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.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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Why even bring Austin Cindric into it? I think this MATTY D. hysteria is a odd thing. Matty D. has not won a damn thing since he raced in the K and N series, and he won 3 races in that series. Fact. Austin Cindric while certainly having his father work for Roger may have it’s perks. Austin’s “stats” exceed Matt’s. So why go there? Sound like the “privilege’ “bs thang again. Austin won in the Arca series. Won 2 races in the K and N series. Won 1 in the truck series, and 2 so far in the Xfinity series. Roger had nothing to do with those earlier wins in the younger series. It was Austin. Austin the younger driver has better stats over Matty, again why bring in the “nepotism” thang? If you ask me…Matty D. is damn lucky. Now will he deliver? My though is no.
How long should anybody with basically zero wins for years on end be considered the guy who did not get a shot, did not have money etc? Interesting question. “Flat out earned it”? Emotion, pure emotion. My opinion is because JGR and TOYS is such a group many love to hate. That amped the “love” factor! Interesting…..
I guess the hysteria mindset that if he is in “decent” equipment he will do well. Sure, how many other drivers we were told that would happen to? Too many. Hype. Results will tell. I love the Wood Brothers Team and wish them nothing but the best.
Anyhoo, you know about opinions…and aholes..we all have em!
TIME WILL TELL! STOP WITH THE SAINT MATTY D. BS, in the meantime!!!!!!!!! PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!
kb – maybe these writers have become obsessed with Matt D cause they know what a crock the playoff stuff is.
i think the Matt D coverage is a result of his emotional post-race interview a few weeks ago. this sport needs a feel good. all the coverage kinds of reminds me of when logano came into cup.
if johnson wins this week, get ready for that unending coverage.
Austin Cindric is an entitled little crash magnet who couldn’t drive cattle to water. His dad is a pompous arrogant ass who isn’t well liked. Sounds like the perfect match for you loud mouth.
Yes PLEASE!!!!! go read and comment on another article. Matt has done more in less equipment and was noticed years ago by Tony Stewart for just that. He has emotion and is highly respected on and off the track. Drivers respect him, Fans respect him and admire him. I have nothing to say about Cindric because it isn’t my place to judge anyone who gets a break weather its family or what ever form of privilege they have. Good for them if they can do something with it. Menards chose Matt and he is a good fit as a spokes person for that company. I believe Matt will do well, so does Menards, the Wood Brothers and Probably Penske. I am happy for Matt, want him to be successful and to keep the Menards sponsorship for many years to come.
Fans were won over years ago when Matt finished sixth at Bristol in last place equipment. Since then his results have only gotten better. Ironically, Matt would have won Daytona this year had Menard not turned him.
I have a sentimental attachment to the Wood Brothers & hope to see them succeed.
I’m afraid the same thing will happen to Matt next year that happened to him this year at LFR. He’ll get bumped out next year at Wood Brothers for an up and comer even thought he’ll have a great year
Maybe Matt will do well in the Wood Brothers car and maybe he won’t but at least he will get a chance.
BTW, how many races has the 21 car won in the last 20 years? I’m guessing not more than 5 if that (but I am too lazy to look it up). My point is, that whether Matt does well or not will most likely not be measured by wins but by top 5s and top 10s and finals season standings. Let’s remember that this is a step up for Matt but still not a top tiered team that’s expected to win and qualify for the chase. Let’s see if he at least finishes higher in the standings than Menard did in the same car the last three years.
FYI: Year end points standings – 2016 Blaney 20th, 2017 Menard 27th, 2018 Menard 19th, 2019 Menard 19th (so far).
Jimmie got his ride because Jeff Gordon backed him. When Jeff talks, Mr. H listens, even then.
EQual opportunity trolls here I see.