Matt DiBenedetto is set to take his first laps behind the wheel of the iconic Wood Brothers No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. And the gravity of that moment isn’t lost on him.
"I’ve been overly eager," he said. "It’s been a long wait. I’m anxious to get going, super excited.
"It’s the best opportunity of my life."
Although he’s young, 28, and grew up in Grass Valley, Calif., a continent away from the Wood Brothers’ home in Stuart, Va., he has come to appreciate the team’s history.
He got a good lesson a few weeks back when he and his family spent the day with the Woods in Stuart. He visited the team’s museum and saw race cars, photos, trophies and other memorabilia from the Woods’ 70 years in the sport. He visited the beech tree on the family homestead in the Buffalo Ridge community north of Stuart, and stood on the same ground where Glen and Leonard Wood used a limb from the tree to pull the engines from their earliest race cars. And he visited the cemetery where team founder Glen Wood is buried.
DiBenedetto said the biggest takeaway from his visit is something that applies as much to the 2020 season as to any other in the history of the team.
"What really stands out is the family’s passion for what they do," he said. "That really comes out when they’re telling the stories behind the exhibits in the museum."
And he’s learned that like the 40-something drivers that came before him, he’s much more than just an employee.
"They immediately made me feel like part of the family, not just their driver," he said, adding that he’s humbled to be a part of the family’s driver roster. "It’s almost overwhelming the thought of my name being added to that list. Some of my heroes have been drivers of the 21, and getting to race it in the Daytona 500 is really a neat moment for me and my family."
DiBenedetto said he’s been working hard in the offseason to acclimate himself with his new team and his new crew chief Greg Erwin.
"We’ve meshed really well," DiBenedetto said. "Greg is dedicated, professional and passionate, and we both want to get to Victory Lane in a Cup car."
Erwin has been to Victory Lane five times in the Cup Series, while DiBenedetto, who is starting his sixth full season, is seeking his first trip.
DiBenedetto said he’s looking forward to the season-opening Daytona 500 and says he’s worked hard to hone his skills on the style of racing that occurs at Daytona and its sister track, Talladega Superspeedway.
"I’ve studied more for superspeedway racing than for any other form," he said. "And in the five years I’ve been in Cup I think I’ve improved more at those tracks than at any others.
"I try to position myself up front and focus on controlling things that are in my control and hope that the things that are out of my control fall into place.
"Sometimes things work out, and sometimes you end up in the wall, but we’re going down there to make some more history."
DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang will hit the track at Daytona for the first time on Saturday at 1:35 p.m. for the first of two practice sessions, both of which will be televised on FOX Sports 1.
Pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 is set for Sunday at 12:30 p.m., with the TV broadcast on FOX.
Two 60-lap Duel qualifying races are set for Thursday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m., with TV coverage on FOX Sports 1.
And the Daytona 500 is set to get the green flag just after 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 16, with TV coverage on FOX.