When Matt DiBenedetto fires up the No. 21 Menards/Monster Energy Mustang and takes the green flag on Saturday at Dover International Speedway, it will mark his 200th career start in NASCAR’s elite Cup Series.
His 201st start will come on Sunday at Dover, with Richmond Water Heaters replacing Monster Energy on the hood of the Menards Mustang.
DiBenedetto, who will start 14th at Dover on Saturday, made his Cup debut at Phoenix Raceway in 2015 at the age of 22, driving for the underdog BK Racing team.
After failing to qualify at Atlanta and Las Vegas, DiBenedetto earned the 35th starting spot at Phoenix and finished where he started. Inconspicuous as his debut was, it was the start of an upward career trajectory that five seasons later has him driving the iconic No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers and competing for a Playoff berth.
“It’s cool that this weekend is my 200th start,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s crazy to think.
“I remember making my first Cup start at Phoenix and just being appreciative for being there and accomplishing the first part of my dream which was making it to the Cup series.
“Now it’s fast forward to this season having a dream opportunity driving the 21 car and competing up front.”
DiBenedetto said other than the fact that it was his debut, there was nothing really remarkable about his first Cup race. (He did finish ahead of future NASCAR Hall of Famers Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom crashed out of that race.)
“It was a crazy time because the team wasn’t planning on running me at that race until last second, so we didn’t have a full crew or anything,” DiBenedetto said. “But it was neat how willing everyone was to work hard and get me out there.
“I think they could sense my passion for wanting to be in the Cup Series and that I would do anything to make it happen and prove myself.”
Despite his first team’s underdog status, DiBenedetto went on to finish 21st at Bristol in his fifth start and 18th at Talladega in his seventh start. He turned heads by finishing sixth at Bristol the following year, then moved to the Fords fielded by Archie St. Hilaire in 2017. He finished ninth in the Daytona 500 for St. Hilaire and eighth at the Brickyard.
After an impressive 2019 season in the No. 95 owned by Bob Leavine he was tapped to replace the retiring Paul Menard in the Menards/Monster Energy Mustang.
Entering his 24th race in the No. 21 this year, DiBenedetto has two top-five and five more top-10 finishes and heads into this weekend’s double-header 44 points ahead of 17th place, with only the following Saturday’s race on the oval track at Daytona International Speedway left to run before the start of the Playoffs.
There will be no practice or qualifying before the start of Saturday’s and Sunday’s races at Dover, both of which are scheduled for 311 miles.
The twin Drydene 311s are set to start at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, with TV coverage on NBCSN.