Matt DiBenedetto’s hopes to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs for the first time looked nearly airtight not many weeks ago. Those chances started seeping after last weekend’s two races at Dover International Speedway, leaving his bid in limbo for the regular-season finale.
At least on paper, the post-race words of DiBenedetto — one of the Cup Series’ most reliably cheery drivers — struck a glum tone heading into Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Daytona International Speedway. The 16-driver postseason field will be determined after the 400-miler, and the track’s tendency toward multicar wrecks threatens to sway the playoff picture’s complexion. DiBenedetto’s finishes of 20th and 17th at Dover did not provide much of a points buffer to offset any potential Daytona pitfalls.
“I am going to sit and hope and pray all week that we can just come out of there clean and make the playoffs,” said DiBenedetto, who holds just a nine-point edge over the playoff cut. “We shouldn’t be this close to the bubble. It is frustrating. A couple weeks messed us up. Getting wiped out at Texas and Kansas really hurt us points-wise, and then we come here and really hurt ourselves here. It has been a tough go of circumstances and going to Daytona is going to make it quite an uncomfortable week.”
The 29-year-old driver, in his first season with the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 team, once held a 68-point advantage above the provisional postseason cutoff after a third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway on July 12. That edge fluctuated slightly in the events that immediately followed, but still stood at 57 points just four races ago at the conclusion of the weekend doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway.
In the weeks that followed Michigan, DiBenedetto’s cushion dipped sharply to 44 points after the Daytona Road Course, 27 points after the Dover opener and to the current nine-point gap once Dover concluded.
“There have been a lot of variables and we are competing to make the playoffs, which has been good, but if we miss it knowing that the tracks the second half of the year that are in the playoffs would be beneficial for us, if we miss them I will be a pretty grumpy individual the rest of the year,” DiBenedetto said. “It is what it is. We have worked hard to be in that position. I hope we make it. I don’t want to be negative at all, but it is hard after coming out of this weekend and getting a huge deficit in points and a ton of points chopped from us because we ran so bad in both races. It is just frustrating, and we will have to go to Daytona and do the best job we can and know we have really good teammates and the Fords are fast and try to come out of there clean. I would be very excited the rest of the season.”
DiBenedetto’s Dover fade coincided with a modest revival for Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson, who made gains in both the results column and in gathering stage points at the 1-mile track. DiBenedetto sits just five points ahead of Byron (provisionally the final driver in) and nine points ahead of Johnson (provisionally first out).
Momentum, however, can radically swing on Daytona’s high banks, where opportunities abound for a potential latecomer to the playoff dance. DiBenedetto says he believes the high stakes will produce more aggressive racing and that luck would likely play a role in the outcome.
As for luck, DiBenedetto says it’s a factor that’s difficult to manufacture yourself.
“No, not really. I haven’t figured that out. If you know, please let me know,” DiBenedetto said. “This would be a good week to figure it out. But yeah, I have crashed in the back, the middle, running second multiple times. On the bottom, the middle, the top. You name it and I have been minding my own business and gotten wiped out. So, sometimes it doesn’t really matter how smart you race and what you do and all the things you do right, even if you are running first or second. It just is a lot that is out of your hands at those places. I am not trying to be negative Nancy about it, but I am just frustrated that we are even in this position that we are on the bubble and this close.”