From 21 to 2: Why Roger Penske switched Austin Cindric’s 2022 Cup plans

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NASCAR 15 July, 2021 - 04:57pm 7 views

What car will Brad Keselowski drive next year?

Austin Cindric to replace Brad Keselowski in No. 2 car at Team Penske for 2022 season. NASCAR Cup team owner Roger Penske announced Thursday that 22-year-old Austin Cindric will be replacing former series champion Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Ford Mustang next season. The Detroit NewsAustin Cindric to replace Brad Keselowski in No. 2 car at Team Penske for 2022 season

Analysis: Did Team Penske, Wood Brothers follow Hendrick blueprint in driver shuffle?

NASCAR 16 July, 2021 - 06:00am

Six years ago, Hendrick Motorsports sported a driver lineup of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne for the 2015 NASCAR Cup Series season.

The team fared admirably, with nine wins (five of which belonged to a certain eventual seven-time champion), one of the most memorable victories in the gold-standard organization’s history (“We’re goin’ to Homestead!”) and with it a Championship 4 appearance.

The writing, however, was very much on the wall. The youth movement was coming — and in a hurry.

All four drivers were in their age-35 season or later, teenage phenom Chase Elliott was fresh off the 2014 Xfinity Series title and while the wins were there, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske were putting some serious pressure on the most victorious franchise in the sport’s history.

Team owner Rick Hendrick spent the next half-decade re-tooling his team roster, with Elliott taking over Gordon’s No. 24 (now in the No. 9), Alex Bowman making his way into the No. 88 (now the No. 48), Byron hopping in the 24 after Elliott slid over to claim his father Bill’s old number and Kyle Larson joining the fray this year after Johnson stepped away from his full-time NASCAR duties.

Average Hendrick driver age in 2015: 39.25.

Average Hendrick driver age in 2021: 26.0.

Unquestionably the team to beat in 2021 having won 10 of the season’s 21 races, the reshuffling has worked. So why bring this up now?

Well, Hendrick isn’t the only organization susceptible to its drivers eventually aging out of competitiveness, and it might’ve provided the blueprint for how to make the transition to younger talent with a lineup potentially penciled in for the next decade.

The Ford-aligned Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing shook up NASCAR Silly Season in a big way Thursday morning, announcing that 22-year-old Austin Cindric and 20-year-old Harrison Burton would be making the move up to Cup to pilot the Nos. 2 and 21 Mustangs, effectively replacing Brad Keselowski (37 years old) and Matt DiBenedetto (will be 30 on July 27), respectively. The pair will join team veterans in 2017 champ Joey Logano (31) and a winner for both organizations in Ryan Blaney (27).

“I don’t know whether we necessarily looked at Hendrick and said, ‘oh, let’s copy that,’ but certainly, yes, that is in some ways what they did, two, three, four years ago where they reset a driver lineup with a younger lineup and brought them up together,” said Mark Rushbrook, Global Director at Ford Performance. “It’s clearly, with other things, worked well for them. I definitely like the model with teamwork potential between Harrison and Austin to be able to lean on Joey and Ryan and that combination to have great performance across all four cars.”

Penske/Wood Brothers had their collective hands forced, to a degree, with Keselowski angling for an ownership stake at his current home.

“He wanted to have ownership and the way we’re structured, that wasn’t available,” said Penske after Thursday’s news broke. The two sides were unable to come to an agreement for beyond 2021, making the 2012 champ a free agent at the end of the year and clearing the path for a possible move to Roush Fenway Racing in a driver/ownership role.

Last fall, the teams announced Cindric would replace DiBenedetto in the No. 21. With Keselowski’s departure, the door remained open for the team to potentially retain DiBenedetto, but it chose to notify him roughly two weeks before his Aug. 1 contract deadline that it would be going in a different, younger direction with Burton. The No. 21 team is winless since 2017 and, while he’s hit his marks a few times this year, DiBenedetto is averaging a finish of 18.2 after a career-best 14.8 last year.

In addition to underwhelming performance out of the 21 car, NASCAR itself is about to enter a new frontier. As a new era of stock car auto racing is ushered in next season with the dawn of the Next Gen vehicle, the Wood Brothers saw that as a clean slate for all drivers in the series, regardless of tenure.

Thus, the perfect time to start anew and build for the future.

“Keep in mind, the Next Gen car is coming. That’s a white sheet of paper so far as drivers. White sheet of paper for everybody, but drivers in particular,” said team president and co-owner Eddie Wood. “So we felt that that’s a good time to bring in a young rookie. So, we made this decision to try to figure out what we wanted to do. We could bring a young rookie in to team up with Austin, obviously now going into the 2, and those two guys could work together and develop themselves into great race car drivers. Being rookies, they’re both on the same level and this new car, like I said, it’s a white sheet of paper that even if you’re a 20-year-veteran, you’re really not going to have a lot on a rookie. Everybody is kind of starting in the same place.”

With plenty of Silly Season shoes to drop before the end of the year and the ’22 Next Gen debut, it’s clear the Penske coalition is forward-focused and has a four-driver lineup (Wood Brothers has a technical alliance with Penske) set to contend for a decade-plus. One has to wonder if other organizations will follow suit at some point — Joe Gibbs Racing’s four drivers hold an average age of 35.75, for what it’s worth — or if premier-series experience still holds the value it once did.

The future isn’t coming. It’s already here.

Conflicting emotions for DiBenedetto over Wood Brothers decision

RACER 16 July, 2021 - 06:00am

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In a nine-minute video posted on his social media channels, Matt DiBenedetto said “there is a greater plan” for him after being informed he’s being replaced at Wood Brothers Racing next season.

“I didn’t really sleep well last night and woke up this morning, and it’s OK to have human emotion, and I’m not going to lie to you, it’s OK to be pissed off, angry, and bitter, and all the above,” DiBenedetto said. “It just is what it is. We’re humans; we’re not perfect. That doesn’t change my faith and knowing there’s a plan for all this. But it doesn’t make it not suck, because it does suck.

“So, yeah, that is what it is. Why would I say that I’m upset and it sucks? Well, obviously, I don’t know what I’m doing next year.”

Harrison Burton will take the No. 21 Ford Mustang seat next season. It was initially set to be Austin Cindric, which was announced last year and gave DiBenedetto time to figure out his future. But things became fluid and more complicated when rumors began that Brad Keselowski was going to leave Team Penske, the alliance partner of the Wood Brothers.

Cindric now goes to Team Penske, and the Wood Brothers are starting fresh with a rookie in Burton. DiBenedetto has driven for the Wood Brothers for two seasons.

DiBenedetto asked his fans not to attack Wood Brothers Racing, who he considers family. He was informed of the decision Wednesday night and admitted he did not think it was worth asking for a reason behind the driver change.

“Why would I have these emotions? Because I was so freaking lucky and still am to be driving the 21 car,” DiBenedetto continued. “Love it, and I want to get that 100th win for them bad. But this 21 team has also been broken for a while; tried to give the benefit of the doubt, work through it, give all your effort to it, try and make it work and make it click, and it wasn’t, and I’ve said it for a long time: Our team wasn’t clicking. That’s no disrespect to anyone, no particular person. It just wasn’t working. Weren’t executing.

“I’ll be the first to say before everybody, performance wasn’t where it needed to be. We’d have some speed and some good runs and finish second, and this and that, have speed, but it just wasn’t clicking. It’s like a relationship with your wife or your friends or family, relationship with your team. It wasn’t there; it wasn’t working.

While recent personnel changes appear to have helped DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers team, the driver admits the shake-up came too late. John Harrelson/Motorsport Images

“It took too long, and we finally shook things up. I care about people a lot, sometimes to a fault, and let me tell you … your biggest regret in life will be wasting time. Time is the one thing you can’t get back in life. That’s kind of what’s biting me right now. We wasted some time, and I’ll take some of the blame for it; it’s not just one particular person. … We let our team be broken for too long.”

Wood Brothers changed crew chiefs for DiBenedetto going into the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway last month. The team’s performance has started to pick up, and DiBenedetto finished in the top 10 the last two weeks at Road America and Atlanta.

As the video continued, DiBenedetto admitted to expressing his frustration and “I’m getting the (expletive) end of the deal.

“Again, I’m not angry at anyone in particular. What I’m trying to say is, it doesn’t make the situation not suck.”

Not the news we want and not the video I enjoyed making but here it is https://t.co/Ab6ik1bCuj

— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) July 15, 2021

Kelly has been on the NASCAR beat full-time since 2013, and joined RACER as chief NASCAR writer in 2017. Her work has also appeared in NASCAR.com, the NASCAR Illustrated magazine, and NBC Sports. A corporate communications graduate from Central Penn College, Crandall is a two-time George Cunningham Writer of the Year recipient from the National Motorsports Press Association.

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4 Burning Questions: What's Next for Xfinity Silly Season?

Frontstretch.com 15 July, 2021 - 09:11pm

After a hint from Door Bumper Clear earlier in the week, it was made official July 15 that in 2022, Austin Cindric will take over the No. 2 for Team Penske in the NASCAR Cup Series while Harrison Burton will take over the venerable No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

Plans for the two teams changed earlier this season behind the scenes, when Brad Keselowski declined to extend his contract with Penske after team owner Roger Penske declined to offer Keselowski part of the team as a co-owner. Cindric, who was originally set for the No. 21, was instead moved over to the No. 2. The Wood Brothers/Penske declined to re-sign Matt DiBenedetto and instead went with a driver sponsored by Dex Imaging, which has also served as a longtime sponsor of Penske.

Harrison Burton, son of Jeff Burton, nephew of Ward Burton and cousin of Jeb Burton, will be the youngest full-time driver in the history of the No. 21 at age 21 and will be overall the third-youngest driver in the team’s Cup history, behind Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne.

I don’t mind the idea of getting rid of DiBenedetto, as ultimately the Californian has shown his ceiling. Short of getting a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, this was the best chance he was ever going to get in Cup. Not only that, but I’d argue he got a second season out of the deal, because in all likelihood Cindric was ready to move up after he started reliably winning on ovals midway through last year.

Getting Burton seems like quite a stretch, though. He had a very short career in the Camping World Truck Series and was not impressive whatsoever down there, then he moved up to NXS competition and won four races but also finished eighth in points last year. If he had come out strong this year in NXS, he’d be fine, but he hasn’t won this year and is being routinely outrun by teammates Daniel Hemric, whose Cup year was a disaster, and Ty Gibbs, who is 18.

The argument as to why now for Burton by Eddie Wood is that the new car was the optimal time to bring up a rookie driver in Cup. That’s a decent argument for an experienced driver in other disciplines, but it’s not great for somebody with comparatively little experience racing. Especially considering that most of Burton’s NXS career has been contested with no practice or qualifying, which is a really big help for younger drivers to learn things.

Assuming he were available, I would have signed Justin Allgaier to a one-year show-me contract. Allgaier has had exactly one Cup start in his career with good equipment, and that ended on the first pit stop because Brennan Poole Brennan Poole’d at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. None of the other Penske drivers are leaving soon, with Joey Logano now the oldest at 31. Going for the future now, especially considering Toyota was a couple of years away from finding space for Burton at the Cup level, seems like a more risky proposition.

There are a few options available for DiBenedetto.

The most lucrative spots he could land at, Trackhouse Racing Team and 23XI Racing, seem like they will go to some combination of Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain. Anthony Alfredo has been extremely unimpressive at Front Row Motorsports, and it would not be a surprise if they were looking for a driver that could fill its niche.

As far as the new teams go, Kaulig Racing may seem pretty crowded right now but Chris Rice would be the type to get him in a good car at Bristol Motor Speedway next year. GMS Racing has not announced anything about its Cup team besides the fact that it will exist next year. The Money Team Racing may or may not exist.

Although DiBenedetto has made it clear he believes himself to be a Cup driver, it might be a smart idea to retreat down to NXS or even Trucks next season. John Hunter Nemechek has reinvented himself with a dominant display for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Given DiBenedetto’s history with Toyota, it’s possible Kyle Busch would entertain replacing a former Cup driver with another former Cup driver with Nemechek takes Burton’s NXS ride next season.

Roger Penske, meanwhile, all but confirmed in a press conference later that day that Keselowski will be joining Roush Fenway Racing as a co-owner.

Probably now the worst kept secret in all of racing, Keselowski going to Roush has been all but confirmed for upward of a month now. But one thing to watch this coming offseason is what Keselowski and Penske do in NXS competition.

When Keselowski first came onboard at Penske, one of the first priorities for him was to strengthen the team’s NXS program. The Penske NXS program pre-Keselowski was mainly just a part-time team for the Penske Cup drivers to goof off in when they wanted to. The No. 22 Ford, beginning in 2010, has been an absolute powerhouse in the years since, and it, along with the occasional No. 12, have helped develop a number of Penske employees that are now in Cup — not just Cindric and Ryan Blaney, but also all three Cup crew chiefs, who all began their Penske tenures in house in the NXS program.

Meanwhile, RFR had a successful tenure in the series, which served as the backbone to its driver development program years before Toyota revolutionized the industry with its successful execution of the concept. In 2018, the team fielded two NXS cars, and both were absolutely miserable; the No. 60 had a gaggle of drivers crashing every week, while Ryan Reed couldn’t even finish in the top 10 in points. Roush closed down both teams, although the No. 60 is currently reserved by the team if it were to come back.

Penske could well be scaling back from its operations in NXS, while it seems fair to assume the No. 60 will be back in some form once Keselowski takes over partial ownership of the team. Who the driver could be, considering Ford really doesn’t have anybody ready to move up to that series, will be very interesting to watch.

This weekend marks the final NASCAR weekend for a while, as all three series take a rest while NBC Sports is busy broadcasting the Summer Olympics.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a very old school-style racetrack. And not a 1970s or 1980s style, I’m thinking 1950s with how flat the oval is. There have been some quietly good finishes in recent years at the track, and with how short the Cup race is, expect pit strategy to be the main ingredient as to who will end up winning this race.

Christopher Bell should be able to cruise to his third straight NXS win at the track, but the Cup event should be interesting. Ford has won three straight races at New Hampshire, but Ford also has not won a Cup race this season outside of the superspeedways and a dirt track. With how much of a step forward Toyota took at Atlanta Motor Speedway, perhaps Bell could end up sweeping the weekend.

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Wow, a lot of food for thought in this article. Probably the best one I’ve read on FS in a long time, tks. First I’d even heard mention that Brad wanted to buy into Penske. I need to reread this again before commenting more.

Matt DiBenedetto reacts to Wood Brothers news | NASCAR

NASCAR 15 July, 2021 - 10:23am

In a nearly nine-minute video posted to Facebook, Matt DiBenedetto did not hold back his emotions about losing his seat for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season with the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

DiBenedetto revealed that he learned of the news yesterday that Harrison Burton would pilot the famed No. 21 in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season and said rather bluntly, “it does suck.”

“I’m going to be super honest. I’m not going to try and hide how I feel and what I feel,” DiBenedetto said. “You guys know what you see is what you get. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Found out yesterday. When I found out, I tried to be like OK, been through this before. How do I handle this? God has a plan for me. There’s a greater plan. …

“But you know what? I didn’t really sleep last night and I thought about it and it’s OK to have human emotion and I’m not going to lie to you, it’s OK to be pissed off, angry and bitter and all of the above. It just is what it is. We’re humans. We’re not perfect.” 

DiBenedetto reflected a bit on his time with the Wood Brothers — a tenure that will last two seasons (2020-21) and saw him nearly win at Talladega Superspeedway this spring. He called the Woods “family to me” and that he wants “to get that 100th win for them bad.”

The 29-year-old expressed frustration with his season to date as he sits outside the playoff picture in 18th in points heading to New Hampshire especially after he made the NASCAR Playoffs in 2020. He referred to the 21 team as “broken for a while” and how it “took too long” to shake things up.  The Wood Brothers made a crew chief change before the All-Star Race with Jonathan Hassler taking over for Greg Erwin and the driver indicated that the change gave his team a jump-start with back-to-back top 10s at Road America and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Our team is clicking,” DiBenedetto said of his July runs thus far. “Finally. But guess what? It’s too late. I know it’s going to work out like it’s supposed to, but I’m just expressing my frustration with the way it is. I’m getting the (expletive) end of the deal. I’m not angry at any one in particular. It doesn’t make the situation not suck.” 

Despite the bad news, the driver remains as optimistic as ever that his time in Victory Lane is coming.

“There’s still a lot of season left,” DiBenedetto said. “The positives are we do have our team on track so we can go kick ass. That’s the great thing that’s already shown. And I’m appreciative and I want to desperately get the 100th win for the Wood Brothers because like I said, they are and always will be family to me. And I am super appreciative of the opportunity.

“I’m here to win in the Cup Series. I am going to. Through all the heartache, all the frustration, all the obstacles, all the craziness … I am going to overcome all that and we are going to win. I feel confident that we are in the best position to go out there and do that finally and my future is going to be full of that and we’re going to have success.” 

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