NASCAR suprise: Matt DiBenedetto will drive for Wood Brothers in 2020 as Paul Menard steps away

Paul Menard handed over the keys to one of NASCAR's most recognizable rides to a friend Tuesday.

The 39-year-old Menard will step away from full-time competition in the Cup Series at the end of the season to devote more time to family, and Matt DiBenedetto will take over the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford Mustangs in 2020.

Their announcement came as a rare surprise in the racing world.

“When Paul let us know he was going to step away from Cup, our first question was, of course, ‘Who should we get?’” team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “First thing out of Paul’s mouth was, ‘Get Matt.’ So we did.”

A popular journeyman, DiBenedetto became more of a fan favorite when he was told in August he would not return to Leavine Family Racing despite having helped to elevate the team. He presumably was caught in a numbers game with Toyota, which needed a Cup seat to move Christopher Bell up from the Xfinity Series, although that move has not been announced.

Matt DiBenedetto has impressed fans and other drivers while scoring the best results of his career this summer. (Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)

DiBenedetto, 28, has recorded six top-10 finishes over the last 11 Cup races, including three top-fives and a career-best second place Aug. 17 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Four days earlier he had learned of his fate with Leavine.

“A little bit after that Bristol race weekend is when I got that first phone call and Paul was thinking about making this decision, so it all came together really quick,” said DiBenedetto, who was the only driver interviewed, according to Wood.

“One thing I've always said is a priority of mine has been always gaining respect of other drivers, of veterans like Paul, because they can be your best allies and a huge influence on your entire career. This is the perfect example of … Paul is not only making a big decision for his life and career, but he's impacting my entire life, family and everything I've worked for my whole career.”

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Menard has one victory in 461 starts the Cup Series, but it was a big one — the 2011 Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two of his three wins in the second-tier Xfinity Series came at his home-state tracks in Wisconsin, 2006 at the Milwaukee Mile and 2015 at Road America in Elkhart Lake.

Menard had talked for years about knowing the time would come when his wife, Jennifer, and their two children would become a bigger priority than racing. That decision came this summer, he said.

Although Menard knows what he won’t be doing next year, he said his plans are far from set.

"First and foremost, I need to be a good dad, a good husband," Menard said. "But outside of that, there's a lot of opportunities. We have a great company up in Wisconsin that's growing, that's vibrant, so I'm going to do what I can to help them out.

"And I'm not done racing yet. Trying to figure out what the next step is for sure but it's not going to be 38 weeks a year, I can tell you that."

Paul Menard has driven the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford since 2018. (Photo: Stan Szeto, USA TODAY Sports)

The chain of home improvement stores founded by his father, John, has been a big backer of Menard's career. It also became a sponsor of Team Penske — both its NASCAR and IndyCar programs — when Menard joined the Wood Brothers before last season. The teams entered into an alliance in NASCAR in 2015.

The company will continue a full-season sponsorship in the Cup Series next year, split between DiBenedetto's car and the No. 12 Penske car driven by Ryan Blaney, Menard said.

Wood Brothers Racing, founded in 1950, last went to victory lane in June 2017 with Blaney at Pocono Raceway. That was the team's 99th victory.

"We've had a good couple runs the last few weeks, and we certainly want to end the season on a high note," Menard said. "Win No. 100 is right around the corner. I'd love to be the guy that could do that, could give the Wood Brothers, the Wood family, win No. 100. And if I can't, then Matt's the guy to do it."

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