Roger Penske, it’s time for you to step up and make sure the Wood Brothers Racing team and their new driver, Matt DiBenedetto, have the best possible chance to succeed.
That promising combination, which goes into effect for the 2020 season, depends mightily on Team Penske. Since 2015, the Wood Brothers operation has had a technical alliance with Penske. The Woods, a Ford/Mercury team since its inception in 1950, depends on Penske, the best of the Ford outfits in present-day NASCAR, for equipment and technical assistance.
The alliance peaked in 2017 when Ryan Blaney, then 23, drove for the Woods and had the car, with its familiar number 21, running up front, often ahead of the two Team Penske drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Blaney won once that season and had four top-five finishes and 14 top-10s.
Penske, famous for recognizing talent in all forms of auto racing, already had Blaney under contract. In 2018 he expanded Team Penske, adding a third car for Blaney. It was a blow to the Woods, but it was an expected business decision from Penske.
The Wood Brothers’ driver the past two seasons has been Paul Menard, a journeyman competitor and scion of the Menard family. Paul Menard’s father, philanthropist and billionaire John Menard, is founder of the Menards home-improvement chain of 350 midwest stores. The chain has been a major sponsor of the Woods and of Penske cars.
Paul Menard announced this week he will no longer drive full-time after the end of the season. The Menards sponsorships, he said, will continue with the Woods and Penske in 2020. Menard, 39, notched his lone win in 461 starts in 2011 for Richard Childress.
Eddie Wood and Len Wood are the second generation of the family’s brothers to lead the team, now based in North Carolina. Their father, Glen Wood, and brother Leonard Wood led the team for decades from their shop in Stuart.
Eddie Wood said he asked Menard whom he thought the team should ask to come aboard as the next driver. Menard’s first two words: “Get Matt.”
DiBenedetto was told just weeks ago he would not return to his current team, Leavine Family Racing, in 2020, even though he has given the team its best string of top-10 finishes, including a second-place finish at Bristol last month.
“I want what’s best for the 21 team,” Menard said. “Matt’s a young guy that can put the time in to give these guys what they need and allows me to spend more time with my family.”
Team alliances, like the one the one Penske has with the Woods, are common in modern-day NASCAR. Chassis and engine development costs have skyrocketed, and some teams need to latch on to a major multi-car team in order to survive.
The two most enduring family team names in NASCAR, Wood and Petty (currently Richard Petty Motorsports), are both auxiliary single-car teams — the Woods with Penske, Petty with Childress.
Often those second-hand teams don’t get the best equipment and tech assistance from the big boys. DiBenedetto knows that. His Leavine team is allied with the Joe Gibbs-owned four-driver Toyota juggernaut. Leavine’s equipment has been good, but not that good.
Which brings us back to Penske.
How has Penske been treating the Wood Brothers in the two years since he moved Blaney to the Penske garage? The Woods have not finished as well or run up front near as much. In 2017, Blaney won a race for the Woods and led 301 laps in the course of the 36-race 2017 season. Menard, in 62 races with the Woods so far in 2018-19, hasn’t won and has led 19 laps. Driver talent is a factor, no doubt. But equipment may be as well.
Now comes DiBenedetto, 28, whose talent has shown through with six top-10 finishes in his past 11 races. Yes, he’s had some good luck, but he’s also been driving consistently well. When the TV and radio crews note he’s among the leaders, there’s no longer an audible exclamation point after his name.
Here’s my dare to Penske: make sure this driver and the Woods have the best possible Fords in 2020. Challenge your own talented drivers — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney — to outrun him.
And if DiBenedetto and the Woods go to the front from time to time, Penske can make the most of it. He can embrace his allied team, make it a point of pride that Team Penske has a role in the Woods’ accomplishments.
Besides success all across the racing spectrum, most notably IndyCar and NASCAR, Penske is a businessman. Wood Brothers Racing offers a marvelous marketing and public relations opportunity.
The Wood Brothers team is the team that revolutionized pit stops in both NASCAR and at Indianapolis. This is the team that was unbeatable for years on the Riverside, Calif., road course with Dan Gurney at the wheel. This is the team that had a phenomenal run in the 1970s with David Pearson driving.
This is the team with 99 Cup Series victories since the team was founded. If Menard doesn’t pull off an upset in this season’s final 10 events, DiBenedetto could notch win No. 100.
When that happens, for long-time NASCAR fans Penske won’t be just the Wood Brothers’ patron. He’ll be their patron saint.