Perhaps the biggest news of the NASCAR silly season came Tuesday (Sept. 10) when Wood Brothers Racing announced Paul Menard would be retiring from full-time competition after the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. Replacing him in the No. 21 Ford in 2020 is Matt DiBenedetto.
There were Better Options
DiBenedetto’s 2019 season has really raised the bar on his career. Over the last two months, DiBenedetto has proved that given the right car with the right opportunity, he could perform. However, I believe this move may have been a bit premature.
When you look at DiBenedetto’s resume, it’s really not all that impressive. Now, I know he hasn’t been in winning equipment for most of his career, but he has never visited victory lane in his time in NASCAR. Winning is a tough thing to do, especially for someone who has never done it before.
Look at what Toyota thought of DiBenedetto. They will move Christopher Bell up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next season in favor of him. That’s because everywhere Bell has been, he has won. Since 2015, Bell has won 21 races in NASCAR.
Toyota has valued proven success over unproven talent. DiBenedetto’s 2019 success has come in the second part of the season when Toyota has been dominant. Could his string of good results be just because of that? Remember, he’s 22nd in the standings.
I also think there were some other options that may have been a bit better. Tyler Reddick has had a great year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The defending series champion has gone to victory lane four times this season. If the rumors are true, there’s no doubt that Reddick will be in the Cup Series next season – it’s just a matter of with which team. Reddick’s resume is much more impressive than DiBenedetto’s. Maybe the Wood Brothers Racing team should have looked his way when Menard announced his retirement.
Or how about Ross Chastain? He’s another driver who has a proven track record in NASCAR’s lower divisions. Chastain has taken mediocre rides in the NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series and made the playoffs with them. Where was Niece Motorsports a year ago? Now, they are the favorites to win the Truck Series championship, and a lot of that has to do with Chastain.
Yet, Chastain was passed up by the Wood Brothers. Chastain is not only a proven winner, but he has also proven that he can perform in less than stellar stuff.
In the end, DiBenedetto’s last three months is the reason why he got hired to drive the No. 21 car next season. I think he would have been better off going to the Xfinity Series and learning how to win and run for a championship. But I wish him the best of luck and hope he proves me wrong. -Clayton Caldwell
The collective NASCAR world gave a fist pump of approval on Tuesday when it was announced by the Wood Brothers that DiBenedetto will be taking over the iconic No. 21 Ford next season as Menard retires from full-time competition. For a driver who had won the hearts of much of the motorsports fan base since his near-win at Bristol Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, this is, on the surface, one of the best possible scenarios to happen to the driver who has grown with a small satellite Joe Gibbs Racing team that has positioned itself to be the next Furniture Row Racing-ish extension of the Gibbs operation.
With Bell getting the nod for 2020 as part of the Gibbs graduation formula, from the outside to many fans, it looked like Gibbs was going to burn DiBenedetto for the second time in his career through no fault of his own.
With the move to the No. 21 with Menard’s sponsorship, DiBenedetto was recommended to the Wood Brothers by Menard himself, who wishes to see this become a long-term arrangement and not just the current one-year contract that has become a constant for the 27 year-old DiBenedetto.
So what does this mean, besides Guido not being in a bread line next season?
Well, for Ford, it’s a positive as they have a solid younger driver back in the fold. It’s no secret Ford has done a fine job of squandering talent over recent years with the bulk of their roster being established, veteran drivers and not having much in the way of developing young drivers — something TRD has done a masterful job of cultivating over recent years.
Other than the coach’s kids duo of Cole Custer and Austin Cindric, there isn’t a very deep pool to pick from within the Blue Oval to fill seats in the coming years, as veteran drivers like Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman are all likely in the twilight of their careers.
With DiBenedetto, Ford has another driver who perpetually has had to prove himself and has proven himself to be one to not fold under pressure. The Woods are the iconic underdog who have served as the unofficial fourth Team Penske car since Ryan Blaney was moved to the No. 21 in 2015. Will the support continue now with a third driver in four years?
If there’s any potential downside here, it’s that if DiBenedetto doesn’t perform, it really will be a one-year affair and Cindric will end up in the No. 21 in 2021. That would leave DiBenedetto scrambling again to find something – anything – before his first season is even complete. Given Menard’s statements already that he hopes to forge something longterm for the Italian Stallion, it bodes well for the foreseeable future.
If he’s to be woven as deeply into the Ford fabric so as to drive the No. 21 with team principal Leonard Wood having been called “a brother” by Edsel Ford, one would think he’ll have a home for while now. Roush Fenway Racing has shown improvement with Newman making the playoffs this year, but has Ricky Stenhouse Jr. started to go a bit stale in the No. 17?
SHR isn’t exactly shored up for the next decade either, as three of the four seats there could be in play over the next couple of seasons. There’s opportunity abound now for DiBenedetto, who just a few short weeks ago looked like he was ready to go home, pick a rafter and etch “Burrito was Here” into it.
If anything, the likability quotient is off the charts, as both driver and team have proven to be “the good guys” over their careers and not ones to court controversy or spout off to the media when things go sideways. It’s a positive story that the sport can rally around but also highlights one of its continued challenges: without bringing a sponsor to a team rather than the team needing to convince a financier, a driver – regardless of talent – stands a slim shot of retaining a ride, let along landing one.
In this case, it’s the best of both worlds and proves that even in this day and age, nice guys still can finish first. If DiBenedetto does that next year, he’ll also secure win No. 100 for the oldest active team in the business. -Vito Pugliese