Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – STUART, VA – In what many consider a surprise announcement only five days before NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series Playoffs begin in Las Vegas, one of the sport’s most iconic teams, Wood Brothers Racing, announced Tuesday that driver Paul Menard will be stepping out of the driver’s seat and Matt DiBenedetto will replace him in the famed No. 21 Ford beginning in the 2020 season.
Wood Brothers team principles conceded in a conference call with the national media Tuesday that the team didn’t necessarily intend to make the news a “surprise” turn of events. Menard said he had been considering stepping out of a fulltime driving role for months. Ultimately, the father of two young children decided, “I love my family more.”
According to those involved, Menard informed the Wood Brothers team of his intentions to stop racing fulltime three weeks ago and then immediately suggested that DiBenedetto, who currently drives the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing, would be a good driver to take over the No. 21 Ford for them. The Wood Brothers car is in a technical alliance with Team Penske, and Penske team principals were also involved in securing the deal with DiBenedetto.
The whole process from Menard telling the team he wanted to leave the fulltime ride to the team securing DiBenedetto took only about three weeks, they said.
“First thing out of Paul’s mouth was ‘Get Matt,’” team owner Eddie Wood acknowledged. “So right away, we started a conversation with Matt and that’s the only direction we went. And I’d like to thank Paul for putting us in that direction.”
“It all came together really quick and it’s amazing how fast things turn,’’ DiBenedetto said, acknowledging the uncertainty about his future had created some tough emotional moments for him and his family.
“My whole path and career has been pretty unorthodox and crazy for sure,’’ DiBenedetto said. “I believe strongly in fate and that everything happens for a reason. I’ve had to trust in that throughout this whole journey because if I had control of everything throughout my career, I would have messed it up many, many times.
“I’ve just had to work as hard as I can. I live for this day and night and have had to let the things out of my control fall as they may. I’ve just been really lucky and it’s unreal how this path and opportunity worked out.’’
Following the mid-August announcement that he would not be returning to Leavine Family Racing for the 2020 season, DiBenedetto said he had received “a few phone calls” from teams expressing interest in him.
“But as soon as I got the phone call [from the Wood Brothers], that was a dream come-true phone call and I was basically all-in on the opportunity,’’ he said.
“They could have called me at two in the morning to meet with them and I would have been there immediately,’’ he said, adding, “This is the best opportunity of my life and I think we can all build something great for years to come.’’
Team owner Len Wood said simply, “He was our first choice. I just think it was meant to be.’’
DiBenedetto, a 28-year-old Californian, is in the midst of a career year in the No. 95 LFR Toyota – leading a race-best 49 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 before being collected in a wreck in the waning portion of the race.
He’s scored the first top fives of his five Cup seasons (at Sonoma, New Hampshire and Bristol) this year and already earned a career-high six top 10s in the car. Only three weeks ago he scored a dramatic and career best runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin at the famed Bristol night race.
The 39-year-old Wisconsin native Menard has competed fulltime in the Monster Energy Series for 13 seasons earning his lone victory at one of the sport’s grandest races, the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His first fulltime Cup job was in 2007 driving Chevrolets for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He raced a season each for both Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports before settling in at Richard Childress Racing, where he competed from 2011-2017. He moved to the Wood Brothers No. 21 last season.
Menard has two Monster Energy Series pole positions to his credit – in 2008 at the Daytona summer race and last year at Chicagoland. He has one win, 20 top-five and 69 top-10 finishes. His best season statistically was 2014 when he had five top fives and 13 top 10s.
He has three NASCAR Xfinity Series victories as well and said he still planned to compete in assorted Xfnity races in the upcoming seasons.
Menard is currently ranked 19th in the Monster Energy Series standings with four top 10s through the opening 26 Cup races.
“The way I look at it there’s still 26 years before I can get my AARP card, so I’ll stay pretty busy doing things’,’ Menard joked, adding, “First and foremost, I need to be a good dad, good husband. Outside of that are a lot of opportunities. Obviously we have a great company up in Wisconsin [Menards] that’s growing and vibrant.
“I’m not done racing yet, trying to figure out what the next step is for sure, but it’s not going to be 38 races a year, I can tell you that.’’