Matt DiBenedetto

Ryan: Paul Menard gives NASCAR a happy (and predictably quiet) ending

6 Comments

The feel-good stunner of Silly Season naturally would involve the most taciturn and tight-lipped of NASCAR drivers pulling the primary levers.

In what can be described only as a Peak Paul Menard power move, Wood Brothers Racing shocked the NASCAR world Tuesday morning with the unexpected announcement that Menard will exit the No. 21 Ford after the 2019 season and hand the keys to Matt DiBenedetto.

Menard essentially ended his full-time career and hand-picked his successor with hardly anyone being that much the wiser ahead of time.

Not that Menard (who had said a few months ago that he planned to return in 2020) even noticed he had kept the biggest secret in NASCAR since Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement (and even that leaked a half-day ahead).

SUNDAY: NASCAR opens playoffs at Las Vegas

“It wasn’t my goal to keep it a huge secret,” Menard said. “It’s just something that I spoke to the people that needed to know.  (Wood Brothers Racing co-owners) Eddie, Len (Wood). The folks at Penske. It is what it is.”

We would expect nothing less from the famously reserved Menard, who was never one to trumpet his personal or professional life during 13 seasons in Cup of mostly remaining private about anything beyond racing.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, he demurred when facing questions about several topics — notably the timeline of his decision and the ages of the young daughter and son whom he cited as the primary reason for his retirement from the rigors of full-time Cup racing.

“Watching them grow and missing out on a couple things they’ve been doing, it’s hard as a father, as a parent,” said Menard, who turned 39 last month and began racing at 8. “This sport takes so much dedication to run at the top level. I want what’s best for the 21 team. I want what’s best for my family.”

Though there are signs he could remain at Team Penske in some sort of executive capacity (his family’s company also sponsors this year’s winning Indianapolis 500 car of Simon Pagenaud and his father, John, is a longtime friend of Roger Penske), Menard declined to get into specifics.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I guess that’s in the future.”

And though he indicated he will continue to race (“it’s not going just to 38 weeks a year, I can tell you that.”), Menard also provided few hints of whether it’ll be in NASCAR.         

“Ice racing,” the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native deadpanned. “I haven’t done that in a few years. We might build a bad-ass ice racing car.”

The answer is revelatory because it’s what often is missed about the quiet scion to a multibillion-dollar home improvement warehouse fortune. Racing never has been about fame or money but his passion for motorsports.

Menard’s father has been a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 40 years and instilled that love of auto racing in Paul, which is why Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Eddie Wood asked for his input on a replacement.

“Racers know racers,” Wood said. “I value Paul’s opinion. The only answer that came out of his mouth was Matt.  It did come together really, really quickly.  Matt was pretty much ready to go.  Just the way it all unfolded, it was like it was meant to be.”

It would be hard to find someone worthier than DiBenedetto, who is being cut loose by Leavine Family Racing as a team business decision casualty during the best season of his career. After “betting on himself” by walking away from Go Fas Racing with nothing lined up, DiBenedetto’s gamble was punctuated by a runner-up finish last month at Bristol Motor Speedway that is the Cinderella story of 2019.

He has three top five finishes in the past 11 races and is delivering better results under immense pressure than any previous driver at LFR … but it wasn’t enough.

LFR’s No. 95 Camry reportedly will be filled next year by Christopher Bell, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ensures that LFR will be more closely aligned with the Toyota powerhouse than ever before.

Yet DiBenedetto’s move to Wood Brothers Racing, which is just as tightly affiliated with Team Penske, ensures that he will inherit an opportunity that is just as good.

Since forming the alliance with Penske three years ago, Wood Brothers Racing has risen to the fringe of the Cup elite. Ryan Blaney won at Pocono Raceway and took the storied franchise to the third round of the playoffs in 2017. Though Menard missed the playoffs the past two seasons, he has been trending in the direction of speed and performance lately (another reason Tuesday’s news was such a bombshell).

At best, it seemed a lateral or regressive move awaited DiBenedetto if he wanted to stay in Cup.

Instead, he gets the best break of his NASCAR career.

“This is the most incredible opportunity in my whole life,” DiBenedetto said of his one-year deal for 2020. “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 (and) has always treated me like gold.”

It’s a neat and unexpected twist that delighted NASCAR Twitter and should please a NASCAR Nation of fans who increasingly have decried drivers who get rides because they bring money instead of merit.

In this case, it’s the guy who broke into NASCAR largely through his sponsor connections choosing the guy who has desperately searched for jobs because of his lack of sponsor connections.

With the support of his family’s successful company, Menard’s racing future rarely has been in doubt, and some detractors have charged that nepotism kept him in Cup for longer than it would have for many drivers.

The criticism isn’t entirely fair to Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 and consistently has finished between 17th and 23rd in points for eight of the past nine seasons (between Wood Brothers Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, which followed earlier stints at Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.).

Yes, his surname undoubtedly has buoyed his career, but his results also have been serviceable and comparable to many journeyman drivers who lasted nearly as long at NASCAR’s premier level.

But while Menard proved worthy of posting workingman’s results in Cup, he also has enjoyed job security and little fear or pressure of losing his ride.

It’s been the opposite for DiBenedetto, who has been forced to openly campaign for employment while “racing for his life” this summer. He still was surprised when the call came from Penske a few days after Bristol.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” DiBenedetto said. “But one thing I’ve always said is a priority of mine has been always gaining respect of other drivers and veterans like Paul because they can be your best allies and huge influence on your entire career.  This is a perfect example.

“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. A ‘thank you’ for stuff like that can never be enough.”

And it’s even more impactful when it comes just as out of the blue for the rest of the world.

It’s kind of nice this was the Silly Season rumor that no one knew about ahead of time.

As Paul Menard will tell you, silence can be golden.

Kasey Kahne, Matt DiBenedetto marking Cup start milestones at Kansas

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway will mark career milestones for Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto.

Kahne, who is in the final five races of his tenure driving the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports, will make his 500th Cup Series start.

DiBenedetto, driver of Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 Ford, will reach the century mark with his 100th Cup start.

The two join the ranks of drivers who have celebrated similar milestones this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. marked his 600th start at Auto Club Speedway. Kevin Harvick made his 600th start in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway and Kurt Busch made his in the Bristol night race.

Brad Keselowski won Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in his 300th Cup start.

Kahne, 37,  made his first Cup start in the 2004 Daytona 500 for Evernham Motorsports. The 24-year-old driver won the Rookie of the Year that season, making him the youngest winner of the award at the time since Jeff Gordon earned it at the age of 22 in 1993.

Since then he has earned 18 wins, 92 top fives, 175 top 10s and 27 poles. He has yet to miss a race in his 14-year career in the Cup Series.

DiBenedetto, 26, made his first Cup start on March 15, 2015 in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix Raceway. The start, in the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing, came after he failed to qualify for the previous two races at Atlanta and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the two years since, DiBenedetto has earned three top 10s, including two this year in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

His career-best finish is sixth in the April 2016 race at Bristol.

Through 31 races this year, DiBenedetto has an average finish of 26.8, an improvement over his totals in 2015 (32nd) and 2016 (30th).

In five Kansas starts, DiBenedetto’s best result is 24th in the fall 2016 race. His average finish is 28.2.

“I really enjoy racing at Kansas Speedway,” DiBenedetto said in a press release. “Our mile-and-a-half program has been very strong this year and (Crew chief) Gene (Nead) has been giving me fast race cars to compete with. We qualified in the second-round here at Kansas earlier in the season, so that gives us a lot of hope.

“I like the racing at Kansas because you can move around a lot groove-wise and find a line that works with the balance of your race car. I’m usually one of the first people to move up into the high-groove and that seems to help find us some speed. If we can get a balance on the race car like we had in the spring, I know we’ll be fast and competitive.”

Matt DiBenedetto supporting police officers with Texas paint scheme

1 Comment

BK Racing and Dallas-based sponsor ZAK Products have team up to honor fallen officers of the Dallas Police Department for this weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

For the AAA Texas 500, Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 83 Zak “Backs the Blue” Toyota will resemble the cruisers used by the Dallas Police Department. The rear decklid will bear the names of the five DPD and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) officers who were killed by a sniper in downtown Dallas on July 7.

“I am truly honored that Zak Products has given me the opportunity to represent the Dallas PD officers who lost their lives in the line of duty on July 7, 2016,” said DiBenedetto in a press release. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of the police officers around the country who protect our cities day and night. It means so much to BK Racing and to me personally to ‘Back the Blue’ with our No. 83 Toyota this weekend.”

The car was unveiled at a Toyota of Dallas on Wednesday that featured ZAK founder Vic Keller.

“Dallas is home to ZAK’s headquarters and we were deeply impacted by the July 7th tragedy. We wanted to do something to honor and show appreciation for the civil servants who serve the city without hesitation every day,” Keller said. “The November 6 race is the largest medium for a spectator event in DFW and we quickly realized this would provide the optimum platform to showcase the city of Dallas and our outstanding police department on a national scale. We hope everyone will tune in to the race and back the blue to victory.”

The AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway can be seen at 1 p.m. on Sunday on NBC.

Chad Knaus, Matt DiBenedetto spend Sprint Cup off-weekend by saying ‘I Do’ with longtime girlfriends

Leave a comment

Many Sprint Cup drivers and crew chiefs enjoyed this off-weekend by vacationing or just taking it easy.

But not driver Matt DiBenedetto and Chad Knaus, crew chief for six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Instead of walking down pit road, DiBenedetto and Knaus each spent the weekend walking down the aisle.

DiBenedetto married Taylor Carswell on Friday, while Knaus tied the knot Saturday with former Miss Sprint Cup Brooke Werner.

Johnson tweeted this photo of Knaus’ wedding near Telluride, Colo.

And then there was DiBenedetto’s nuptials.

Of of DiBenedetto’s best friends, fellow driver Alex Bowman, good-naturedly threatened on Twitter to stand up during the ceremony when the pastor asked if anyone objected to the couple getting married.

Which prompted DiBenedetto to respond:

Well, Bowman passed 1,000 retweets, but there’s no report that he lived up to his threat.

Congratulations to the new Mr. and Mrs. Knaus and Mr. and Mrs. DiBenedetto.

NASCAR issues warnings to 11 Sprint Cup teams, docks Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth practice time

14 Comments

NASCAR announced Wednesday night that Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth each will be docked 15 minutes of practice time next week at Darlington Raceway for inspection issues at Bristol Motor Speedway. They were among 11 Sprint Cup teams issued warnings.

Warnings were given to:

  • Busch’s team for failing pre-race inspection four times.
  • Kenseth’s team for failing pre-race inspection two times plus being late to inspection.
  • The teams of Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Travis Kvapil and Timmy Hill for failing pre-qualifying inspection twice.
  • The teams of Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin for being late to the inspection line.

NASCAR recently streamlined its warning structure. NASCAR’s Rule Book states that for every fourth warning a team receives in a season it will result in the loss of pit selection. Warnings can not be appealed.

The new system began earlier this month.

Previously receiving a warning under the new system were the teams Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard, Josh Wise, AJ Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski.