In what many consider a surprise announcement only five days before the Monster Energy NASCAR 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 conceded in a teleconference 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 full-time driving role for months. Ultimately, the father of two young children decided, “I love my family more.”
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According to those involved, Menard informed the Wood Brothers team of his intentions to stop full-time racing three weeks ago and then immediately suggested DiBenedetto, who currently drives the No. 95 Toyota for Leavine Family Racing, as a good driver to take over the No. 21 Ford. The Wood Brothers car is in a technical alliance with Team Penske, so Penske principals were also involved in securing the deal with DiBenedetto.
The whole process from Menard telling Wood Brothers he wanted to leave the full-time ride to it securing DiBenedetto took only about three weeks, the team said.
“First thing out of Paul’s mouth was, ‘Get Matt,'” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “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.”
I don?t even have the words to describe how thankful I am!! Paul is such a great guy and I?m lucky to call him a friend and I wish him the best! So excited to take over and drive for one of the most legendary teams in NASCAR next year! I have so many people to thank!!!! ? https://t.co/qJy1kcpV10
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) September 10, 2019
“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.”
After the mid-August announcement he would not be returning to Leavine Family Racing for the 2020 season, DiBenedetto said he 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. This is the best opportunity of my life and I think we can all build something great for years to come.”
Said team co-owner Len Wood: “He was our first choice. I just think it was meant to be.”
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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 has scored the first top fives of his five Cup seasons (at Sonoma Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway) 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 full time 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 full-time 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 2011-17. 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 International Speedway summer race and last year at Chicagoland Speedway. 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.
Currently, Menard ranks 19th in the Monster Energy Series standings with four top 10s through the opening 26 Cup races.
Menard also has three NASCAR Xfinity Series victories and said he still plans to compete in assorted Xfinity races in the upcoming seasons.
“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 said. “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 (Menards) up in Wisconsin 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.”