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Did The Wood Brothers Make a Mistake Letting Matt DiBenedetto Go?

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What’s Happening?

Matt DiBenedetto and The Wood Brothers had a bitter divorce after the 2021 season. Since then, both parties have moved on with The Wood Brothers entering their third season with Harrison Burton as the driver and DiBenedetto as a free agent once again during the 2023-24 offseason. However, The Wood Brothers’ performance has declined sharply since DiBenedetto left. Did The Wood Brothers make a mistake?

  • After years of working his way through the Cup Series ranks, Matt DiBenedetto finally got his big break with The Wood Brothers in 2020. He had his moments, but, it was not good enough to stay with the team beyond 2021.
  • The Wood Brothers are one of NASCAR’s oldest race teams. They joined the sport in 1953, and they have had some of the greatest drivers in history race for them including A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson. However, the team has hit a snag since the Next-Gen car was introduced.
  • Matt DiBenedetto has a contingent of very loyal supporters, and so do The Wood Brothers. Would both have been better if they stayed together?

A Look at Performance

Matt DiBenedetto was with The Wood Brothers for two years, and Harrison Burton has been with the Wood Brothers for two seasons. Therefore, total stats can easily be compared between the two. Here is a look at both driver’s statistics over two seasons with the team.

  • Matt DiBenedetto (72 Races)
    • 0 Wins
    • 6 Top-5s
    • 20 Top-10s
    • 15.9 Avg. Finish
    • Points Finishes: 13th (2020), 18th (2021)
    • DNF’s: 3
  • Harrison Burton (72 Races)
    • 0 Wins
    • 1 Top-5
    • 4 Top-10s
    • 23.8 Avg. Finish
    • Points Finishes: 27th (2022), 31st (2023)
    • DNF’s: 13

There is no question performed better over their time with the team. Matt DiBenedetto was clearly the better driver. Keep in mind, DiBenedetto raced during the Gen-6 era, where parity was lower, while Burton raced in the Next-Gen era, where parity has never been higher.

Look closer at how DiBenedetto did when he left The Wood Brothers. He went to Rackley W.A.R., who only had one Truck Series top-10 in their first season. DiBenedetto won a race with the team in 2022, and he made the Playoffs with the team in 2023. Regardless of how things ended, it’s clear that DiBenedetto helped elevate the performance of that team.

However, things are never this simple in NASCAR. There are outside factors that we must take into account as well.

The Outside Factors

The Wood Brothers are not like big NASCAR teams that can function relatively or completely independently. They have a strong technical alliance with Team Penske. This goes down to pit crews, crew chiefs, and even drivers.

For example, before Ryan Blaney drove for Team Penske in the Cup Series, he drove for The Wood Brothers until a sport opened up for him. Since the mid-2010s, Roger Penske has had a heavy influence on who pilots the driver’s seat for The Wood Brothers.

While DiBenedetto did solid in his first season with The Wood Brothers, he regressed in 2021. Team Penske had the opportunity to snatch Burton from JGR, and they did so. With Cindric taking over the 2-car for Penske, the choice was between Burton or DiBenedetto.

There’s also the factor of sponsorship, which is likely the biggest factor. DiBenedetto did not bring a lot of his own sponsorship to The Wood Brothers, or Rackley W.A.R. for that matter. Burton, meanwhile, had Dex Imaging supporting him.

Penske had to choose between investing in a raw, but talented prospect with funding, or a 29-year-old without funding whom many speculated hit his ceiling. At the time, it made perfect business and even some performance sense to put Burton in the satellite car to give him time to develop. Especially with no Xfinity Series program at Team Penske, it became even more critical to use that team for young, developing drivers.

However, DiBenedetto’s history may also shed some light on the story. He has a history of ugly exits from race teams.

Matt DiBenedetto’s History

Matt DiBenedetto has a history of ugly exits from race teams. He left Go Fas Racing in 2018 saying he was “Betting on himself”. While it ultimately got him a better ride, it likely left a sour taste in the team’s mouth.

Look at Rackley W.A.R. this year, where he surprisingly announced he would leave the team in the middle of the Playoffs. The timing was awkward, and, Rackley eventually cut DiBenedetto loose after he was eliminated from the Playoffs.

DiBenedetto’s departure from The Wood Brothers was equally as ugly. He responded to the news by making a video on social media lamenting losing his Cup Series ride. In the video, he mentioned his frustration while also calling the 21 team, “Broken”.

Something was going on behind the scenes that just wasn’t working, and DiBenedetto was okay with airing those grievances. We don’t know what was said or done behind the scenes, but, it’s obvious DiBenedetto was not clicking with his team the way he wanted to, and a change was made.

While it’s understandable DiBenedetto was upset, publicly calling the team “Broken” after being released is a bad look. While behind-the-scenes turmoil likely influenced the decision, making that public comment likely confirmed it in the eyes of Team Penske and The Wood Brothers.

Regardless of how good a driver is, if they are either not clicking with the team or calling the team out publicly without taking enough accountability themselves, they will not stay around long. Just ask Kyle Busch how quickly emotional immaturity can take you out of a top ride.

It’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely that DiBenedetto was right about some of what was wrong. However, something going on behind the scenes made the higher-ups think the problem was the driver, not those around him.

Was it a mistake letting DiBenedetto go? The performance tells one story, but, everything surrounding it makes the story murkier and murkier.

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Joshua Lipowski

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