Ford Performance NASCAR: Matt DiBenedetto Media Teleconference

MATT DIBENEDETTO, No. 21 Menards/Dutch Boy Ford Mustang — ARE THE NERVES SIMILAR AS DAYTONA OR DIFFERENT? “No, I would say different than Daytona. Daytona was really hard. Our primary, number one goal of the season was we’ve got to make the playoffs and then everything after that is opportunity, so that was extremely stressful and something I don’t want to go through again. This is still, I mean this first round of the playoffs our first two races have been terrible and things haven’t fallen our way. Darlington was just tough. Richmond, we just didn’t have an opportunity to recover because of no cautions. Going into Bristol this weekend just kind of being in a hole, I still look at it as opportunity going to my personal favorite racetrack, a track where I know we can perform really well at. Yeah, it’s pressure for sure, but I still look at it as opportunity for us and there’s no other track I would choose other than Bristol to be in this situation and to go out there and perform at our very highest.”

WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST CONCERN FOR SATURDAY? DOING TOO MUCH TOO SOON? “I don’t know. I guess I really don’t have any major concerns. That might be a boring answer, but, no, I think everything is mostly just looking at our team and making sure to do the best job possible as far as I know my ability behind the wheel in driving Bristol. I think we all know that. I love that place and take well to it. It’s my favorite, but what I look at is I wouldn’t call it concerns, but the things I look at and put the most emphasis on is my communication with the team. Us making the right adjustments and calls throughout the race because that’s gonna be everything. Us doing a good job of pit road and not only the pit crew but myself also because it’s kind of a tricky pit road, so maximizing your in and out because every single spot gained or lost will dictate the outcome of your race, so I wouldn’t call them concerns, but those would be what I’m looking at the most going into Bristol that’s gonna be the biggest player into us preferably having a shot to win the race.”

DO YOU HAVE TO MAKE YOURSELF MORE AGGRESSIVE IN THIS TYPE OF SITUATION AND HOW DO YOU TURN IT ON AND OFF? “Yes, I would say we do have to be more aggressive in this situation knowing what’s on the line and what we need and that we have to perform at the very highest and, really, for the most part, it’s not necessarily a must-win, but we really, probably have to go out there and win the race, and it’s our best shot I would say all year. Yeah, to answer your question, it’s a little bit maybe to a slightly lesser extent, but very similar to how I approached the Open race when I was trying to make it in the All-Star. We got damage early, had to go to the back, and we drove from the back to the front and won the Open. It took us a little bit, but I was impatient going through the field and I knew I had to be, and it’s kind of that same case. I would reiterate what Blaney said. If I’m faster than the people in front of you, you can’t just sit. You’re not gonna be crashing people. You’re not gonna do anything stupid, but you can’t sit and wait behind them. I was very aggressive getting through the field in the Open. I did have to bump a couple of people out of the way. There was some aggressive driving, not dirty driving, but it was aggressive to get through the field because you don’t have time to waste at a track like Bristol, where every single lap, every bit of your position, everything is setting you up for the end of the race. Every stage point matters. All that, so we’re definitely gonna have to get all we can get.”

American Muscle

HOW DO YOU DEFINE AGGRESSIVE DRIVING AND DIRTY DRIVING? “I think it’s always kind of a little bit of a moving target, just depending on the situations. Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field and everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. Some of the moves that I made in the Open race if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people. Everybody pays attention, so as long as you’re not out there crashing people and just sending them right out of the way in the first corner that you get to them or any nonsense like that. If you’re knocking on somebody’s door or you have a little position and you have to get to the bumper and give them a little nudge, it’s really whatever you have to do and it will be a little bit of a moving target as to how aggressive you’ll be based on the situation. If it’s real early in a run or you just got to the guys bumper, or you’ve been stuck behind this guy for four laps and you’re faster and you just can’t waste anymore time, it’s a little bit of a moving target as to how aggressive that you are with people.”

HOW DISAPPOINTED ARE YOU TO BE IN THIS POSITION? “We’ve dug ourselves a hole, for sure. It’s not optimal. As competitors, that’s frustrating for Blaney and I, but it just shows how tough the playoffs are and how crucial every single race is. You just can’t have a couple of bomb races and it just makes it really hard to recover, not that it’s impossible, for sure. I would look at it, yeah, it’s frustrating but we also have opportunity and I still look at it as we’re going to my favorite racetrack in Bristol and we still have opportunities. I definitely haven’t given up or I’m not that level of frustrated. I’m bummed about the first two races, but I can’t sit and we can’t sit and dwell upon those races. As much as I can say I’m happy that we made the playoffs, I am. I know the team is happy, but you instantly as a competitor turn the page the next day and you’re like, ‘All right, now how do we make the next round?’ We as drivers and competitors are never gonna be satisfied unless we can win the championship.”

HOW DISAPPOINTED WOULD YOU BE NOT TO MAKE IT TO THE SECOND ROUND? “I don’t know. I wouldn’t be satisfied. I’m glad that we made the playoffs, but it’s never enough. There have been a lot of variables that 2020 has thrown at us. We still have just barely scratched the surface as far as our 21 team. I think we have a long ways to go as far as progression. Hopefully we’ve built this team together for a long time to come because we’re barely getting started — 2020 has been quite crazy, so I’ve got to keep it in perspective. I couldn’t be too disappointed if we miss it, but I still look at it as a lot of opportunity for us this weekend to redeem ourselves. I think part of what will be a little disappointing is knowing that through the midpoint of the season we had speed like crazy. Every single week I was driving up in the top five and top 10, so it was like, ‘Man, if we make the playoffs, I really know we can make a good splash.’ And then we start the playoffs and we have two bad weeks. I know that we have the speed and the ability as a team to perform a lot better, but that’s part of the structure and you’ve got to be perfect every week.”

HOW DO YOU THINK THIS RACE WILL AFFECT WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU IN 2021 CONTRACT-WISE? “I sure hope it doesn’t come down to just one race as far as my contract stuff for next year. I’ve said it before, I came over here and there was a lot of people involved. It’s a dream come true driving for the Wood Brothers. They’re not the only ones involved. We have a strong alliance with Team Penske, a big relationship with Ford, so there are a lot of folks involved in this and in the decision-making, but they heavily expressed they wanted this to a multi-year opportunity as far as my contract. They heavily expressed they wanted this to be a long-term relationship, something that we build for a long time to come. All those things, so that was very encouraging when I came over here. I do not want to go anywhere. I love driving for the Wood Brothers. It’s a dream come true. They are family and as far as my contract stuff, it has options for I think 2021, ‘22 and ‘23, if I’m not mistaken, so it’s a multi-year deal opportunity, but the team has to pick it up each year and the deadline for that is at the end of this month, so I guess I should know pretty soon. I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes. I’m just waiting to hear.. Hopefully, it works out. Hopefully, I’m not going anywhere. I love being the driver for our team.”

HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE AGGRESSION EARLY? “2020 has been really challenging for a lot of people. Not to pick on anybody or point out anyone, but Kyle Busch and guys that different teams — some have maybe excelled and some that have had some advantages or things taken away from them, man, it’s tough. You’ve got to hope that your starting setup is close, which the teams do a great job, but you’ve really got to hope that you start close and your race is so important from lap one because you think about, I’ll give Richmond as an example. We started Richmond and were tight. We were a little off because of no practice. If we had practice this wouldn’t have even been an issue. We would have been fast and competitive and ran great. We started the race and were too tight . We got to work on it. There are no cautions. We’re behind the eight-ball. We get trapped a lap down. We get our car better and we’re like, ‘We’re pretty fast now. We’re a decent car, probalby a top-10, top-12 car, could have a decent day,’ and you’re just stuck in the lucky dog position for an hour and you can’t recover. So your race from the very beginning is that important. Even though it’s a 500-lap race at Bristol, from the drop of the rag it is really, really important every move you make, every position you can get, staying up front, staying competitive, that’s the only way you can position yourself for the win to the end. It’s gonna be very important from the start of the race that we hopefully have the setup close, which I feel pretty confident in. This is our third time driving around Bristol this year, so I feel good about that. Our cars are fast. We won the Open race, so I have a lot of great things that give me a lot of confidence, but we have to be really good from start to finish in that 500-lap race.”

HOW IS YOUR COMMUNICATION WITH THE TEAM? “Greg Erwin is a great guy and we’ve worked together well. This year has made it tougher on a new group working together and figuring each other out because there are a lot of things we’ve learned and figured out with each other and our communication and stuff in practice to be a lot better versus having to do things in the race and figure it out. So 2020 and the way it’s been had just made it so much tougher, so we haven’t maximized some races just because of having to learn together and these crazy circumstances that we’re not accustomed to being thrown at us. We work together well. It’s gotten better and better throughout the course of the season and continues to get better, so we’re in a must-win type situation or close to it. I wouldn’t choose any other time than now. We are definitely most prepared and I wouldn’t choose any other track than Bristol.”

WHY DO YOU AND BRISTOL SEEM TO MESH SO WELL TOGETHER? “I kind of asked the same thing to myself a lot. It’s funny. I think Bristol just is, I don’t want to say it’s an equalizer because your equipment is so important everywhere, but it’s just one of those racetracks where you’re really hustling the race car and kind of the older school principles matter the most, like just having good grip and a good balanced handling race car, and you’re hustling the car around the racetrack a lot, which suits my style. A place where you really have to drive super-hard from start to finish of the run, I feel like I’m pretty good at all kinds of different racetracks, but if I were choosing places that I love, Martinsville, Bristol, I love both of them a ton and I would say the thing that they have in common is that you’re hustling both of those types of racetracks and you’re just driving it really hard. You’re up on the wheel and it’s very opposite of a place like Richmond, which I’ve run well at, but Richmond is a short track that has a very slow feeling. Every movement that you do is very slow, very easy on the throttle. Bristol, you’re attacking the corners really hard and it’s just the most fun short track to go to, so it’s a place I’ve taken well to and I think I know what I need there very well, also, to be good in the race. I know exactly what my car needs. It’s just a place I have a lot of confidence at and it is a bit of a special place to me and has been to my career.”

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