Shiftin’ Gears with Matt DiBenedetto

(Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

After a two-year stint driving for Wood Brothers Racing, Matt DiBenedetto has hit the open market. He’s searching for a ride after failing to win in the No. 21, but still believes he has what it takes to stay in the Cup Series.

DiBenedetto scored nine top-10s in 2021 and finished 18th in the Cup Series points standings. His superspeedway skills showed once again, as he almost broke through with a victory at Talladega in the spring. However, it wasn’t enough to keep a ride for 2022.

Before Martinsville in October, I caught up with DiBenedetto to discuss his time with Ford, Team Penske and the Wood Brothers, and to see what’s next for the 30-year-old.

Without further adieu, here’s the first edition of a new segment I like to call “Shiftin’ Gears”.

Nathan Solomon: Welcome back to The Podium Finish and The Podium Finish Live! I’m Nathan Solomon. And I have a very special guest with me here today. The driver of the No. 21 Ford Mustang in the NASCAR Cup Series, Matt DiBenedetto. Matt, thanks for coming on today, how are you man?

Matt DiBenedetto: Doing excellent. How about you, bro?

NS: I’m great. So just before we get into everything racing-related, I kind of want to learn a little bit more about who you are for our listeners to know more about you. So, you know, what do you like to do outside of NASCAR? I know that you’re a very physically active person, so what else do you enjoy doing?

MD: Yes, I have a passion for fitness. I love working out, you know, functional weightlifting and stuff. So, my wife and I work out together. We’re super blessed to have a home gym that we just got. So that’s really fun. We enjoy that together. The simple things like playing with my dog Brian, who’s actually sitting right next to me chillin’. So we’re pretty low-key. And then, you know, aside from that, I’ve just, I love helping people in general and kind of sharing my faith story and things like that. So, over the offseason, [I’ll] probably be involved in some church-oriented things to you know, help spread some good messages to folks.

NS: Awesome. So let’s, let’s start talking a little bit about 2021. Three, top-fives, nine top-10s. Obviously, there are two races left, but how would you grade your season so far?

MD: Yeah, I think we had a really rough start to the season. And then we were making some headway. We made crew chief change midway through the season to Jonathan Hassler, who took over our team. Greg Irwin was our crew chief and I’m super appreciative for him on what he did. Doesn’t mean one person’s bad or one’s good or anything, it’s about the relationship. You know, it’s no different than your relationship with friends or your wife or whatever it is. And you know, Hassler, and I clicked immediately. And our whole team really clicked, and we clicked off, you know, six races in a row where our worst finish was 11th and we were top-10, still needing that little bit of speed. Everyone will probably say the same thing, [to] beat the Hendrick cars. But yeah, so we were, you know, really clicked. And so second half the season, we have been strong, and a lot of really good speed, things like that. But again, I really want to get that win. I’ve been so close, and I’ve just fallen a little short, on that tiny last bit of speed to be up there for the win, but I’ve been so close so many times.

NS: Yeah. You talked a little bit about Hendrick Of course, you know, there was the parts freeze this season. How difficult has it been like trying to keep up with Hendrick?

(Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

MD: Big time. You know, because that’s the thing is, I feel like I’ve come out of most all the races and say, “Wow, we had a car that could have no problem, run fifth to 10th”. We can top-10 like crazy, we can always run in that fifth to 10th area, as long as the race goes smoothly, and we don’t have any issues. That’s where we have stacked up and maybe [sometimes], you know, we can run up there in the top five, we really execute perfect. But, just missing that last little bit. Again, it’s hard to make those gains, you know, there’s not a whole ton of development. The box is pretty tight of what you can do and what you can work on. So, but we have been making little gains on teams, we’ve been trying super hard. And we’ve been really aggressive. You know it at Michigan, we were trying something aggressive and it worked, and we were really fast there. I think we finished fourth or something like that. We were racing for the lead at times it was really good. But then we tried something similar Kansas, and it backfired, you know, and we really struggled all day. But, it’s because we’re being so aggressive trying to get that last little bit. And win one of these things.

NS: And, on the note of the crew chief change, you know, like you mentioned you switch to Jonathan Hassler After Sonoma, why did you want to have sort of your new crew chief, and why is it worked so well?

MD: Yeah, you know, it’s just all kinds of personalities, and the confidence and calling the race and the relationship is what’s the most important thing. You got to have the confidence in each other and when I am telling what cars doing and just not questioning anything that he does and what adjustments he’s making to just let him do his job. So you have to have that relationship and that trust and that’s where it clicked really well with us ever since the first time we worked together. So, that’s been great ever since he’s, he’s come on board. It’s been excellent for our team. It doesn’t mean one guy’s bad one’s good. Like I said, it’s just it’s another thing that shows how important every single person is around you on your team and I, relate it to football a lot because I tell people it’s no different at all than a football team. It’s just a little easier to see on a football field. But, our sport is no different than the quarterback being nothing without his receivers running their routes, his offensive linemen blocking for him and the defense doing their job, his head coach calling the right plays and calls, and all the coaches and all the training that goes into the practice and the preparation. It’s the exact same for NASCAR. It’s just a little harder to see. It just shows how you know how much those people around you how much of a team sport it is. And your pit crew, you’re nothing without those guys, they make or break your entire race. So it’s truly a team sport.

NS: I like the football analogy. I’ve never heard of a part of that. It’s an interesting way, to compare to it. So you’ve had several notable races over you know, the last three seasons which you almost won, running up front in the 2019 Daytona 500, of course, the Bristol Night Race. And then most recently, a couple of races at Talladega. So how do you remain positive through all that defeat?

MD: Yeah, man, it’s such a crazy story. We’ve gotten so close so many times. So much heartbreak and you know, finishing second and coming so close, it’s crazy that it’s been that way. But, again, what keeps my perspective in check is my faith. So my relationship with the Lord and understanding just a perspective on life that I honestly, at your age, wish I had known. That’s what has changed my life to where you have an understanding of knowing that life is bigger than racing. And also, I’m all in and what I do and you want to win these things so bad, and I will, you know, die trying and hopefully, we get one of these last few races. But at the end of the day, I got to remember that life is bigger than us driving in circles for a living and to also know that my plan and what I want isn’t always, what is the plan that happens or what is meant to be, so I just keep it on check, work as hard as I can. Life here isn’t perfect. And you just got to roll with it and make the most of it and be appreciative for the obstacles that we have when in other places and other countries, people are battling things that they would do anything to deal with in these endeavors that we do. So, just having life in perspective is what helps.

NS: Absolutely. And to get to where you are right now with the Wood Brothers, you climbed through the ranks of driving for some underfunded teams. How have your experiences with BK Racing, Archie St. Hilaire and Leavine Family Racing better you as a racecar driver?

MD: 100%. They’ve better to me as a racecar driver and as a person in general, too. Just keeping you humble and knowing how to work with all the guys around you and having to always make the most of what you’re driving has been kind of what I’ve had to do over the last handful of years. It’s always really overachieving in small team situations, and getting the most out of all your guys, and being good positive energy for those folks so we can work hard and through the struggles that the smaller teams had. So, it’s really shaped me and who I am and taught me a lot, I wouldn’t change my path for anything of how I’ve gotten here. It’s taught me so much going about it that way and having drive for the different smaller teams and seeing the struggles on that front and it makes you a better person and a better driver.

NS: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, there’s a lot of uncertainty for you beyond this season. Since the announcement in July, how difficult has it been for you to focus on 2021?

MD: You know, surprisingly not difficult at all. I was actually kind of glad that I knew early, like in July. So I was appreciative that they let me know early. So really, actually, it helped me focus like “okay, I don’t have to sit and worry wondering what am I doing?” I just knew, and then I can work on stuff for next year and then be focused on trying to win for the Wood Brothers, and that’s it. So it actually is not an answer that some people would maybe expect. But, yeah, I looked at it in that aspect. I was just appreciative that I could work on that stuff and just focus on no other goal other than just winning.

NS: Of course. What has your opportunity with Ford, Team Penske and the Wood Brothers meant to you? What can you take away from these last two seasons?

(Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

MD: Yeah, it’s been awesome. It’s been a roller coaster of emotion and, you know, a lot of hard work and trying to get the team to where we needed to be. And we did finally get it there the second half of the season. It was hard, sports hard, and it takes everybody. That part was difficult than it took, you know, a while for us to get it to where our 21 team needed to be for us to be executing and stepping our game up a little, and we did. So that’s been awesome. I’m appreciative for the relationship with Ford. Our alliance with Team Penske is great. Also, I’m a big car guy. So I love being able to share all my car stuff and with Ford vehicles, I’ve owned a ton of Mustangs, GT 350, all kinds of things. And then, on the Wood Brothers front, they are family for life. That’s the coolest thing in the world. It doesn’t matter that I’m not driving for them at the end of this year. They are family, truly family forever and they are such good people that they make you want to be a better human being. I’m thankful for the couple of years but grim for them because I’ve gained them as family for the rest of my existence.

NS: Your teammates Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney…What have they meant to you?

MD: Yeah, great people. They all bring a different dynamic. So I’ll go to each of them for different aspects of advice, so they’ve been a big help. And really, they helped me with mostly, I would say, asking more questions about, “Hey, what’s the right way to approach this?” Or when we were, you know, going through this crew chief change thing, really just going through “hey, do I how do I approach these things right within the team,” and so actually more little more business-oriented type stuff, and I’d say, who I’m closest with, or have the best friendship with would be Ryan Blaney. We just get along really well. So it’s been awesome to be able to work with those guys.

NS: Of course, nothing announced for you at this point for 2022. But you see, kind of the route that someone like John Hunter Nemechek or AJ Allmendinger has gone on, they went to lower series to try to get their careers back on track, if you will. Have you ever thought about maybe going on a similar route?

MD: You know, I thought about this. And at a point, I was like, “Man, I really want to stay in Cup,” which of course anybody does. That’s the end goal. But I had to humble myself and be like, “Hey, I need to pump the brakes here and be open to everything.” Because again, I don’t know what the plan is meant to be. So I became open to everything, whatever series it is, whatever opportunity is meant to be. That’s where I just had to humble myself and be open to all that and see what’s meant to be. So I don’t put my needs first. I just kind of work as hard as I can to figure out what’s going to meant to be and that’s what’s going to happen. So, yeah, seeing all what AJ [Allmendinger] has done, he’s like a brother to me. And seeing what John Hunter [Nemechek] done. That’s why I don’t get too spun out about whatever happens moving forward because I know it’ll work out how it’s meant to.

NS: You just mentioned AJ there. What, what is that relationship with AJ? How did that, you know, how did you become friends with AJ? How has your relationship blossomed over the NASCAR years?

MD: Yeah, AJ is the best man. He is truly like a brother to me. It was really just from at the racetrack and at driver intros and talking. We just clicked immediately because he’s such a fun personality. And he gives me a hard time about my weight lifting and stuff. I’ll always just grab him and pick him up and stuff when he’s at his car, or if he’s with sponsors of his car I’ll go and just mess with him. So we just have that relationship like brothers. And we talk to each other a bunch, so really, it was just from the track and we got to know each other. Then we hung out outside the racetrack and just became excellent friends because he’s a very genuine, humble guy. Him and his wife, Tara, definitely his better half, is the nicest, most upbeat, fun human being in the world. So they’re just really great friends of ours.

NS: That’s perfect timing to hear. We just had AJ on The Podium Finish and The Podium Finish Live, so that’s cool to hear. Finally, how gratifying would a victory at Martinsville or Phoenix be as you move on to another chapter in your career?

MD: Oh, man, it’d be everything. That’d be a heck of a way to finish out the season for us. We want so bad. I mean, in my career, I’ve finished every position in the field from second through 40th, and second multiple times. So I just really want to check off that last one, especially in any race, I don’t care where it is. But Martinsville coming up will be so special because it’s a home race for the Wood Brothers, it’s one of my favorite racetracks that we go to, so, really hoping and putting a lot of effort in to get that in these last few races and hoping that’s in the cards because we’re going to go all effort into it.

NS: Great. Well, Matt, I believe that’s all the time we have with you today. Thank you for coming on for the chat, and best of luck to you here these last two races and whatever’s next for you in 2022.

MD: Yeah, sounds good, man. Thank you.

NS: Yes. Thank you.

NOTE: A huge thank you to Matt DiBenedetto for taking the time to talk with The Podium Finish. Also, thank you to Jessica Morse, Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing for their assistance with the interview.

Nathan Solomon

Nathan Solomon is a sophomore in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He serves as the Sports Editor for his campus newspaper, The BonaVenture, and as the programming director for his campus radio station, WSBU 88.3FM. The station is rated the No. 4 college radio station in the country by Princeton Review.

Solomon started his journalism career in 2018 when he began covering hometown Cornell basketball for IvyHoopsOnline. In 2019, Solomon joined Empire Sports Media to contribute New York Yankees' content and strated covering NASCAR for the outlet in 2020. In 2021, he covered his first two NASCAR races with Empire Sports Media.

Solomon joined TPF in September of 2021. He is also an NMPA journalist.

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