Paul Menard, ready to retire from racing, had just two words in his recommendation for the management of Wood Brothers Racing: Get Matt.
That was all it took for Matt DiBenedetto’s precarious status as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver to suddenly stabilize late last summer. It happened without warning and delivered DiBenedetto his best opportunity yet in NASCAR’s highest level as the full-time driver of the famed No. 21 Ford.
“This is the most incredible opportunity in my whole life, not only from a performance standpoint, but from just being able to drive for such a legendary team, a family I’ve had so much respect for, has always treated me like gold,” DiBenedetto said when the team broke the surprising news in September.
Menard, 39, had previously given no indication that retirement was on the table, and he still had a year left on his contract. DiBenedetto, meanwhile, had learned just weeks before that he was losing his seat in Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95, thanks to the need for Toyota to make room for Christopher Bell at the Cup level.
“Paul is not only making a big decision for his life and career, but he’s impacting my entire life, family, everything I’ve worked for my whole life,” DiBenedetto says. “ ‘Thank you’ for stuff like that can never be enough.”
Menard, the son of home improvement store entrepreneur John Menard, would likely be most anxious to receive his gratuity in the form of on-track results. Menard describes the Team Penske-affiliated team DiBenedetto arrives at as nearly turn-key, with crew chief Greg Erwin back for a third year.
“The team is set,” Menard says. “I don’t foresee any changes in the No. 21 lineup for next year. Greg and all the guys do a really good job. Matt can integrate in that team seamlessly.”
Menard handpicked DiBenedetto after racing close to him routinely in 2019. It gives DiBenedetto the chance to score win No. 100 for the venerable team — a feat Menard couldn’t muster in two seasons driving the No. 21.
“We were on track next to each other a lot [last] year,” Menard says. “He has a tenacity about him. He’s smart. I think he’ll find a lot of success here.”
DiBenedetto joins a team that delivered remarkable, if vanilla, consistency last season. Menard scored just four top-10 finishes — down from seven the year prior — but improved the team’s average finish nearly three positions to 16.6. It was the best average finish for a full-time Wood Brothers effort since Morgan Shepherd’s 1995 season.
The deal for DiBenedetto’s new ride continues a string of one-year contracts he’s worked under for several seasons and puts the pressure on him to perform early and often. He says he’s not sweating it.
“It’s what makes it so rewarding, makes me appreciate it so much,” he says. “It’s what has taught me everything, not only as a person but as a driver, to fight and claw and be the best that I can be. It teaches you to appreciate a lot about life. So I wouldn’t trade the path and journey for the world. Everything’s led into great opportunities. This is the best opportunity of my life. I think we can all together just build something great to come for many years. That’s definitely the goal.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 250/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)