The NASCAR world was shocked when veteran racer Paul Menard announced he’s retiring from full-time racing at the end of the 2019 season. More people were pleasantly surprised to see Matt DiBenedetto would replace him at Wood Brothers Racing in 2020.
While it’s a one-year deal only, Menard said his family’s company, Menard’s, wants to support DiBenedetto for the long haul. That’s a promising sign for a driver who doesn’t bring much sponsorship to the table.
Less than a month ago, rumors seemed like DiBenedetto would settle for a mediocre ride, taking a major step back from his current gig at Leavine Family Racing. It would’ve been a huge blow to NASCAR, essentially forcing a driver who’s performed time and time again to ride around the tail end of the field.
Now, DiBenedetto has secured one of the most elusive rides in the field. He’ll be competing in the legendary No. 21 Ford for a family that’s been around NASCAR for decades. His throwback style behind the wheel should be a perfect fit for a team proven to run in the top portion of the field week in and week out.
But this is it for DiBenedetto. There won’t be any chances after this. Menards will continue to back him if he does well. If not, the sponsorship goes away and so does the ride.
The pressure is something DiBenedetto is used to. He’s been racing all year knowing he might not return to the No. 95 team next year. By now, his story is well known, especially his run at Bristol Motor Speedway, finishing second days after being told he was out of a job.
The equipment he’s stepping into should be an improvement from LFR of 2019, with Menard averaging a 16.3 finish, compared to DiBenedetto’s 19.2. Oddly enough, this is the second-most consistent season Menard has driven since he made it to NASCAR’s premier series in 2007. The only time he’s had a better average finish was in 2012, averaging 15.5.
The seat is warmed up for DiBenedetto. He can do better than Menard or predecessor Ryan Blaney, who won race No. 99 for the team in 2017.
This is the first time in DiBenedetto’s career that he will have a team with full backing, with both sponsorship and a manufacturer. Over the last four years, Wood Brothers Racing has an average finish of 17.85. Anything better than that would be great for DiBenedetto.
Let’s remember, though, this is a guy who’s told his story over and over again. How many times can he tell it? Let’s see what he can finally do.
If he can win a race and make the playoffs, it would be an amazing achievement. Indeed, it is the expectation now that this guy has earned such a great opportunity. Anything less than a win and a playoff run in 2020 and DiBenedetto could be on the hot seat yet again.
This is his best and possibly his last chance to succeed in NASCAR.