Matt DiBenedetto’s 202-race NASCAR Cup Series career, which began with a 2015 season in a back-marker ride and a best finish of 18th, hit its pinnacle last Saturday night when he earned official qualification for the playoffs — his first playoff appearance and the first playoff entrance for Wood Brothers Racing since 2017.
DiBenedetto spoke with multiple outlets last week about the pressure involved in maintaining a playoff spot in a Daytona race purposely scheduled as the regular season finale for the wide-open, wild-card element it’d foster. DiBenedetto finished 12th in the race having expertly avoided two multi-car crashes within the final 12 laps.
His next source of stress might be whether Wood Brothers exercises its option to retain him for the 2021 season; DiBenedetto signed a team-friendly contract with the organization last fall that contains annual fail-safes.
“My contract is a multi-year opportunity. I guess that’s the way to word it because it does have options for 2021, 2022,” DiBenedetto told me in a phone interview last week. “They have to pick up those options every year.”
“We haven’t had a single discussion. It hasn’t been brought up because I think we’ve been so head down, focused solely on the playoffs. Then all of a sudden, time snuck up on me and I’m like, ‘Oh man, it’s about that time to start having those talks.’”
In any other season, radio silence regarding contract discussions might seem unnerving; however, given the pandemic-adjacent delays in driver and sponsor negotiations that normally begin in late spring, the lack of movement on DiBenedetto’s built-in extension is in line with the series-wide trend.
Still, the option — whether to retain DiBenedetto or set him free — remains undecided and there are arguments to support both potential answers.
Why would Wood Brothers exercise the opt-in?
It’s most likely Wood Brothers keeps DiBenedetto as its driver. Since the organization became a de-facto Team Penske car — DiBenedetto’s No. 21 fleet is housed within Penske’s Mooresville, N.C. shop — expectations for performance increased. Ryan Blaney brought Wood Brothers to the playoffs two years ago, but Paul Menard, the program’s driver in 2018 and 2019, failed in procuring any postseason spots. DiBenedetto’s presence and performance returned a fulfilment on internal expectations that could seemingly grow from here.
“They expressed to me when I came over here that they wanted this to be a long-term relationship and to build this into a top, winning and hopefully championship-contending team,” said DiBenedetto. “That doesn’t happen overnight, but that was their goal.”
DiBenedetto also fashioned himself into one of the best restarters in all of NASCAR. His 71.93 percent position retention rate, measuring the frequency in which he defends his restart spot, ranks first in the series, as does his 1.42-position gain per attempt from the preferred groove. His short run prowess not only proved elite, it also gave a discernible identity to a team lacking other signature track position habits:
The 29-year-old is worth an estimated $2.945 million per year on the open market even with a 35 percent reduction in value as a result of a series-wide pandemic adjustment. That’s significant, as Wood Brothers surely locked him in for far less than he’s worth; if the options’ salaries were agreed upon before his restart revelation and playoff-worthy performance, it’s possible the team will continue enjoying good value from his signing.
There’d have to be an obvious, compelling reason for Wood Brothers to abort its plan to build around DiBenedetto.
Why wouldn’t Wood Brothers exercise the opt-in?
Meet Austin Cindric, a 21-year-old top NASCAR prospect whose five wins this season in the second-tier Xfinity Series have created industry buzz as to whether he’ll earn his rookie stripes in the Cup Series next year. He’s also the son of Penske team president Tim Cindric; the Wood Brothers Racing ride would represent a promotion into a gig falling under his father’s purview.
The nepotistic nature of such a move is commonplace in NASCAR, and in Cindric’s case, it might actually be justified. Most teams, including Penske, are looking to reduce cost across the board. Cindric, in his age-22 season next year, would command less money than DiBenedetto, and while the move would represent a competitive step backwards in the short term, it’d set up the Penske affiliate for a more comfortable post-pandemic future, especially as Cindric’s star rises.
But his maturation process works in DiBenedetto’s favor. Five of Cindric’s eight career wins in the Xfinity Series and third-tier Truck Series came on road courses, a track type that currently represents just 8 percent of the routine Cup Series schedule. He’s won three times on traditional ovals this season; however, he’s been given the fastest car in an oval race seven times, indicating some deficiency in his ability to capitalize on marquee equipment against competition of equal experience. The Cup Series is a leap for which he might not be ready. Another year in the Xfinity Series would assist in his growth as an all-around driver and a Cup foray via DiBenedetto’s ride at Wood Brothers or Brad Keselowski’s seat at Penske — unaccounted for in 2022 and beyond — remains a realistic option, albeit delayed.
Another year at Wood Brothers would benefit DiBenedetto. A carbon copy of his 2020 statistical profile would certainly appeal to other suitors if he were to land on the open market, but few are in a position to compete regularly for playoff spots.
“This is a place I want to call home for obviously many years to come,” said DiBenedetto. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”