After weeks of uncertainty, Matt DiBenedetto will be back in the #21 Ford Mustang of Wood Brothers Racing for one more year. On Thursday, WBR and Team Penske confirmed DiBenedetto will return to the team for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season before vacating the ride for Austin Cindric in 2022. Cindric will have another run for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in 2021.
Although it will be for only another season, the announcement provides some stability in DiBenedetto’s career. When he joined WBR for 2020, it was his third different team in as many years. The California native has enjoyed gradual improvement since his first Cup season in 2015, slowly rising in the final standings before blossoming in 2020 with his maiden playoff appearance. Despite being eliminated after the Round of 16, he came close to his first Cup win in Sunday’s race at Talladega.
“Matt has been able to find success this year under very difficult circumstances,” WBR co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Since he joined our team, he only had limited time working with our group due to the pandemic. While it’s been an entirely new organization, he found a way to consistently run up front and make the Playoffs. We have learned a lot together this year and we look forward to continuing to build with Matt in 2021.”
Through thirty-one races, DiBenedetto has a career-best eight top tens, tied his 2019 top five count with three, and has a pair of runner-up finishes (both at Las Vegas). He is fifteenth in the standings, a seven-place improvement over his previous best in 2019.
“It’s such an honor to be able to continue to drive for Wood Brothers Racing and have another year to grow with this organization,” DiBenedetto stated. “I am excited to learn from our 2020 notebook and I’m confident that with a full season under our belt and working together as a team, we will produce even better results. I also want to thank Ford Performance and Team Penske for their efforts in making this happen. These types of decisions take a lot of time, as we all know there are a lot of factors in play. All three groups want to make the best decisions for everyone involved and I’m appreciative to have the opportunity to continue to compete for such a legendary race team.”
Meanwhile in the Xfinity Series, Cindric is enjoying a breakthrough season of his own. After a two-win campaign in 2019, he more than doubled that amount in 2020 with a five-win year that has placed him as one of the top two title contenders. He won the regular season championship and is now second in points with series highs in top tens (twenty-two) and top fives (seventeent) to go with the five victories. Such wins included his first oval triumphs in a sweep at Kentucky and the inaugural Daytona road course event.
Cindric will run a limited Cup slate in 2021 in a fourth Penske car before moving to the Penske ally Wood Brothers. The number for Cindric’s part-time car was not immediately revealed, though Penske fielded the #02 and #06 for drivers like Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. before they began full-time Cup competition.
“As we continue to position our team for future success, it is important to make sure Austin continues his development in the Xfinity Series with Team Penske,” said Roger Penske. “Austin has made great strides in recent years and he has become a consistent winner and a true championship contender this season. He will continue his natural progression and get some Cup Series experience in 2021. That will help him prepare for a full season in 2022 with the new NextGen car, racing the No. 21 Ford Mustang for Wood Brothers Racing.”
While 2021 will mark Cindric’s début in a Cup race, it will technically not be his first official action in a premier series vehicle. In 2019, he replaced Penske Cup driver Brad Keselowski in the #2 for practice at Atlanta while he was dealing with the flu, followed by seat time at the Charlotte Roval in the #34 Front Row Motorsports Ford as Michael McDowell was hospitalised with a kidney stone.
“This is a big step forward in my career long-term, and I am humbled and motivated by the opportunity and the confidence that Team Penske, Ford Performance, the Wood Brothers, and all of our partners have expressed in my abilities and my development as a driver,” commented Cindric. “Every race car driver wants to advance in his career, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than on a clear path with Team Penske that will eventually lead to a full-time opportunity in the NASCAR Cup Series. I’m really excited for this next chapter in my development to continue working towards competing and trying to win at the highest level.
“Another season of experience in the Xfinity Series will be beneficial and I’m looking forward to competing in some Cup Series races in 2021 to prepare for a full season in 2022.”