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2-Headed Monster: Was Signing Matt DiBenedetto the Right Move for the Wood Brothers?

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.

Many were happy for DiBenedetto, but was it the right move for the Wood Brothers? Frontstretch writers Clayton Caldwell and Vito Pugliese debate.

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

Rocky’s Reward

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

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About Clayton Caldwell

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Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.

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25 comments

  1. Avatar

    What rock has this guy been hiding under? Oh, yeah, slamming someone the calibre of the Woods and Matt is just downright shameful. You can sure tell this guy doesn’t know much about Nascar. Yes, Menard’s had a lot to do with this pairing. Anyone who knows much about Nascar, also knows that sponsorship is a huge key element to the success of any team and driver. Menard could have put his millions anywhere. Teams are begging for sponsors! But, they chose The Wood Brothers and Mattie D. No one can accurately predict if Matt will win races or not. BUT I would bet the farm HE WILL!

  2. Avatar

    A lot of stupid comments who don’t realize the point of these articles is to pick apart the decision and show what could go wrong vs what could go right. Anyone here ever take a debate class in school?

  3. Avatar

    Why’d the Woods Brothers sign Guido over the Xfinity hot shots? One word – Menard’s.

  4. Avatar

    I’m actually shocked someone who is fortunate enough to make a living covering sports would write such an ignorant article. Matt has proven he can run for wins in the premier series. His summer has been extremely consistent and he has proven he is able to compete against the best in the business. Time and time again we have seen lower level stars fail to attain the same level of success in Cup; Ricky Stenhouse (2 time Xfinity Champion) and Austin Dillon (2012 Xfinity Rookie of the Year) just to name a few. To suggest Austin Cindric, who fails to compete at even the same levels week in and week out for wins in xfinity may have been a better option is ridiculous. No disrespect to Tyler Reddick or Cole Custer as I humbly think they possess a huge amount of potential but they haven’t made it to the level nor competed like Matt has. The Wood Brothers made a very rational decision hiring Matt. Terrible story.

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      Amen, all the guys he’s talking about are rich kids who buy the best equipment to get there. How can a jersey boy possibly know NASCAR

  5. Avatar

    In my view it is the Wood Brothers who are thrilled to have a driver of Matt’s caliber, both on and off the track. Wood Brothers as iconic a team as they are, have won exactly what, 3 races since 2011, and all with young unproven guys . Menard was right in recommending Matt for the ride. Something to build on indeed for the long term, and get them consistently running upfront again. This guy always pushed the underfunded rides he had beyond their ability and almost always brought it back to the garage in one piece. I’m not sure why all the Monday morning quarterbacking in this article is even relvant. Wood Brothers had their pick with sponsor and Ford support . They made their choice and if you listened to Eddie Wood Tuesday night on MRN, they are thrilled to have Matt. Next year at this time when he is in the Chase with a couple of wins under his belt and a couple of these young hot shots who were so good in lower divisions prove to absolutely suck in a cup ride , let’s see what the nay sayers say then. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

  6. Avatar

    Let’s not forget that Tyler Reddick is still under contract with RCR and Childress is still scrambling to put a Cup deal together so he can run Tyler next season. A similar situation may exist with Ross Chastain, where Chip Ganassi probably has first right of refusal for his services. Negotiations with Kurt Busch & Monster are still on-going and no renewal contract for 2020 has been announced, yet. Ganassi has to keep his options open…

    Guido was the best, free agent driver available to the Wood’s. Plus, Paul Menard’s sponsorship money gave him license to insist that the Wood Bros. hire Guido.

  7. Avatar

    Clayton better stay in New Jersey and write about something Jersey boys know. Chubby girls and gold neck chains.

    • Avatar

      No kidding! I was thinking the same thing. Matt may not have won in the big three series yet, but he will. Next season he definitely will. I still think he’s going to get one in the 95 before this season is finished. Matt’s a great driver. I raced back with him at Hickory Speedway, and I will assure Mr Caldwell, that Matt DiBenedetto knows how to win races. I would think that fellow drivers that currently race with him now would have credibile opinions, and we all heard what Denny said about him, in his winner interview at Bristol. This is a great move, by the Wood Brothers and Penske, make no mistake. And its a great move for Matt as well. Pay attention, and stay tuned, Caldwell.

  8. Avatar

    I think it was a good move by Wood Bros – but Ross Chastain, Brett Moffett and Tyler Reddick all need Cup rides. I also think SHR will need to revamp the line-up besides Harvick maybe as early as 2020 (at least one seat anyway). I think a big name from Chevy should move over to Ford (since there are no Toyota seats available for at least a year). Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott should be given a hard look by Ford – as they are be squandered in their current teams. Ganassi likes Chastain – so he gets the 42. Reddick probably gets the 8 car next year. Moffett…..don’t see a ride right now – maybe the 47. Custer will also be in an SHR car eventually.

  9. Avatar

    I would love to see this article reposted at the end of the 2020 season. If so, you made need to look for a couple of sides to go with that big serving of crow. Will that be Original or Extra Crispy????

  10. Avatar

    This article seems like it was written because you didn’t know what else to write about. Stupid, pointless drivel.

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      Totally. The first guy says DiBenedetto was mostly in junk cars, then turns around and says Bell’s the king because he’s got 21 wins, failing of course to mention that Bell’s wins all came in the best equipment available. Had DiBenedetto been in that kind of quality equipment I have no doubt he would have many many wins as well. Even LFR doesn’t get current Gibbs cars, they get the last iteration before current and that’s been publicly confirmed by those in the know.

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      pointless drivel is a Nascar writer’s stock in trade

  11. Avatar

    good gracious, give the guy a chance. i guess this isn’t an option in today’s cut throat world of instant results.

    • Avatar

      Well said. Lots of today’s fans and writers don’t know that it used to work that way. Silly season used to be about which established driver was going to which established team, not which 19-year-old you never heard of was expected to win a lower series title or completely vanish after the next season. Thirty years ago people would’ve been interested to see how DiBenedetto would do with a stronger team. Today, they assume that he must suck because he wasn’t already driving for Hendrick, Gibbs, Stewart or Penske.

  12. Avatar

    This was absolutely the right move. They get a veteran who has proven to not tear up equipment, can compete for wins in the cup series verse an unproven Xfinity driver who almost guaranteed will tear up equipment. It is tough on a smaller team to provided fast race cars especially if the cars they have keep getting torn up.

    Ross Chastain? Look he is a feel good story in the Truck Series and does good in the Busch series given his equipment but here is my take. He has the talent of an Elliot Sadler and can make a living racing in those lower series, he is only 2 years younger than Matt D (not exactly a large age gap)? Ross has 60 cup starts and I can tell you I really don’t remember any of them with 59 coming in the last 2 years ( I am not counting his 61st start where he withdrew from the race, yes I looked this up and am actually surprised he has this many starts). Him and Matt have both raced in underfunded equipment with Matt edging out Ross with with a slightly higher avg finish over their respective careers and really have the same amount of experience racing in the top series as I am pretty sure Matt has not raced in the trucks and has spent little time in the xfinity series.

  13. Avatar

    Woods Brothers hired…..

    Dale Jarrett who had never won a race.

    Michael Waltrip who had never won a race.

    Ryan Blaney who had never won a race.

    I’m quite sure that there are others that have slipped my mind.

    Amazing how many peop0le want to tear this kid down now that he has secured a decent ride.

  14. Avatar

    Paul Menard – 461 starts, one win, twenty top fives, 336 laps led. What a total waste of manpower, resources and money. Good bye!!!

    • Avatar

      He was average, brought money to a team, and didn’t tear up a lot of race cars. Wouldn’t call it a waste.

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      Best thing he ever did was support Matt as his replacement. I have suddenly found respect for Menard as a result.

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      I find that comment about Paul Menard very sad. Although he wasn’t one of the top drivers, year in and year out, he at least made it and had a decent career opposed to some. I wasn’t a following fan of his, but what he did for Matt D. showed what a class act and gentleman he is. He just let a good, but struggling driver, have a shot with a team he obviously cares a great deal about. It’s apparent he will have some involvement with the team. I applaud the Wood Brothers for once again giving someone with a great deal of potential a shot. With this being a decently funded and satellite team of Penske, I think he really gets a shot here to show what he has. Ryan Blaney was able to do a very good job with that team and I believe you will see very similar, if not better results. You never know, this could turn into a Furniture Row Racing outcome without the team closure.
      I haven’t been a real fan of a driver since my home state driver of Ricky Craven was racing, but Matt D. and his perseverance have really brought that hard core thrill back. Thanks to this signing I now have a team I can start buying some gear for again.

      • Avatar

        Good luck finding any (gear). I looked a few weeks ago and there wasn’t much out there. Maybe that will change now that he’s with the 21.