Who did Wood Brothers Racing hire?
After a hint from Door Bumper Clear earlier in the week, it was made official July 15 that in 2022, Austin Cindric will take over the No. 2 for Team Penske in the NASCAR Cup Series while Harrison Burton will take over the venerable No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.
Plans for the two teams changed earlier this season behind the scenes, when Brad Keselowski declined to extend his contract with Penske after team owner Roger Penske declined to offer Keselowski part of the team as a co-owner. Cindric, who was originally set for the No. 21, was instead moved over to the No. 2. The Wood Brothers/Penske declined to re-sign Matt DiBenedetto and instead went with a driver sponsored by Dex Imaging, which has also served as a longtime sponsor of Penske.
Harrison Burton, son of Jeff Burton, nephew of Ward Burton and cousin of Jeb Burton, will be the youngest full-time driver in the history of the No. 21 at age 21 and will be overall the third-youngest driver in the team’s Cup history, behind Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne.
I don’t mind the idea of getting rid of DiBenedetto, as ultimately the Californian has shown his ceiling. Short of getting a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, this was the best chance he was ever going to get in Cup. Not only that, but I’d argue he got a second season out of the deal, because in all likelihood Cindric was ready to move up after he started reliably winning on ovals midway through last year.
Getting Burton seems like quite a stretch, though. He had a very short career in the Camping World Truck Series and was not impressive whatsoever down there, then he moved up to NXS competition and won four races but also finished eighth in points last year. If he had come out strong this year in NXS, he’d be fine, but he hasn’t won this year and is being routinely outrun by teammates Daniel Hemric, whose Cup year was a disaster, and Ty Gibbs, who is 18.
The argument as to why now for Burton by Eddie Wood is that the new car was the optimal time to bring up a rookie driver in Cup. That’s a decent argument for an experienced driver in other disciplines, but it’s not great for somebody with comparatively little experience racing. Especially considering that most of Burton’s NXS career has been contested with no practice or qualifying, which is a really big help for younger drivers to learn things.
Assuming he were available, I would have signed Justin Allgaier to a one-year show-me contract. Allgaier has had exactly one Cup start in his career with good equipment, and that ended on the first pit stop because Brennan Poole Brennan Poole’d at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. None of the other Penske drivers are leaving soon, with Joey Logano now the oldest at 31. Going for the future now, especially considering Toyota was a couple of years away from finding space for Burton at the Cup level, seems like a more risky proposition.
What’s next for Matt DiBenedetto?
There are a few options available for DiBenedetto.
The most lucrative spots he could land at, Trackhouse Racing Team and 23XI Racing, seem like they will go to some combination of Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain. Anthony Alfredo has been extremely unimpressive at Front Row Motorsports, and it would not be a surprise if they were looking for a driver that could fill its niche.
As far as the new teams go, Kaulig Racing may seem pretty crowded right now but Chris Rice would be the type to get him in a good car at Bristol Motor Speedway next year. GMS Racing has not announced anything about its Cup team besides the fact that it will exist next year. The Money Team Racing may or may not exist.
Although DiBenedetto has made it clear he believes himself to be a Cup driver, it might be a smart idea to retreat down to NXS or even Trucks next season. John Hunter Nemechek has reinvented himself with a dominant display for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Given DiBenedetto’s history with Toyota, it’s possible Kyle Busch would entertain replacing a former Cup driver with another former Cup driver with Nemechek takes Burton’s NXS ride next season.
What will happen in NXS silly season?
Roger Penske, meanwhile, all but confirmed in a press conference later that day that Keselowski will be joining Roush Fenway Racing as a co-owner.
Probably now the worst kept secret in all of racing, Keselowski going to Roush has been all but confirmed for upward of a month now. But one thing to watch this coming offseason is what Keselowski and Penske do in NXS competition.
When Keselowski first came onboard at Penske, one of the first priorities for him was to strengthen the team’s NXS program. The Penske NXS program pre-Keselowski was mainly just a part-time team for the Penske Cup drivers to goof off in when they wanted to. The No. 22 Ford, beginning in 2010, has been an absolute powerhouse in the years since, and it, along with the occasional No. 12, have helped develop a number of Penske employees that are now in Cup — not just Cindric and Ryan Blaney, but also all three Cup crew chiefs, who all began their Penske tenures in house in the NXS program.
Meanwhile, RFR had a successful tenure in the series, which served as the backbone to its driver development program years before Toyota revolutionized the industry with its successful execution of the concept. In 2018, the team fielded two NXS cars, and both were absolutely miserable; the No. 60 had a gaggle of drivers crashing every week, while Ryan Reed couldn’t even finish in the top 10 in points. Roush closed down both teams, although the No. 60 is currently reserved by the team if it were to come back.
Penske could well be scaling back from its operations in NXS, while it seems fair to assume the No. 60 will be back in some form once Keselowski takes over partial ownership of the team. Who the driver could be, considering Ford really doesn’t have anybody ready to move up to that series, will be very interesting to watch.
Who will win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway?
This weekend marks the final NASCAR weekend for a while, as all three series take a rest while NBC Sports is busy broadcasting the Summer Olympics.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a very old school-style racetrack. And not a 1970s or 1980s style, I’m thinking 1950s with how flat the oval is. There have been some quietly good finishes in recent years at the track, and with how short the Cup race is, expect pit strategy to be the main ingredient as to who will end up winning this race.
Christopher Bell should be able to cruise to his third straight NXS win at the track, but the Cup event should be interesting. Ford has won three straight races at New Hampshire, but Ford also has not won a Cup race this season outside of the superspeedways and a dirt track. With how much of a step forward Toyota took at Atlanta Motor Speedway, perhaps Bell could end up sweeping the weekend.