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Each year, there seems to be one or two drivers who open some eyes. Maybe it's because not much was expected from them prior to the season, maybe it's because they make headlines, maybe it's somewhere in between. Here are a couple of drivers who may take the leap from somewhere around "average" driver to Victory Lane and superstardom.
2. Matt DiBenedetto, No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
It's not often that a winless Cup driver finishes top five in Most Popular Driver voting, but it's also not often that someone like Matt DiBenedetto comes along.
As cliche as it is, he's regarded as the most genuine guy in the garage. He doesn't come from money, doesn't bring sponsorship, hasn't gotten a "good" opportunity to showcase his driving talent in race-winning equipment, but still rakes in fan support like nobody else.
Now, running the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers, he has that equipment. WBR has a technical alliance with Team Penske, essentially putting DiBenedetto in a Penske car and having access to information his quasi teammates Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney have.
Last season's runner-up finish at Bristol, and the reaction from the fans and DiBenedetto following his heartbreak of coming oh-so-close in a B-tier team pretty much said it all.
This was a moment that I won't forget in my career. I was trying myself not to get emotional the entire time.
The support shown from the entire @BMSupdates crowd for @mattdracing was incredible. This is why I love this sport.#NASCAR pic.twitter.com/J3496QiYBt
— Hannah Newhouse (@HannahNewhouse) August 18, 2019
To put DiBenedetto in the playoff field in 2020 wouldn't be a stretch at all. Heck, he could even win a race and give the team their 100th win as an organization. If he delivers on either of those, you could see Guido's confidence and popularity skyrocket into a new stratosphere.
1. William Byron, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Although well-told, William Byron's story and rise through the NASCAR ranks is one of a kind. The now 21-year-old began racing on a computer simulation called iRacing, now popular in the racing world and played by hundreds of thousands of people.
"How did he go from playing a video game to racing for one of the most prestigious teams in motorsports?" Well, not so fast. iRacing isn't a video game: it's the most realistic racing simulator available to the general public. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, and several other drivers, past, present and future, regularly compete on the forum.
Byron scored five top fives and 13 top 10 finishes last season, and seemed to get better as the season went along. Meshing with seven-time championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus sure took some time, but once things began to turn a corner, the results showed.
He wound up 11th in the standings and short of Victory Lane, but Byron, given his rapid rise, should be a winner in the Cup Series this season. HMS and Chevrolet have been bullish on the new Camaro that'll debut on track, and with another year of Cup racing under his belt, 2020 may be the year William Byron puts himself into the conversation as the best driver at Hendrick.
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