NASCAR

Matt DiBenedetto’s NASCAR Season Has Gotten Worse, Against All Odds

The expression about a guy having no luck at all if not for bad luck now officially applies to NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto. He faces impending unemployment, his season in the top American motorsports circuit is off to a lousy start, and now DiBenedetto has lost his crew chief.

Crew chief Greg Erwin will miss the Martinsville race

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Crew chief Greg Erwin will miss this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway for what his team terms “protocols.” Fox Sports racing reporter Bob Pockrass was first with the news that the decision was related to COVID-19, though it is not clear whether Erwin has tested positive.

Erwin has been a crew chief since 2005. All five of his victories as the man atop the box came with driver Greg Biffle from 2007-10. His first season with DiBenedetto was last year, when the driver posted a career-best 11 top-10 finishes and edged Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot.

Erwin joined Team Penske in 2013 and moved over to Wood Brothers, with which Penske has a strategic alliance, in 2018. With Erwin out for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, Team Penske engineer Jonathan Hassler will serve as Matt DiBenedetto’s crew chief for the No. 21 Ford Mustang.

Matt DiBenedetto’s season is off to a disappointing start

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Even though it’s presumably a short-term disruption, losing crew chief Greg Erwin for the Martinsville race is yet another blow for NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto. He sits 24th in points through seven races in 2021, and winning a race this season seems to be his best avenue into the season-ending playoff. However, DiBenedetto is 0-for-219 in his career on the big circuit and has only six career finishes in the top five.

Martinsville should have been a track he was looking forward to seeing this spring after finishing seventh and 10th in two races there last year. In addition, DiBenedetto, admittedly a fan of the short tracks, had some semblance of momentum before learning he would be without Erwin.

DiBenedetto got off to a dismal start by finishing 33rd and 37th in the Daytona races and then 28th at Homestead. However, He was 16th in Las Vegas and then in the top 15 the next three weekends heading into the Easter break. Continuing that progress on the Wood Brothers’ home track would be a morale boost for a team in need of good news.

Matt DiBenedetto is heading toward the unemployment line

Losing crew chief Greg Erwin for the Martinsville race is yet another blow to NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Losing crew chief Greg Erwin for the Martinsville race is yet another blow to NASCAR Cup Series driver Matt DiBenedetto. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

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Qualifying for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoff did nothing for Matt DiBenedetto’s career. While it’s true that Wood Brothers Racing picked up his option for the current season, they dampened the mood by saying that Penske Racing prospect Austin Cindric will take over the No. 21 Ford Mustang next year.

Though that was a disappointing development, DiBenedetto at least knew he had the entire 2021 season to impress prospective future employers and that he was coming off a credible season even if he was still winless.

But the terrible first month of the season has left DiBenedetto far back in the points standings. Winning a race this spring or summer is seemingly his best path to a return to the playoff. However, even that is iffy in a season in which the first seven victories have gone to seven different drivers. He may need more top-fives than he’s capable of delivering.

Still, DiBenedetto will only be 30 years old when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season, and it’s not as though Aric Almirola and Ryan Newman are doing much in the final year of their contracts. If DiBenedetto can build upon the slight momentum he showed before the Easter break, he could still land a ride in 2022.

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