It’s safe to say that Matt DiBenedetto being named as Paul Menard’s successor at Wood Brothers Racing will go down as one of the most popular moves during Silly Season 2019. DiBenedetto has grown a loyal following in his five seasons as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series underdog, and he’s having a solid year with Leavine Family Racing, a team that is in just its fourth year as a full-time series competitor.
And he’s having not only the best season of his career, but the best of LFR’s tenure as well, and that includes last year with Cup veteran Kasey Kahne behind the wheel for 25 races. A new alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has brought better cars, and DiBenedetto has brought steady improvement from the driver’s seat. When he was dismissed as driver for 2020 last month, there was backlash—probably more than the No. 95 team or JGR expected.
So, when it was announced earlier this week that DiBenedetto would replace a retiring Menard in the No. 21 next season on a one-year deal, it went down like a greased pig on a slip ‘n’ slide.
But why are fans so high on a driver who’s never won a Cup race? The highest NASCAR series DiBenedetto has won in is the K&N Pro Series East, a regional feeder series. His best career Cup finish is second at Bristol Motor Speedway last month, when Denny Hamlin’s pass for the win with just a handful of laps left was so unpopular that even Hamlin apologized for having to do it.
The answer is simple: he flat out earned it.
For those unfamiliar with his pre-Cup background, DiBenedetto raced as a teenager at local short tracks. He looked like the real deal even then and got a development deal with JGR as a result, but that was before Toyota was scooping up development prospects left and right and DiBenedetto was never given the consideration that drivers like Erik Jones or Christopher Bell did a few years later.
So he took whatever he could get, figuring that racing something was better than racing nothing. That’s a gamble; drivers who take lower-tier Cup rides often never advance to better rides; too often they get labeled as damaged goods because the results aren’t there. Lack of money doesn’t equal lack of talent, but tell that to a team with money to burn when an available driver is tearing up the Xfinity or Gander Outdoors Truck series. The talented young driver in the underfunded Cup ride is so very often overlooked.
But not this time.
And that feels good to fans in a day when money often trumps talent when it comes to landing a seat in a national series. DiBenedetto has talent and has shown that from a very young age, but he had neither a manufacturer or sponsor behind him to foot the bills. And because he didn’t have those things, he didn’t get the big offers.
So he took those underfunded rides and everywhere he went, he helped teams improve. He’s posted top-10 finishes for BK Racing, Go FAS Racing and LFR, teams that didn’t often see those results. No, it wasn’t a lot of them, because this isn’t a movie where the tiny team with no money or manufacturer backing miraculously wins the championship and someone gets a girl and the crusty crew chief turns out to be Santa Claus. This is real life, and talent alone isn’t enough to make silk purses out of sow’s ears.
Or it wasn’t until now. With Austin Cindric, the son of a Team Penske executive, waiting in the wings, Penske could have levered him into the No. 21, with whom they share a strong technical alliance. But with the blessing of sponsor Menards, DiBenedetto has at least one year in the best seat he’s ever had.
It’s the kind of story you don’t hear as much in NASCAR’s upper echelons any more: a driver shows up with little more than a helmet and a dream and proves himself worthy of competing with a good team. All too often the story now is one of money, privilege and nepotism, with talented drivers being overlooked time and again because they can’t pay for the seat, and the owner or the sponsor won’t take a chance on talent alone.
More often these days, it’s stories more like Menard’s that win the rides. Menard gets treated a little unfairly in this pool; he’s a solid journeyman driver with a Cup win and some solid, if unspectacular, seasons. He doesn’t wreck a lot of cars and he gets decent finishes. It’s just, well, the question of whether he’d have been good enough without the family money.
If it had been about who could bring the most money to the table all along, the history of the sport would probably look very different. Dale Earnhardt didn’t bring money or sponsors when he came on the scene as a brash youngster. A generation later, neither did Jimmie Johnson, who did have Chevrolet behind him, but that backing didn’t come from any money or connections either, but from making an impression with the way he raced. While the competition they faced might not have missed them, the sport would have missed talent of their caliber. And they’re just two of dozens. Dozens of dozens more never make it past the local level because they don’t have funding.
DiBenedetto’s story resonates because it’s old school. It’s made that much better by the fact that as a team, Wood Brothers Racing is as old school as it gets. There’s a sense that this is how it used to be, and how it’s supposed to be.
There is nothing wrong with drivers getting noticed however they can. It’s not anyone’s fault if they’re born with a last name that’s well known in the sport or if they’re born into the kind of money that can buy fast cars from day one. But when a driver with none of that comes along and makes it anyway, well, that just feels right. If someone asks why DiBenedetto, a driver who still has a lot to prove, got the opportunity of his life, it’s simply because he earned it.
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