Every year, NASCAR’s silly season highlights a handful of drivers with uncertain futures. In many cases, the headlines are fully expected, either because the team or driver has made an announcement early in the season pertaining to retirement or the end of a contract, or because there have been ever-increasing hints, mutterings, and rumours throughout the season. But some of the announcements truly come as a shock.
Such was the case in mid-August when driver Matt DiBenedetto received word that Leavine Family Racing did not intend to renew his contract for 2020 so he would no longer pilot the #95 ProCore Toyota. Given the racing community’s love of Matty D, the news of his unstable future was hard to digest. What made it even more difficult to swallow was his outstanding performance just a few days later at Bristol Motor Speedway. During driver introductions, he came out wearing a Rocky Balboa cape and boxing gloves, letting fans know he planned to fight for a ride. And fight he did, as he made his way to the front and led 93 laps of the race while attempting to fend off hard-charging Denny Hamlin. Although Hamlin overtook him with 7 laps to go and went on to win Bristol, it was a personal win for DiBenedetto who had driven the wheels off the car to prove himself. The fact that he came so close caused him to choke up during post-race interviews, especially since he felt a win would have been the best way to secure a new ride for next year.
The crowd went wild in a massive show of support for the jovial driver, and social media lit up as fans and industry insiders alike all sang DiBenedetto’s praises and called for a team to pick him up. Acknowledging the heartbreak over the loss, Hamlin assured Matty D his career would flourish. Certainly, Hamlin wasn’t wrong.
In a highly unexpected move today, driver Paul Menard announced the end of this season will mark his retirement from full time racing in the Cup Series, leaving the #21 Wood Brothers Ford without a driver for 2020. So, in a whirlwind move that shocked and delighted fans, a news conference was held to declare that Matt DiBenedetto would take over.
As it turns out, the turnover wasn’t quite as fast as everyone might have thought. Menard had been quietly considering his retirement for a little while and had been advocating for DiBenedetto to take his place. Matt’s performance at Bristol helped solidify confidence in DiBenedetto and, after that, the pieces of the puzzle came together quickly.
Given the Wood Brothers alliance with Penske Racing, the #21 Ford is always fast and always in contention for a win. It’s an iconic car that has rarely changed paint schemes and has been driven by some of the most well-known drivers in the Cup Series, including Neil Bonnett, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader, Bill Elliott, and most recently, Ryan Blaney. Recognizing that he is in good company, DiBenedetto is on cloud nine today and he took to social media several times to express his heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity.
“Shoot, it’s been a dream of mine to be able to drive for one of the almost legendary teams in NASCAR is going to be unbelievable,” said DiBenedetto. “It’s been surreal. It’s been amazing to have the opportunity this year driving for LFR to showcase what we can do and to elevate me and give me the opportunity to come over here and drive for the Wood Brothers, so it’s going to be an incredible opportunity.”
And team president Eddie Wood added, “He was the first choice, the only choice and that’s just the way it turned out. I think it was just meant to be.”
For DiBenedetto, although the news is the best he could hope for, it doesn’t mean the pressure is off. The contract with the Wood Brothers is only for one year, which means he will need to prove himself before he can consider long term stability. But given his recent accomplishments of 4 top ten finishes, everyone feels confident this is a union that will work well.
“This is the best opportunity of my life,” said DiBenedetto today, “and I think we can altogether build something great to come for many years. That’s definitely the goal.”