Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team are headed to Daytona International Speedway, where they will kick off their 2021 Cup Series campaign with Tuesday night’s Busch Clash on the track’s infield road course. Once that checkered flag falls the action shifts to the 2.5-mile superspeedway for the Daytona 500 festivities that culminate with the Great American Race on Feb. 14.
Then DiBenedetto and his Cup Series peers will make an encore run on the road course on Feb. 21 for the second points-paying event of the season. That race was moved to Daytona from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., due to challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Running on a course other than the superspeedway during Speedweeks may seem unique for some, but DiBenedetto’s Wood Brothers team competed on the old 4.1-mile beach-road course in the 1950s, before the “big track” opened in 1959.
Team founder Glenn Wood was one of the stars of the beach-road course. He swept the pole and the class win in the Sportsman division for its final three races on the beach, and in the 1958 finale set the overall fast time in his Sportsman car, outrunning the Modifieds that had an advantage rules-wise.
News reports from the time described Wood’s 139.679 miles per hour pole run as the biggest shocker of Speedweeks time trials. Mr. Wood considered his pole win that day the highlight of his driving career.
DiBenedetto, speaking during a Zoom call with reporters, said he’s hoping to carry forward the momentum he and the No. 21 team enjoyed during the closing weeks of the 2020 season, when they posted four top-10 finishes in the final seven races, three of those coming in the final three races.
He said the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team was able to work through the challenges brought about by COVID, which were especially tough on a new team with its members trying to learn each other.
“It felt like the last half of the season – especially the last third of the season – is where all of a sudden it really clicked for us as a team,” DiBenedetto said. “That’s why you saw us clicking off top 10s consistently, running up front, competing for wins.
“That momentum, I feel confident, is going to carry directly over into the season just because we have all that time together, we have all those notes together and that’s where it’s really coming together.”
DiBenedetto, who earned a starting spot in the non-point Busch Clash due to making the Playoffs last season, said he’s hoping the extra laps on the road course will help him, crew chief Greg Erwin and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team prepare for a 2021 schedule that features seven points-paying Cup races on road courses. In addition to the Feb. 21 race on the 14-turn, 3.61-mile track at Daytona, the Cup Series will compete on the familiar tracks at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte ROVAL. New to the schedule are the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, Road America in Wisconsin and the infield course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I look at [the Clash] as a great opportunity, because I felt like our road-course program last year was where we needed the most improvement,” DiBenedetto said. “Not that it was terrible, it just needed some work.
“We know the things that we need to work on, so I still feel very good about our chances [on Tuesday]. We basically have a race to evaluate what gains we’ve made and how to continue to get better at those places because our speed on the short tracks, on the intermediates, on those places were excellent, especially the last bit of the year.
“We were really flying at those places, so glad we get an extra opportunity at the Clash to go out there and try and see what we’ve gained on and go try and win.”
The starting line-up for the Clash will be determined by a draw on Monday night, and the 35-lap race is set to start Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern Time with TV coverage on Fox Sports 1.