On Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway, the NASCAR Cup Series season, dramatically altered by a once-in-a-century pandemic, will come to an end with the running of the Season Finale 500.
For Matt DiBenedetto and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team, it’s been a year of learning each other and overcoming obstacles.
After racing resumed following a break due to the coronavirus, new NASCAR rules cut out practice and qualifying for all but one race – at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That made it tough for DiBenedetto and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team as they navigated their first season together.
"We had a lot thrown at us, and it was especially hard on us being a new group," DiBenedetto said. "There are a lot of things we would have learned in practice and been able to apply to the car in a normal year. Instead, we had to learn during the race.
"We still made the Playoffs, had a lot of success, especially in the latter part of the season."
DiBenedetto and the No. 21 team have turned in some strong numbers over the course of the season. They scored three top-three finishes and 10 top-10s. They scored 107 Stage points, and enter this weekend’s season finale 14th in the points standings, just 11 markers behind 12thplace. DiBenedetto’s previous best finish in the final points standings was 22nd, before he joined the Wood Brothers team.
He said this season’s performance has him already looking forward to 2021.
"As a team we’re just now getting on the same page," he said. "We’re meshing better, and now we are able to turn bad days into good solid runs. That’s what strong teams do.
"We’ll be way, way further ahead when we start next season."
The 2020 season also saw DiBenedetto sign up to drive the No. 21 Mustang for 2021, and he said he has one main goal in mind for the upcoming year.
"I want to get the Wood Brothers their 100th win and some more as well," he said. "I want that 100th win more than anything. The Woods are a great family, and it’s a great honor to drive for them – a dream come true.
"I will remember this time for the rest of my life."
But before DiBenedetto and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team turn their attention to 2021, there’s still Sunday’s 312-miler at Phoenix to run.
"Phoenix is one of my favorite tracks," said DiBenedetto, who will start 12th. "It’s kind of a short track. We’ll run the low-downforce, high-horsepower package, and I enjoy those races the most."
He said he’s heartened by the speed the No. 21 Mustang had at Phoenix back in March, when he finished 13th.
"We had a fast car, but we didn’t quite keep up with the adjustments," he said. "We have lots to build on from the spring. It’s a good place for us."
Sunday’s 500-kilometer race is set to get the green flag just after 3 p.m. Eastern Time with TV coverage on NBC.