NASCAR has had it’s share of polarizing drivers over the years. You might even say that the sport’s popularity is derived from that very notion. Before Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death, The Intimidator had as many haters and he had fans. Darrell Waltrip, Kurt and Kyle Busch, and several others have divided fans in the stands and at home over driving style, personality, and interactions with the fandom. Most “divisive” drivers historically have been a net positive for the sport however, as the exchange of opinion resulted in an exchanging of cold hard currency from fans to merchants, and advertisers to networks. That said, many of the polarizing characters in the last handful of years have yielded a different result. Kyle Larson’s use of a racial slur in 2020 created a natural animosity from some to the sport, and unearthed uncomfortable opinions shared by a vocal fraction of the racing community. Mirrored much to that same vein of issues, incidents directly and indirectly involving Bubba Wallace since 2020 have caused a frankly disappointing rift between members of the nation’s greatest sport. The “US vs THEM” mentality of NASCAR fandom used to be a profitable and rewarding experience…at least for those that made their living off it. Even when we took things too far it was still under the great umbrella of stock car racing, and our in-fighting could stay contained to the racetrack. Now, the gates have been blown off. The doors are open, and anyone wanting to spread a toxic opinion is welcomed to poison the well and attempt to ruin the enjoyment of anyone that dares to think differently, or not even care to think about the outside world at all. A microcosm of the United States itself, every waking moment in NASCAR seems to be about fighting an inconclusive unpredictable civil war where the sides are varied and dynamic, and anything close to dissenting opinion must be obliterated. The racing can still be enjoyed, and there’s still a community that comes together both on and off the track. But there’s a noise in the background, and you can hear it over the engines. Political, religious, social, and economic fervor run amok that’s just waiting for the checkered flag to drop so we can start fighting again. Everyone’s got to have a stake in the game, and most everyone wants to feel like a major player in it.
That brings us to Matt DiBenedetto. No driver has been a better example of the roller coaster of modern public discourse than the veteran racer from California. Once universally beloved as a scrappy hard luck underdog sneaking good finishes in underfunded equipment, has since devolved into a polarizing figure of political and social opinion, wrapped lovingly in a personal choice of religious demeanor, and culminating in a character wantonly celebrated by some for his professional shortcomings. As of this writing, Matt DiBendetto’s prospects for 2022 are uncertain, and it seems a competitive ride in the NASCAR Cup Series is now out of reach. How did this happen, and is any of it fair? Is Matt D simply a product of what we’ve collectively created in the outside world or is he just now paying the toll for his actions? Let’s try to find out. I want to be clear that this is not an attempt to discredit, put down, or make a “hit piece” for Matt DiBenedetto. I just want to put some facts on the table, look back at performance, team interaction, and of course personal decisions…lay it all out and see as objectively as possible if the result is an employable NASCAR talent. Buckle up, check your ego, and open your mind, let’s get to the bottom of this curious case.
The most important aspect of a pro racecar driver no matter the baggage, is the results. It’s a common talking point that DiBenedetto has never won a nationally touring NASCAR race, but such a criticism can be unfair when considering a driver’s overall employability. I’m sure Matt D would be the first to tell you that not winning is disappointing, but how do his actual finishes compare? For sake of brevity, let’s consider Cup performance only, given that the sample size of other series is comparatively small. Matt started his Cup career at BK Racing, a team so bad that digging into the numbers for comparison is almost unworthy of the time to do it. No one excelled there, and no driver could be expected to perform with any consistency, especially given the financials. That said, DiBenedetto’s most popular moment came from a 6th place finish at Bristol in 2016 driving for BK, making him an underdog darling to most of NASCAR’s fanbase. After a stint with GoFas which we will touch on later and a year with the Levine Family team, Matt was ready for the big time. In 2020 and 2021 the Wood Brothers ride was something quantitative and qualitative that can be studied against similar talent and similar career paths. Let’s hit the books and compare (stats sourced from Racing Reference).
From 2016-2021 the Wood Brothers team had three drivers pilot the famous 21 car for two seasons each: Ryan Blaney, Paul Menard, and of course Matt DiBenedetto. There are a million things to track and rate and analyze, but at the end of the day it matters where you start, and most importantly it matters where you finish. For each season in the Wood Brothers world, I examined the average start and average finish along with a plus or minus to each season’s average to see if we could find a comparison for each driver. It went as follows:
Ryan Blaney (23 Top Tens, 1 Win, 2 pole awards)
2016 Avg Start: 14.9
2016 Avg Finish: 18.5 (-3.6)
2017 Avg Start: 10.3
2017 Avg Finish: 17.3 (-7)
Paul Menard (11 Top Tens, 0 wins, 1 pole award)
2018 Avg Start: 17.2
2018 Avg Finish: 19.4 (-2.2)
2019 Avg Start: 16.6
2019 Avg Finish: 16.6 (0)
Matt DiBenedetto (20 Top Tens, 0 Wins, 0 pole awards*)
2020 Avg Start: 14.0
2020 Avg Finish: 14.8 (-.8)
2021 Avg Start: 18.2
2021 Avg Finish: 16.9 (+1.3)
From what we can see, the Wood Brothers 21 is getting incrementally better each year from a start and finish perspective. We must be cognizant* of changes to qualifying and practice in 2020 and 2021, and a great deal of other factors, but we can see that Matt D at the very least didn’t regress the performance of the car at any alarming rate. For a more “head-to-head” comparison, we can also examine Tyler Reddick. While Reddick is comparatively younger, his number 8 with RCR could loosely be deemed on the same level with the 21 as far as resources and budget in the 20-21 seasons. Plus, we have the commonality of another driver yet to win a Cup race. Here’s Reddick’s last two years:
Tyler Reddick (25 Top Tens, 0 wins, 1 Pole Award*)
2020 Avg Start: 18.6
2020 Avg Finish: 17.5 (+1.1)
2021 Avg Start: 15.4
2021 Avg Finish: 15.0 (+.4)
From what we can tell from this limited data set is that Matt DiBenedetto can indeed produce similar results to similarly equipped drivers. The trouble is, without wins or major sponsorship backing, Matt’s performance can very easily be swept under the rug as “repeatable” with better funded or younger talent, and our example of younger talent leap-frogged Matt D in results in 2021. DiBenedetto has the talent to continue being a professional racecar driver, but it would most likely take a step back to a level of team that’s developing. Just how is his relationship with teams like that anyway?
Matt DiBenedetto has had his history of criticizing past situations in the Cup series, but he hardly invented the concept. It’s a struggle to reach the promised land of reliable NASCAR equipment for most, and when drivers like Matt D get a taste of it, the hard reality of what you must work with can be frustrating. One particular sponsor that was a partner with GoFas racing was especially taken aback by the way DiBenedetto spoke of his past, but such instances have been seen before, and seems a bit too personal for the scope of this article. There comes a time however when you reach a point that those you criticize can bite back, and his stint with the Wood Brothers produced an example of this. The 21 car, having an alliance with titans of the sport Team Penske, made a clear plan in late 2020 that the 2022 campaign would use the Wood Brothers machine to develop Penske’s top prospect Austin Cindric, and leave Matt D out of a ride after his two seasons were complete. While not ideal, this did give DiBenedetto a full 2021 season to showcase himself to teams and sponsors, and a year’s notice is much more than most drivers get to find new work.
Silly Season being what it is, Team Penske’s senior Cup driver Brad Keselowski surprised many by announcing his departure to team ownership, and Cindric was duly moved to take over the legendary 2 car for 2022. Unfortunately, it appears that Matt DiBenedetto made the first of several poor assumptions during 2021 and considered himself a lead candidate to continue as the Wood Brothers’ driver for another season. Harrison Burton however was announced as 2022’s Wood Brothers pilot, and Matt’s reaction has since become infamous. Releasing a long and admittedly honest social media video, Matt D made powerful remarks to the 2021 season being “broken” and that he received the “shit end of the deal.” When Matt D speaks, people listen, but when Roger Penske speaks, more people listen. Roger Penske, owner of Team Penske, soon after this video was posted made it clear in the media that no such consideration was made to continue with DiBenedetto, and that his 2021 season was specific to “build [Matt’s] brand.” Just what is that brand anyway?
I started this article with a lot of bluster about [current year] public discourse, and Matt DiBenedetto has made it clear that he wants in on the fun. Matt D has been an avid social media player since his start in the cup series, and has gained notoriety with help from past team’s PR personnel as well as his seemingly easy going personality. Showing raw emotion on Sunday and wearing a giraffe suit or showing off his impressive physique at home on Monday, it’s a process that works and gained DiBenedetto a lot of fans. What’s been seen since around his time with the Wood Brothers however, is much more confusing.
I was tempted to show old tweets or less than polished political opinions, but digging into that is equally unfair and against the point I’m trying to make. Political opinions don’t cost NASCAR drivers their rides. A well-respected Cup champion once told Dave Despain that we should “just Nuke em” when referring to the potential invasion of Iraq in 2003. Drivers have frequently made remarks to welfare queens, unemployment, this, that, and plenty of the other that are on the lips of a high percentage of people in our sport. Freedom to say what you feel is paramount in the United States, and most people in NASCAR take that to heart.
What’s different about Matt DiBenedetto is a lack of sincerity.
I don’t really know what Matt D thinks in his heart of hearts. But the problem is that he wants me, and everyone else, to think that we do. Any comment he makes in a vacuum looks like he really is wearing his heart on his sleeve, but when compared to what he said the last week or the next week, it rarely seems to match up. Having fun on social media, and then criticizing it as a bastion of hate. “Sad to see the division in our world,” and three seconds later making an off handed comment regarding transgender people. “Practice being kind and minding your own business,” “Let’s go Brandon.” NASCAR as a community accepts the good guys, accepts the villains, but what it hates the most are the phonies. Matt DiBenedetto comes off as a phony, and as such looks like a loose cannon at a time when he needs to look the most stable.
Potential owners and sponsors like to know what they’re getting when it comes to a driver prospect. We’ve shown that Matt DiBenedetto still has what it takes as a wheelman to be a driver in the sport. Drivers with much more disappointing results in the Cup series have gone on to be impressive “more with less” drivers that can get an underfunded car into a race or improve its position simply by showing up to drive it. There’s an opportunity for Matt D to look humbler and be as uninteresting as possible, and I think that’s what it is going to take to secure a good ride for the upcoming season. Does he deserve the hand he’s been dealt? That’s not for me to say, but there’s an interesting notion to consider. There’s never been a driver more on the lips of the public, more anticipated with bated breath to make a social media post, more desired to give the community its next talking point that doesn’t have anything on the horizon on the racetrack. There’s a new era of NASCAR starting right before our eyes, and we’ll just have to wait and see if Matt DiBenedetto is a part of what’s to come. A bad driver is simply forgotten. A troublesome personality is easily tossed aside. But Matt DiBenedetto creates an emotion that difficult to duplicate, and the fact that it’s not resulted in more opportunities says a lot more than we might realize. If Matt is going to be in our future, I hope he considers more of his past.
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