As much as we want it to be, progress is not always linear.
In 2020, either Matt DiBenedetto or the Wood Brothers will break their recent pattern. The team hopes they are the ones to change fortune.
For several the Wood Brothers consistently improved. That peaked with Ryan Blaney and the support received from Team Penske. Paul Menard was not quite able to continue to progress unabated and even though he had some solid runs in 2018 and 2019, the performance has slipped a little.
The Leavine Family team was also on a progression with Michael McDowell and Kasey Kahne behind the wheel. When Matt DiBenedetto took over the driving duties at the beginning of 2019, we expected him to pick up where Kahne left off. It took nearly half the season, but by the time summer rolled around DiBenedetto was finally living up to expectations. He certainly improved greatly from his previous season with GaFas Racing.
In 2020 DiBenedetto will climb into stronger equipment than he had last year, although there is a question of whether the No. 95 is going to receive significantly better support as Joe Gibbs Racing insures Christopher Bell has the best possible chance to show his talent.
Despite his slow start, we actually missed the mark a little last year. DiBenedetto was ranked 28th and finished 22nd in the standings. This year, we expect a more from him.
At some point in a driver’s career a switch seems to flip. Last year DiBenedetto had to become accustomed to racing with a different group of drivers. The skills needed to battle in the 30s are not the same as challenging for 20-something results. It gets exponentially harder to race for results in the teens and then again in the single digits.
What impressed us most was how DiBenedetto ran at Bristol in the fall. It also illustrates this point. With determination, he drove to the lead late in the race. But he also failed to manage the race at the very end and allowed Denny Hamlin to catch him. Hamlin probably had better equipment, but he undoubtedly has more experience in making passes for the lead and that made a huge difference in the outcome.
It will take a while before DiBenedetto becomes a weekly fixture in the single digits, although he proved on several occasions that he was able to get there in the No. 95. From the June race at Sonoma through the Southern 500 in September he earned six top-10s in a 10-race period. In that span he never finished worse than 10th in consecutive races, but he still lacked some consistency with his four sub-10th-place results being 16th or worse.
In 2020 we expect about the same number of top-10s (of seven). If he scores 10 or more, we will be pleasantly surprised. But the reason we expect him to continue to improve is going to come from elevating those next set of results. In 2019 DiBenedetto scored 13 top-15s; he should be able to get 20 in 2020. He was outside the top 25 on nine occasions; four of these were due to crash damage. So long as he does not push too hard, he should be able to cut those in half.
With just a little luck on his side, DiBenedetto could conceivably make the playoffs – matching Blaney’s feat from 2017.
DiBenedetto’s ultimate value will depend on just how excited cap managers get about the No. 21. In Draft Kings, he never cracked the $8,000 last year and spent most of the season below $7,000. He will probably start off in the $7k range again and it traditionally takes quite a few weeks of strong runs before their calculation catches up to a driver’s performance.
If he hits the $8,333 mark (the average cost-per-driver in this game), DiBenedetto will be much less valuable. It may take a full season for him to develop the kind of consistency fantasy owners want. In head-to-head or Pick ‘Em games, he should be used liberally throughout the season as he regularly beats his career averages on any given track.
Three Best Tracks
Charlotte Roval (12.0 in 2 attempts)
Bristol (17.9 in 10)
Sonoma (20.8 in 5)
Three Worst Tracks
Charlotte oval (32.0 in 8)
Kentucky (31.6 in 5)
Atlanta (31.6 in 5)
Victories: None (Best finish = second, Bristol 2)
Top-fives: 3 (.083)
Top-10s: 7 (.194)
Top-15s: 13 (.361)
2019 Finishes at or above rank = 19 (52.7%)
2020 Driver Profiles:
19. Jimmie Johnson
20. Tyler Reddick
21. Chris Buescher
22. Cole Custer
23. Austin Dillon
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Ryan Preece
26. Ty Dillon
27. Bubba Wallace
28. Michael McDowell
29. Ross Chastain
30. Daniel Suarez