“There’s many car owners that finance cars that are on the racetrack, good teams,” Hamlin said after beating DiBenedetto to win the Bristol night race. “They got to step up and grow some balls and take a chance on somebody they really believe in. That or they can continue to run 15th.”
Tuesday morning’s announcement that Paul Menard will retire after this season and Matt DiBenedetto will replace him next season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford certainly lit up the twitterverse.
Happy for @mattdracing that things worked out. He will be solid in the @woodbrothers21. More happy for my friend Paul Menard. 36 weeks is a grind, he’s got a great wife and 2 kiddos who are gonna love having him at home.
For all of you @mattdracingfans, if you remember, I told you to be patient. Talent always wins out. When Paul Menard chose to step away there was a good opportunity for Matt D. The really, really talented drivers always wind up in a good seat. https://t.co/MM3dhbWwao
“I’ve enjoyed every moment of my career racing in the NASCAR Cup Series and I’m so thankful for all the great memories and friendships I’ve made through this sport,” Menard said in a press release. “But I’m looking forward to spending more time at home with my wife Jennifer and our two young children while moving forward with the next chapter of my life.
“I want to thank everyone at Wood Brothers Racing, along with Team Penske, and our partners at Menards, Motorcraft, Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers and Ford. It’s been a privilege to work with them and some of the true legends of our sport, including Andy Petree, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robert Yates, Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Glen and Leonard Wood. I’m excited for what the future holds and I’m looking forward to sharing the plans for 2020 and beyond in the coming weeks.”
Said DiBenedetto in a statement: “I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020. The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”
DiBenedetto, 28, is in his fifth season of Cup competition. Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was his 166th start. He has six top-10 finishes, including three top fives this season. All of those have come in the last 11 races. One of his top fives was a runner-up finish in the Bristol night race, where he led a race-high 93 laps but lost to Denny Hamlin.
DiBenedetto will be a guest on NASCAR America MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.
“We want to thank Paul Menard for his dedication to the team over the last two seasons,” said team President and co-owner Eddie Wood in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a strong finish to 2019 and we wish him nothing but the best for the future. All of us at Wood Brothers Racing are excited to welcome Matt DiBenedetto to the team beginning next season. Matt has shown a lot of promise on track and everyone has seen it in his results this season, especially over the past several months. We want to continue to build on that success together as we gear up for 2020 and the future of Wood Brothers Racing.”
Later in a press conference, Menard said he expected Menards to remain as a full sponsor on the No. 21 and Ryan Blaney‘s No. 12 car.
Friday 5: Can Jimmie Johnson repeat Tiger Woods’ Masters magic at Indy?
A generation of drivers grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win races and championships year after year.
It was nearly all they knew from 2006-10 when Johnson won the Cup championship five consecutive seasons and visited victory lane in nearly 20% of the races run during that time.
Now, they see the seven-time champion winless in his last 84 races and fighting to make the playoffs. Critics question Johnson and expect his 15-year streak of postseason appearances to end when the checkered flag waves in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
Those drivers who watched Johnson dominate when they were teens are not among the doubters.
“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up,” said Kyle Larson, who was 14 when Johnson won his first Cup title. “When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship.
“I think it just shows how tough our sport gets, how tough our drivers are, how close our equipment is, and how good of a combination him and Chad (Knaus) really were. Hopefully they can figure something out and finish upfront where he belongs.”
Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell also is rooting for Johnson this weekend.
“I love to see the greats win,” said Bell, who was a month shy of turning 12 when Johnson celebrated his first Cup crown. “For example, seeing Tony Stewart win at Sonoma (Raceway in 2016) was unbelievable. That was one of the coolest things ever. Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, the dirt drivers, seeing those guys still compete and win – Steve’s done now, but Sammy still runs – that’s the coolest thing ever to me.
“Like Tiger Woods winning the golf deal, right? How awesome was that when he won the Masters? I don’t think Jimmie is done by any means, but it’s going to be really, really cool whenever we see him win again just because he’s been doing it for so long and you have to respect how good he’s been for so long and we’re not sure if we’ll ever see that again, right?”
Alex Bowman was 13 when Johnson’s title reign began. Now he watches Johnson’s challenge up close as a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
“We are doing all we can to get Jimmie into the playoffs,” Bowman said. “But, at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of bad luck and a tough year. He is still more motivated and fired up than ever, at least since I’ve been around. He’s a big part in the success that I’ve had, I feel like. He definitely still has it and he’s not given up.
“I think everyone has learned over the years that you can’t count the 48 out by any means.”
Johnson enters the weekend 18 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s among four drivers vying for the final two spots. Clint Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Daniel Suarez, who holds the last playoff spot. Suarez and Ryan Newman have the same number of points but Suarez is ahead based on the tiebreaker of best finish this year. Then comes Johnson.
For those that have counted out Johnson?
“I can’t wait to shut up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” he said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come. So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”
2. Sticking to the plan
For all the focus on Jimmie Johnson seeking to make the playoffs a 16th consecutive year, new crew chief Cliff Daniels continues to preach the need to build the No. 48 team at a deliberate pace.
While making the playoffs gives Johnson a chance to win a record eighth title, realistically, his odds of accomplishing that feat this year would be slim based on how the team has performed.
It is Daniels’ job to manage building a team while pursuing the playoffs.
“Part of the reason for the methodical approach we took coming (to Darlington) and we’re going to take to Indy is to make sure we’re placing the building blocks correctly so that as we move forward we know why we have run good, why we’ve made the calls that we’ve made or made the decisions that we’ve made and all of that is in place,” Daniels said after last week’s Southern 500.
“Jimmie and I both know how important it is to meet our goals now but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re still going to go to Indy with a really solid approach and things may work out and I certainly hope they do. But in the event that they don’t, we still have 10 races where this approach, this team, this energy, this vibe and just the whole process that we’ve built is really going to carry us. Now we get to go into the season one way or the other with a plan in place for how we’re going to meet our goals and take that into those final 10 races one way or the other and build on that for next year.”
A key is that Daniels is having more of an impact on the cars Johnson drives. Daniels was promoted from engineer to crew chief before last month’s race at Watkins Glen. With cars built or refined ahead of time, it wasn’t until last week’s Southern 500 where Daniels was able to do more with the car’s setup for Johnson. The result was that Johnson qualified sixth — his best starting spot since Chicagoland in June — scored points in both stage points for only the third time this season.
3. Don’t look back
History can’t beat someone but history can show the challenges ahead.
Take Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Newman enters this weekend outside of the final playoff spot based on a tiebreaker with Daniel Suarez.
While Newman could finish deep in the field and still make the playoffs, that scenario isn’t as likely. Good chance he’ll need a strong finish, but history has not been kind to Roush Fenway Racing at Indy.
The organization’s last top 10 at Indy was in 2012 when Greg Biffle placed third.
Since, these are the organizations that have scored at least one top 10 at Indy:
Joe Gibbs Racing (16 top 10s since 2013)
Stewart-Haas Racing (10 top 10s)
Hendrick Motorsports (9 top 10s)
Team Penske (8 top 10s)
Chip Ganassi Racing (5 top 10s)
Richard Childress Racing (5 top 10s)
JTG Daugherty Racing (2 top 10s)
Furniture Row Racing (2 top 10s)
Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10)
Go Fas Racing (1 top 10)
Michael Waltrip Racing (1 top 10)
If you wish to counter that, then look at what Newman did the past two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, finishing 10th at Indy last year and third the year before. And he won the 2013 race for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Hendrick Motorsports has qualified three of its drivers (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron) with Jimmie Johnson trying to claim one of the final spots.
Stewart-Haas Racing could have all four of its drivers make the playoffs for a second year in a row if Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both advance to join Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.
Roush Fenway Racing is trying to break into the playoff picture with Ryan Newman.
Unless there is a surprise winner Sunday at Indy, the Cup playoffs could feature drivers from just five organizations. Last year’s Cup playoffs featured drivers from seven organizations.
5. High standards
Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title in Saturday’s race at Indianapolis (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
He needs to leave Indy with a 61-point lead on second in the standings. Reddick holds a 51-point lead on second-place Christopher Bell.
Reddick, the reigning series champion, is on the cusp of the regular-season title because of a season that ranks among the best in series history.
His average finish of 4.9 ranks second all time among drivers to compete in all 24 races. His 21 top 10s are tied for second most through 24 races all time in the series. His 19 top-five finishes are third most through 24 races all time in the series.
For all the success Wood Brothers Racing has enjoyed in NASCAR, including five Daytona 500 victories and triumphs elsewhere, the family run team would enjoy perhaps its greatest win in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The reasons are many:
* It would be the 100th career Cup win for the team, which began racing in NASCAR in 1950, making Wood Brothers Racing the longest-active team in the sport.
* It would be the organization’s ninth victory at Darlington.
* But perhaps most importantly, and as part of Darlington’s annual throwback weekend, driver Paul Menard will be piloting the No. 21 Ford with a retro paint scheme that will honor team founder and NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, who passed away in January at the age of 93.
"What magic did the famed Wood Brothers pit crew use for such fast pit stops?"
The scheme Menard’s car will carry will reflect the same look that graced Glen Wood’s Ford in the one and only time he raced as a driver at Darlington in 1957.
“It just seemed fitting,” Glen’s oldest son and team co-owner Eddie Wood told NBC Sports. “We were looking for a car to honor him and it just seemed like the right one. It was an important time for him and that makes it important for us to be able to run that paint scheme. It was one of dad’s favorite cars.”
But it isn’t just the car and the paint scheme. It’s also the track Too Tough To Tame.
“We’ve had a lot of success at Darlington and it’s just one of those special places,” Eddie Wood said. “Len and I went to the old Yankee Stadium before they tore it down, as well as Wrigley Field. Going to Darlington, to me, is kind of like going to those old ballparks. Darlington was NASCAR’s first big race track, first superspeedway. You go back through history and how many cars that started that first race (75 cars in 1950).
“The history around Darlington is just fascinating to me and to do a throwback weekend with cars and paint schemes every year is a brilliant, brilliant idea. It’s the right place for it. It’s almost like a reunion for everybody, a family reunion of racers, whether you raced in the 50s or 60s or raced last week. Everybody just seems to be invited.
Eddie’s brother and team co-owner Len Wood agreed.
“Darlington as well as Daytona and Charlotte, those are the big races that we kind of grew up around, the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500. That was the ultimate,” Len Wood said. “Fortunately with David Pearson, we won all three of those in 1976. To us, they’re very important races.
“To honor our dad, it was very special to us (to have the retro scheme). With Daddy passing away, it just all came together to do a paint scheme for him.”
Eddie Wood grew emotional when asked if the passing of his father eight months ago is getting easier with each track the team goes back to, given how most of those played such a vital role in the Wood Brothers’ racing legacy.
“It really doesn’t get any easier, but I’m sure that’s the way it is for everybody,” Eddie Wood said. “You go along and you run into something like this and then the emotions come back. But they’re good emotions. You’re honoring him and everybody is noticing and feeling everybody is honoring him and that makes you feel good.”
It will also be the first time Wood Brothers Racing has raced at Darlington since David Pearson, who won a track-record 10 times there, passed away Nov. 12, 2018.
Len Wood admits he’ll also likely grow emotional when Menard brings the No. 21 to the green flag to start Sunday’s race.
“When that comes by, it’s going to put a lump in my throat,” he said.
The only thing that could make this weekend even more special is if Menard can take the No. 21 to victory lane.
“Darlington has done a really nice job the past few years with their throwback theme for the Southern 500,” Menard said in a statement. “As the driver for perhaps the most iconic and longest running NASCAR team of all time, I’m completely honored to represent the man that started it all, Mr. Glen Wood, with our Wood Brothers Racing #21 scheme for this year.”
Added Eddie Wood, “If Paul were to win this weekend, boy, that would be over the top. Winning the race would be the 100th win for us and that’s a huge milestone for us if and when we can get there. If it happened at Darlington, there couldn’t be a better place.”
“Winning at Darlington would be quite special,” Len Wood said. “I just know Daddy would be looking down on us and would be very proud of us if we did.”
NOTE: NBCSN will debut a documentary on Wood Brothers Racing at 6 p.m. ET on Friday (and again at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, just before that evening’s main event race). The documentary traces the family’s history in racing, including its start, how it revolutionized pit stops, winning the Indianapolis 500 and multiple Daytona 500s, competing with David Pearson and beyond.
“Sixty-nine years,” Leonard Wood, younger brother of Glen Wood and also a NASCAR Hall of Famer, says in the documentary. “That’s a long time being racing. You know going in you might not win. Don’t say poor me. Take it in stride and go for the next one.”
Added Len Wood, “I think everybody will be pleased with the documentary. It kind of shows a different side of (the company’s legacy) than what most people have seen. I hope it goes over well.”
A really good documentary is coming on Friday at 6:00pm on NBCSN. I HIGHLY recommend watching it. ‘The Wood Brothers’ is the name, pretty straight forward nothing fancy, but it does a very good job exposing the emotional side of my grandpa, @Leonard_Wood, our family and team.📺👍🏼 pic.twitter.com/xVdoGvLAdg