I love to imagine Roger Penske sitting down a few weeks ago, opening the illustrious NASCAR website Frontstretch on his browser, reading this article and saying, “Well, that settles it. Time to make a call.”
To be clear, much of the last paragraph is said in jest. Roger Penske does not read Frontstretch. Frontstretch is anything but illustrious. Five people probably read that article.
Hey, the outcome posited there happened, though. Today (July 15), Team Penske announced that Austin Cindric will drive the No. 2 next year in the NASCAR Cup Series, replacing a departing Brad Keselowski, who’s on his way to an ownership stake in Roush Fenway Racing.
But where does that leave Matt DiBenedetto, who currently drives for Wood Brothers Racing but was expected to be replaced by Cindric for 2022? Well, spoiler, he won’t be back in the No. 21, either. WBR paired Penske’s announcement with one of its own, that Harrison Burton will join Cindric as a Cup rookie in 2022 in its No. 21.
The news wasn’t exactly shocking. Despite an upturn in performance since the beginning of the 2021 season, DiBenedetto’s two top fives and five top 10s through 21 races just aren’t what WBR has been looking for, and the same is true for Penske, for whom WBR is a satellite organization. 2020 was generally stronger — three top fives and 11 top 10s plus a 14.8 average finish — but put the two together and it’s not quite up to the output of, say, Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 in 2017.
Plus, in Burton, WBR snags itself a budding star who’s excited in his two full-season runs in the Xfinity Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, even though he’s yet to find victory lane in 2021. Chances are Burton has more upside than DiBenedetto, who in two seasons in the No. 21 was unable to turn the team into the contender Burton has been in Xfinity. There’s a chance he falters, but it’s probably a better bet that he’ll excel than the odds that DiBenedetto improves.
So where’s DiBenedetto off to? Not the Xfinity Series, apparently, or even the Camping World Truck Series. DiBenedetto was clear the day the news was announced that he didn’t expect to fall back a series and that his skill level surpassed a demotion to a lower, albeit still national, level. And he’s probably right, though the same could likely be said for Justin Allgaier, whose stock remains formidable well over a decade into his NASCAR career.
I get the hesitation, though. Allgaier’s only gotten shots in Cup since moving back down to Xfinity in either subpar equipment or one-off substitution roles. There’s no definitive indication Daniel Hemric will ever make it back to Cup in a prime ride, either, especially during a winless Xfinity bout with JGR this year. Elliott Sadler never resurfaced in Cup. It’s a gamble that may not pay off.
Problem is, where else is there to go in Cup, and are the rides that are available any better than finding a prime Xfinity or Truck seat?
There remain many unknowns in terms of the makeup of the Cup full-timer roster in 2022, with a variety of cars currently housing drivers whose contracts are up after this year. But a lot of them seem they’ll keep the status quo, such as Austin Dillon in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 or Christopher Bell in JGR’s No. 20.
And the new teams showing up in 2021? Those aren’t set in stone yet by any means, but would DiBenedetto end up at any of them? The new 23XI Racing ride may be Kurt Busch‘s to lose. Trackhouse Racing Team’s second car isn’t yet figured out, but Ross Chastain or even Busch could end up there given the Chip Ganassi Racing connection (and chances are the incoming charter needs someone with at least some funding, something DiBenedetto’s generally been unable to accrue).
Kaulig Racing and GMS Racing are intriguing, but there are potential catches there. With GMS, there’s no guarantee just yet that the car will be running full time, and it’s not known if DiBenedetto would be willing to drop to part-time status. Kaulig has Justin Haley in the bag for one of its car, but the second is a little more up in the air. AJ Allmendinger? Definitely driving a Kaulig car part time, but it’s unclear if that’ll be the second Kaulig team that’s full time or a completely different part-time third outfit. Former? DiBenedetto could factor in as his part-time teammate. Latter? DiBenedetto could actually thrive there since Kaulig is oftentimes self-sponsored and could be willing to take a chance on the veteran as someone for rookie Haley to lean on.
But let’s say none of those work out. DiBenedetto’s best bet may be Front Row Motorsports.
And to be clear, this isn’t the FRM of yore. Michael McDowell in particular has helped flip the team into an organization more likely to challenge for top 10s than it’s ever been, let alone the No. 34’s season-opening Daytona 500 win in February. FRM isn’t the digs DiBenedetto’s used to at WBR, mind you, but joining the team isn’t the career death sentence it might have been 10 years ago.
FRM may have an opening or two. McDowell’s not yet confirmed to return but seems likely to come back given his spot in this year’s playoffs. Rookie Anthony Alfredo, on the other hand, hasn’t shown much in the No. 38, and with DiBenedetto a free agent, it’s difficult to see FRM passing on him in favor of Alfredo if there’s interest.
Otherwise, the pickings are slim. StarCom Racing, Rick Ware Racing and Live Fast Motorsports are all that remain sub-FRM, and none are likely the place DiBenedetto will want to end up. In fact, he’s probably more likely to rescind his no Xfinity or Truck statement than end up there, as it’d effectively put him back where he was a few years ago, driving for BK Racing and just trying to make a name for himself.
At this point, FRM seems like the most likely bet for him, that or an organization like Kaulig swiping him as a Haley teammate. Unless DiBenedetto is able to rustle up some full-season sponsorship, it doesn’t seem most higher- or even mid-tier teams would likely even be able to entertain the possibility of him in their stable.
Regardless of the outcome, the one thing that’s unlikely to happen is seeing DiBenedetto out of a national series ride entirely. Even with results that have never quite risen to meet the level of respect and adoration he has among some NASCAR fans, grabbing a top five here and there indicates he’s still got the talent to be an asset for certain teams in the garage.
It may just not be for the elite teams — or the satellites of those elites — anymore.