The collective hearts of the NASCAR world are rejoicing with the surprise announcement that Matt DiBenedetto will be pegged to take over the famed No.21 ride at Wood Brothers Racing.
In a press release issued by the team, Wood Brothers Racing detailed current driver, 39 year old Paul Menard's intention to “transition from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) racing after the 2019 season.”
Menard currently sits in 19th place in the MENCS standings, three spots below the playoff cutline. His stunning decision to walk away from the sport full-time, opened the door for the team to bring in the 28 year old fan-favorite DiBenedetto.
A true Cinderella story, DiBenedetto’s 22nd place in the standings isn’t representative of the breakout season he has achieved in 2019. Arguably one of the most talked-about drivers of the series, his outspoken personality and highly publicized, yet amicable, split with Leavine Family Racing has put a lot of fans in his corner.
In an era where drivers inherit rides from top teams at ages as young as 19, it has become increasingly more rare to find an athlete with no family history in NASCAR’s highest level working their way up from backmarker teams.
Well, that’s exactly what DiBenedetto has done.
After two dismal years at BK Racing from 2015-2016 in which he carried an average finish of 31.0, DiBenedetto moved on to become the first full-time driver in Go Fas Racing’s nubile history for the 2017 season. Still a relative unknown following his second full season with Go Fas Racing in 2018, DiBenedetto made the bold decision to walk away from a secured spot with the team to find a ride with a more successful organization.
This landed him with Leavine Family Racing and their newly minted technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, inheriting the No.95 Toyota from former playoff contender Kasey Kahne following his retirement. His climb up the ladder of the sport and willingness to bet on himself has not gone unnoticed by fans. Channeling the blue-collar everyman superstars of the past, DiBenedetto has become one of the most popular faces in the sport.
Oh, and don’t forget about the results.
He proved his gut-wrenching, yet impressive second-place performance at Bristol has not been a fluke, with the California native showing promise by accumulating 6 top-tens on the season, even leading 49 laps at the Daytona 500 before being collected in a wreck within its closing laps. His 19.2 average finish in 2019 is an improvement from the teams 22.0 average with Kahne and Regan Smith splitting time behind the wheel in 2018.
Following Kahne’s career-ending injury and subsequent replacement by Smith in 2018, Leavine Family Racing only racked up one top-ten and one top-five, paling in comparison to DiBenedetto's six top-tens and three top-fives through only 26 races in 2019.
However, despite bringing the team to new heights, the decision was made to replace him for the upcoming season with current Xfinity Series championship leader Christopher Bell. With the team now securing funding from Toyota, coupled with their alliance with Joe Gibbs has helped increase performance while also opening the door to more outside influence on personnel decisions.
The Joe Gibbs Racing stable is full for the 2020 season following the extension of Erik Jones, yet the team believes that 24 year old Bell has a bright future with the organization. Much like Jones tenure with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, Joe Gibbs Racing is aiming to use the alliance to allow Bell to acclimate to MENCS competition until a spot opens up in its four-car lineup.
In spite of losing his ride with Leavine Family Racing, it’s clear that success seems to follow DiBenedetto. Several NASCAR veterans have taken notice of his meteoric rise this season. In fact, it may have even landed him his ride with Wood Brothers Racing, once of the most storied franchises in the history of the sport.
In a Twitter Q&A, the team admitted they looked to their current veteran wheelman for advice regarding filling his position.
“We asked Paul [Menard] who to get. Paul said Matt. So he was the obvious and only choice.”
The team kept the decision under wraps until it was officially finalized. According to the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account, DiBenedetto's Bristol performance opened the eyes of the organization and their Team Penske affiliates, cementing that the 28 year old was right for the job.
DiBenedetto has been vocal about his struggles with being let go from Leavine Family Racing, but his new 2020 situation looks to capitalize on the momentum of his breakthrough 2019 campaign. “I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020,” said DiBenedetto in the team’s press release.
“The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”