He had already been a social media darling in the NASCAR community for a few years, but in 2019, Matt DiBenedetto officially became the people’s champion. After toiling with low-budget teams BK Racing and Go FAS Racing in his first four seasons at the Cup level, he had the opportunity to drive some mid-level equipment at Leavine Family Racing last year, and boy, did he make the most of it.
DiBenedetto posted career highs across the board in the No. 95 Toyota, highlighted by a memorable battle for the win with Denny Hamlin in the night race at Bristol. Although it seemed that he had finally “arrived” as a Cup driver, he soon found his career in limbo once again after it was announced that Christopher Bell would replace him in the No. 95 as part of an agreement between LFR and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Fortunately for DiBenedetto and his fans, what appeared to be a major setback turned out to be a bit of serendipity as he was pegged to replace the retiring Paul Menard in the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford for the 2020 season. In an instant, he went from being out of a job to driving for a satellite organization of Team Penske.
Armed with what will be the best equipment of his career, DiBenedetto will again have a golden opportunity to prove he belongs in a premier ride in the Cup Series. The question now becomes whether or not he can take advantage of the situation and continue his ascent up the NASCAR ladder.
Not surprisingly given the grind he went through to climb the ranks, DiBenedetto has been able to get the most out of low-level and mid-level equipment. His Go Fas Racing team finished 32nd in points in 2017 and 29th in points in 2018, but DiBenedetto ranked in the Top 25 in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) in both of those seasons, according to Motorsports Analytics. Last year for LFR, he ranked 14th in PEER for a team that finished 22nd in points, and DiBenedetto was one of just 10 drivers to finish with a positive Surplus Passing Value.
Long story short, he has been an overachiever since breaking into the Cup Series. Not surprisingly, he has been at his best at so-called “driver’s tracks” like road courses, short tracks and flat tracks where aerodynamics don’t play as much of a factor as they do at the larger ovals.
While there is a good chance that his equipment played a big role in these struggles, the jump he made at the 1.5-mile tracks with LFR last year was not as significant as the jump he made at other track types. In the 11 races in 2019, he managed just two Top 15s, finishing 20th or worse eight times and outside the Top 25 five times. If DiBenedetto is going to become a legitimate playoff contender, he will at least need to become a consistent Top 15 threat at the mile-and-a-half ovals.
In two seasons in the No. 21 machine, Menard posted average finishes of 17.2 and 16.6, respectively. By just about any advanced metric, DiBenedetto is a better driver, especially at this stage in his career. Even a one-spot improvement from Menard’s numbers will put him up inside the Top 15 on a weekly basis, and his ceiling will be even higher.
As I already mentioned, DiBenedetto has shown he can be a force to be reckoned with outside of the mile-and-a-half ovals. Last year, he finished fourth, sixth and 11th in the three road course events, notched a Top 5 finish at New Hampshire, finished in the Top 10 at Dover and picked up Top 15s at Richmond and Phoenix. There was also his memorable battle for the with Denny Hamlin in the Bristol night race that saw him come away with a career-best second-place finish.
Yes, he did struggle at the 1.5-mile ovals, but those tracks happened to be one of Menard’s biggest strengths. The top teams always seem to have an edge at the mile-and-a-half tracks, so the upgrade in equipment should pay immediate dividends and go a long way to helping DiBenedetto overcome one of the few chinks in his armor.
At worst, DiBenedetto should produce similar numbers to last season, making him a great fantasy option in all contests at the road courses and shorter tracks. I also think he is a prime candidate for a breakout campaign. Double-digit Top 10s and his first Cup win are both on the table. DiBenedetto is someone I recommend targeting heavily in salary cap-based, season-long formats because I am confident he is going to outperform his price tag.