In the Hot Seat with Matt DiBenedetto

While Matt DiBenedetto faces an uncertain future, he hopes to win the 100th Cup race for the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team. (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

While Matt DiBenedetto faces an uncertain future, he hopes to win the 100th Cup race for the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team. (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

By and large, Matt DiBenedetto is one of the most genuine NASCAR Cup Series racers and athletes around. The 30-year-old Grass Valley, California native possesses such genuineness and honesty rare in today’s sports world.

Along the same lines, DiBenedetto is quite passionate with everything he does. From his on track battles with the No. 21 Menards/Motorcraft/National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Ford Mustang to his faith and mental health struggles, he makes a difference each day.

Although DiBenedetto missed this year’s Playoffs field, he’s built on a solid season with crew chief Jonathan Hassler. Clearly, DiBenedetto, Hassler and the No. 21 team have gelled efficiently together.

However, DiBenedetto faces an uncertain future after the checkered flag waves at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 3. Despite DiBenedetto’s 2022 plans remaining up in the air, he keeps his best feet forward and a smile on his face. Tested to the core and mind, DiBenedetto remains optimistic as he has been throughout his stock car career.

Before the Federated Auto Parts Salute to American Heroes 400 at Richmond Raceway on Sept. 11, DiBenedetto shared his thoughts on his team’s chemistry, scoring the Wood Brothers’ 100th Cup win and more. Let’s get “In the Hot Seat with Matt DiBenedetto” for a genuine sit down interview here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : Matt, first of all, thanks for joining us here on The Podium Finish again. It has been awhile. I know you would have liked to have made this year’s Playoffs. But, since Jonathan Hassler has taken over as your crew chief, you’ve been knocking on the door as a solid top 10, top 15 performer. What have you brought to the table that you feel has made you a better racecar driver?

Matt DiBenedetto expressed pride with the effort put forth by crew chief Jonathan Hassler. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Matt DiBenedetto expressed pride with the effort put forth by crew chief Jonathan Hassler. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Matt DiBenedetto : Yeah, you know, it’s kind of like the head coach for an NFL team. You know, that’s the way that I relate it to. It’s just. …there’s no disrespect to one guy or another every everything’s a relationship. And it’s all got to work. And, yeah, we wanted to Hassler came in and just change the dynamic of the team.

He had a different approach to it all. And he’s been an excellent leader, for the team and very kind of cut and dry, straightforward approach to the races. And man, it’s really been a blessing to our team. And our performances has shown with six races in a row where our worst finish was 11th. And we’ve been, yeah, knocking on the door and hoping that will come. So we’ve been very thankful for him.

Tiongson : And I would imagine that you know, that when being one of your voting bidding factors, as you close out your tenure, the Wood Brothers, if you are to win, you would deliver the 100th win for the Wood Brothers. So the follow up with that, how significant would that moment be if you are to get that 100 win and your debut win in the Cup series?

DiBenedetto : Yeah, man, I want it so, so bad to get the 100th win for the Word Brothers. And honestly, of course, selfishly, well you want it for yourself. But more than anything, I want it for the team, the Wood Brothers family, because they are family to us, and always will be for life.

And you get so invested in the team and the family that I really want to bring that 100th win to them and the entire team, especially for all the hard work, dedication they’ve put in. So it will be so, so incredibly meaningful for the whole family.

Tiongson : Now, I definitely peg you for one of these races coming up to win. You know, Richmond, of course is one of those hometown races for the Wood Brothers, as well as Martinsville. And certainly when it comes to Talladega, it would be foolish to dismiss you as a contender. So I definitely think you will be a story to watch down the stretch.

Another reason why you’re a great story is because, you know, as someone who’s endured so many ups and downs in NASCAR, you’ve always been so candid, but yet so optimistic and real. How has your newfound faith helped keep you optimistic and motivated to deliver the best results on the track? But also, you know, just be as open as optimistic as possible?

"I just focus on what's in my control and the positives." - DiBenedetto on the unknowns about 2022 (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

“I just focus on what’s in my control and the positives.” – DiBenedetto on the unknowns about 2022 (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

DiBenedetto : Yeah, for sure. You know, I mean, there are a lot of things that are out of my control. But all I can do is focus on what’s in my control. And that’s, you know, focusing on the positives that, like you said, since Jonathan Hassler taken over our team, we’ve been rocking and rolling, running really good running up front on a pretty much a weekly basis, and focusing on trying to get that win.

So really, I just focus on what’s in my control and the positives. And, and that’s, you know, that’s my main focus is trying to get that win for the team and, and bring good energy to the race team to close out the season with a lot of success.

And then, you know, we’ll figure out what was to come for next year. I don’t know yet. But, you know, God has a plan that’s gonna work out how it’s supposed to, and I’m just gonna keep working as hard as I can day in and day out on all of it.

Tiongson : Things happen for a reason, as cliché as it is, but I’m sure that whatever comes it’ll be the best opportunity for you, personally and professionally. And that was going to be one of my questions, but you beat me to the punch on that. But I appreciate you updating the fans on that for sure.

I’m gonna change track a little bit here, given that, you know, today’s 9/11, the 20th anniversary of that day. And I think you were about 10 years old when it happened in 2001. Tell me what you recall about that day, in terms of where you were, what was on your mind, and how do you and your family get through those days after 911?

"I'm proud of our founding fathers and all the values of our country." - Matt DiBenedetto (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

“I’m proud of our founding fathers and all the values of our country.” – Matt DiBenedetto (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

DiBenedetto : Yeah, so I remember that day very, very clearly. I was 10. I don’t remember a lot of specifics from my childhood. But that day 100%. I remember getting up. I was going to get ready to go to school. We lived out in Northern California at the time and got up and I saw on the TV and my parents informed me on what was going on and just a sense of feeling that sense of everyone being scared for something that tragic happening in our country. It was a vivid memory and completely awful. But there’s a couple other memories that go along with this.

And this is a passionate topic of mine because my brother is in the military and enlisted not long after that actually. It was shortly after. He’s close to retirement now, but he [is] in the Air Force. But you know, we’re a very patriotic family and the one thing that sticks out is a very fond memory of following that is obviously it was, it was awful and sad. And so many people, children and families that lost loved ones. But following it, the sense of unity that everybody had in the patriotism, pro military, pro foundational values of our country, you know, pro Second Amendment, all these things that follow with that, that unity, and that patriotism, and everyone being proud to be an American, and all those things.

You know, I’m proud of our founding fathers and all the values of our country being one nation under God, all the list goes on and on. It was incredible, the sense of unity that we all had. And I remember one of the baseball players was running around the field, at an MLB game, carrying an American flag, running around stadium and everybody, regardless of politics or anything, was just on the same page. We’re proud of being American.

And I posted the #NeverForget. And everybody talking about that, and after I posted that, honestly, I was like, you know, it almost bothered me because I want to rephrase it a little bit because there are a lot of people that have forgotten in today’s times, you know, but you can see it, we can feel it, we’re being divided. And that stuff is very sad to see.

So it’s a very passionate topic. So I think tonight is going to hit very close to home and the national anthem is going to have amazing feeling behind it. And it’s going to be a very special night to race for bigger reasons than just driving in circles and honoring that day and honoring those who lost their lives.

Tiongson : No, that’s for sure. And thank you to your brother for serving our country. And that’s really selfless of him to do that. And to allow people like us to do what we do, whether you’re a racecar driver, like yourself, or someone like me who covers the sport for a living. So thank you to your brother for what he does.

And you’re right about that. And I hope it does become a thing that renews after this days, we can always disagree on things healthily. But we all have to remember that we’re all in this together. So unity is definitely one thing I hope we get from today, for sure.

Now, we’ve also talked about this, to change topics. We’ve talked about this in the past, but you are probably the most fit racecar driver in the world. And you could probably destroy a lot of the drivers physically in a fight. (chuckles) I hope not. But how have you emphasized your prime physical fitness with proper hydration in dealing with the brunt of these late summer grueling races?

"People don't understand how physical it is in that race car." - Matt DiBenedetto on the grueling conditions prevalent in NASCAR racing. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

“People don’t understand how physical it is in that race car.” – Matt DiBenedetto on the grueling conditions prevalent in NASCAR racing. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

DiBenedetto : (chuckles) Well, I’m a gentle giant, so, not that I’m a giant either. But I do love fitness. I just have a passion for it. And I really enjoy it. My favorite part of the day is going and working on getting a good workout but myself through a mental test. And it’s just a great way to disconnect from the world. So I love it for that aspect. And then also how it pertains to my job, obviously.

You know, it’s really helped me to hone in and be the best I can be and feel the best I can be in the race car. Because the better you feel, the later in the race throughout all the heat exhaustion that you go through. You know, people don’t understand how physical it is in that race car.

So when I do a race, it’s actually triple the amount of basically strain on my body and way more than that, as far as calories burned than any workout that I do. So it’s the hardest physical thing that you do and staying hydrated and your heart rate is a consistent 170, 180 beats a minute, you know, for hours. So it’s incredibly taxing on you.

But yeah, by fitness, hydration, all mental toughness. All these things have really helped to where I hone in and unprepared for what my body is going to go through. So I can feel, you know, hopefully better than others when it comes down to the end of the race.

Tiongson : I think that pays dividends for sure. I mean, it’s no coincidence that not just with the crew chief change, during these late summer races, you’ve been up there with the Playoff drivers and those who have been consistent all year long. So I don’t think it’s any coincidence that being in great shape has paid off dividends as a contender in the coach theory.

And one thing I really love that you’re going to be doing [this] weekend is going to be driving a very special paint scheme that is going to raise awareness for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I read your posts, which I thought was really nice and personal about, you know, how it relates to you and your family. But what does it mean for you to drive this car and be able to reach out to so many people to work in eliminating the stigma around mental health?

Look for Matt DiBenedetto in a special paint scheme for a great cause. (Photo: Wood Brothers Racing's Twitter)

Look for Matt DiBenedetto in a special paint scheme for a great cause. (Photo: Wood Brothers Racing’s Twitter)

DiBenedetto : Yes, it’s a really, really, really passionate topic. So, so many people have loved ones and people close to them who have taken their own lives or battled mental health and go through, everyone goes through struggles. So, you know, the one thing that I hope. …there’s many things that I hope come out of this.

But I really, I try and be very vulnerable about my story, about my faith journey about, you know, my faith, faith and God saving my life. And not only that, but I just tried to be vulnerable about everything, because I hope to show others that being vulnerable is OK. And it takes strength to be vulnerable. And it’s a good thing.

Every single human being on the planet, battles mental health in some way, shape, or form, because we are broken individuals and we live in a broken world. You know, we live in a world where evil does exist. And it’s not our true home, it really is not. And but it doesn’t make this life on Earth easy. And everyone battles different things and being vulnerable about it is OK.

And I hope to help raise awareness for that, because mental health and the battles that people go through and suicide and those things are so incredibly overlooked. And I think people are, you know, becoming more vulnerable to it. But you also see so many people that try and hold it in, and pretend like their life is OK. And it’s, you know, we all battle things, we all go through things.

So, I really am proud to be a part of that cause. It’s an honor. And I’ve had people close to me, who have, I mean, my wife’s aunt took her own life. I have people close to me. One of my great friends, Scott, his father took his own life, and no room, nobody really knows this.

And I’ll talk about it openly a bit next week. But my father went through some major health issues and had to have surgery and he was in pain constantly. And he was talking openly about suicide. And this was just this year. And I had to go over and talk with them and try and keep them, you know, OK to endure what he was going through. So it affects more people than, you know, I think folks know.

And I hope to raise a lot of awareness that it’s OK to reach out. And I’m glad to promote that cause in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that folks can call and tell people, “It’s OK to be vulnerable.”

Tiongson : Absolutely. And it’s OK not to be OK. And you’re a good son to be there for your father during those difficult times. And certainly hope everything gets better for you and your family. But that, I can’t even imagine what that would look like. So that’s really good.

DiBenedetto : Appreciate it.

Tiongson : Yeah, we’re all going to pull for you guys on that. For sure. I know you gotta get going soon. But just one last question I wanted to ask. What is a quality or trait that you have appreciated and you’re going to take away from driving for the Wood Brothers these last few years, whether, you know, on or off the racetrack?

"my favorite part about driving for the Woods Brothers is that they make you want to be a better human being in life in general." - Matt DiBenedetto on his extended family (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

“My favorite part about driving for the Woods Brothers is that they make you want to be a better human being in life in general.” – Matt DiBenedetto on his extended family (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

DiBenedetto : That’s a great question. And it’s all off track related. And I say this all the time is that my favorite part about driving for the Woods Brothers is that they make you want to be a better human being in life in general. They’re incredible role models in that sense. And when you drive for them, you become family, for life.

And I always say I don’t have friends. I have family. And so I appreciate us having them in my life so much forever. And that this journey is not just for now, I’ve gained a family forever for the rest of my life. And the way that they treat people and the character that they have is my favorite part about driving for others.

Tiongson : And I’m sure they feel the same way about you and what you’ve contributed these last few years. That’s such a great story. And I’m sure, not just as a journalist, that I say that your journey is not over. I don’t know what it is either. But I am sure that you’ll be in racing for many years to come. Because good guys don’t always have to finish last, they can always finish first too. So definitely wanted you to know that for sure from covering you these last four years.

DiBenedetto : Well, I appreciate it, brother. Thank you. And yeah, thanks for having me. And thanks for the time, man.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Mat DiBenedetto for taking the time to talk with us. Also, thanks to Jes Morse, Team Penske and the Wood Brothers Racing team for their assistance with this latest interview on The Podium Finish. You can keep track of Matt DiBenedetto on his official website, Facebook and Twitter accounts and here on TPF.

Also, please know it is OK to not be OK. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network that assists those facing a suicidal crisis or emotional stressors. Along with their official website, you can reach out to them at 1-800-273-8255. Remember, you are never alone. We can all help each other out, one day at a time. This interview is dedicated to those who’ve faced uphill battles.

Lastly, for the podcast version of my interview with Matt DiBenedetto, please feel free to listen to it below.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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