Matt DiBenedetto had a stressful last couple of weeks wondering about his future in this sport. Now, he has some clarity — albeit short term. The Wood Brothers announced on Thursday that DiBenedetto will be back in the No. 21 Ford for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. We knew this decision on his fate was going to actually be affected by what Team Penske, not the Wood Brothers, wanted to do anyways.
See, Penske went into an alliance with the storied team back in 2015 as a place to house their developmental driver Ryan Blaney. They had no room to move Blaney to Penske yet, so Blaney went part-time in 2015 and full time in 2016 and 2017. That alliance continued even after Blaney shifted over to Penske in 2018 with Paul Menard taking over the reigns for the famed No. 21 Ford for 2018 and again in 2019.
Menard’s was a sponsor and partner of Penske and Paul Menard is the son of John Menard. See how this thing continued?
Menard, decided though that last year was it and wanted to retire at seasons end. He handpicked DiBenedetto as his successor and Penske/Wood Brothers obliged.
DiBenedetto, had always overperformed his equipment and now he had a good ride. It paid off too. He made the playoffs in his first season at the helm and was hoping to be back in 2021.
There was some muddy waters to get through to retain his seat though. Penske, had some decisions to make.
Blaney and Brad Keselowski were free agents at seasons end this year. They locked in Blaney for the future before the pandemic. The Keselowski deal took some time. In a market to where veteran drivers aren’t making anywhere close to what they were making in the past, Keselowski likely took a pay cut. If he wasn’t willing to do so, then he could be free to roam the wide range of available rides still left to see if he could get what he’s worth.
Think about it. Keselowski is a past series champion and owned a raise on his next contract, not a salary cut. But, as Keselowski noted back in July, the pay to play drivers are hurting the market. There’s drivers out there that will take a lot less than what these veterans make and even some that will pay teams to take your seat.
That hurts the value of drivers like Keselowski who’s careers are coming to a close soon but still need that one last contract to get them there. Why race as long as you do and have as much success as they’ve had only to take a steep discount to keep going? It’s almost a sign of disrespect.
So, Keselowski probably saw that the market out there wasn’t going to pay him what he deserved either and came back to Penske for a 1-year extension.
If he didn’t come back, then Austin Cindric or even DiBenedetto could have ended up in the No. 2 Ford seat. Cindric, is the son of Tim Cindric and a rising star. He’s competed for two straight years in the Xfinity Series and won the regular season championship this year on the heels of five wins. He’s a legitimate championship contender. Did it make sense to bring him back for a third year in 2021 in that series?
That’s why Penske had to figure out what to do with Blaney, Keselowski then Cindric before deciding on DiBenedetto’s fate.
DiBenedetto now knows that he’ll be back but keeping the seat warm for just one year before Cindric takes over in 2022. Now, what does this mean for DiBenedetto?
Well, it’s back to Keselowski again. Does he come back with the team for 2022? Does he decide to just run out whatever future contracts come his way from Penske? Blaney, ran two full time years with the Wood Brothers, so in theory, Keselowski could run 2021, 2022 and 2023 with Penske and step away for Cindric to come back over in 2024.
Or, Keselowski could walk at seasons end in 2021 and pave a way for DiBenedetto to move over until it’s time to bring Cindric back under the Penske umbrella and can always move back to the Wood Brothers after.
The writing is on the wall that Cindric will be a Penske driver eventually. It’s down to Keselowski and DiBenedetto for 2022 and beyond too.
This announcement also give DiBenedetto the respect back that he can search for a new ride for 2022 if he so chooses to not be in limbo either. He knows the 21 seat isn’t his anymore past 2021. He said that he had a contract for multiple years with the team but it was their call by the end of September to let him know each year if he’ll be back. They’re giving him an 11 months notice that he won’t be back in 2022.
Now, can DiBenedetto come back next year and show them that Penske would be crazy to get rid of him all together?