the person I am. You never really take anything for granted.
I’m an all-in kind of guy. I don’t do many things in life, because whatever I do, I have to be just 110 percent all in, and I really don’t have a lot of passions in life other than racing. I enjoy other things like lifting weights, studying exercise science and things like that. Recreationally, I like to play golf or things like that, but as far as having a real die-hard passion, it is everything only car-related. I’m always modifying my street cars, and I enjoy making stuff loud. My passion always revolves around cars and racing, and it’s programmed in my brain to where I don’t have any other passions. That’s why I’ve been so relentless in trying to make this journey work.
Oh man, I think when I was like 7 years old in first or second grade when we were filling out something for a project. It was like, “When I grow up, I want to be …” and I put race car driver. I think, really, my entire life I’ve had that programmed in my brain, and my parents realized that that was my thing and what I felt like I was meant to do and I had no other passion.
My parents were flipping through the channels and passed by NASCAR, and I made them go back to it. This is when I was 5 years old. My parents had never watched NASCAR a day in their lives, and my dad was like, and I quote him, “What the hell do you want to watch that for?” And then it became my thing and I watched it every single Sunday, and then obviously, when my parents realized, “Oh, this is his thing, he loves it.”
Then it became an interest for all of us and my parents got into it as well, and it became our Sunday routine. I road four wheelers and dirt bikes, and I was wide open on those at 5 and 6 years old. It just so happened that a friend on my Little League baseball team raced at our local dirt track in California and was like, “Come check it out.” We went out there and checked it out, and my parents were like, “Is this what you want to do?” I obviously said “yes,” and the rest is history.
It’s funny, because I really haven’t thought of it much at all. I think because my career has groomed me so much for situations like this, it being a one-year deal doesn’t really bother me. You always have to perform at your best. It doesn’t matter if you have what’s called a five-year deal; there’s always options and ways out for teams if you start not taking your job serious or not performing at the best of your ability. This is a performance-based sport, and now having this equipment and team under me, it just makes me excited, because I think we’re going to go out there and kick some butt and continue to build upon what we ended with last year. So basically, what I’m getting at is, I have the opportunity for performance to do all of the speaking for me, and the rest will take care of itself.