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Matt DiBenedetto: New crew chief has made No. 21 team ‘click’

An up-and-down first half of the season led to a crew chief change for Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team in early June.

Replacing Greg Erwin after the Sonoma race was Team Penske engineer Jonathan Hassler. And since then, DiBenedetto says, the No. 21 team’s performance has finally stabilized.

Just in time, too.

With five regular season races to go, DiBenedetto is 138 points behind 16th-place Tyler Reddick for the final Cup playoff spot.

Last year, DiBenedetto claimed that final playoff spot on points. This year, he’ll more than likely have to win - something he’s never done at the Cup level - to get in.

But with Hassler at the helm, DiBenedetto is believing again that he and his team can get the job done.

“Greg Erwin - I was super appreciative for him and what he’s done for the Wood Brothers for years, but our team wasn’t clicking and I felt it,” DiBenedetto said Tuesday in a media teleconference.

“To be honest with you ... I didn’t feel like we were gonna win. We were not a winning team. The dynamic wasn’t there. We weren’t meshing. It’s all about relationships and it just wasn’t there, and then we make this change, which is so hard.

“You empathize with people. I care about people, but, at the end of the day, I have to do my job and we all worked hard, talked and made this change to have Jonathan Hassler on the box ... Then it’s like, boom, we click and we’re rocking and rolling and running up front, leading laps, top 10s, contending and we’re just getting better and better, and we’re just getting started together.”

DiBenedetto has posted back-to-back top-10 finishes - 10th at Road America, ninth last week at Atlanta. He hadn’t done that since a three-race stretch in April and early May, where he finished ninth at Richmond, fifth in a near-miss at Talladega, and a season-best fourth at Kansas.

He’ll have a chance for three in a row again Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where’s he ran well recently.

DiBenedetto finished fifth at New Hampshire in 2019 for the former Leavine Family Racing. Last year, he finished sixth there in his first season for the Wood Brothers.

Facing a win-or-bust scenario, DiBenedetto says he’s looking most forward to the ‘Magic Mile’ as an opportunity to break through.

But he also recognizes his team’s progress on road courses and strength on superspeedways. The final run to the postseason includes two road courses (Watkins Glen, Indianapolis) and Daytona as the regular season finale.

“Our car seems to be very strong at tracks like (New Hampshire),” he said. “The low downforce races are awesome. I love them personally, more than any of the others. They’re a blast to drive, so it all kind of checks the boxes.

“But we also have improved our road course cars and we showed that at Road America, so we’ve gotten better there and our superspeedways are great. So, really, we have excellent opportunities coming up, but if I’m circling one that I’m most excited about, it’s this weekend.”

Along with trying to return to the playoffs, DiBenedetto is also trying to shore up his plans for next season. Austin Cindric is set to move up from the Xfinity Series and into the No. 21 Ford.

On Tuesday, DiBenedetto said there were no updates on that front from Team Penske, which shares an alliance with the Wood Brothers. But he was optimistic that his team’s recent uptick can only work in his favor.

“The cool part is that we are showing that we have made good efforts to make our 21 team better and that we’re here to win, and the proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We’re now performing, running up front, leading laps. We’ve turned this whole program around.

“It’s clicking and all these things, so that does nothing but just help my situation moving forward, showing that we have the ability to go out there and contend for wins.”