Brad Keselowski's reign as the driver of the No. 2 car at Team Penske is officially over after 2021.
The team announced Thursday that Austin Cindric would take over for Keselowski in 2022. Keselowski has been reported to move to Roush Fenway Racing as a part-owner at the end of the season. Keselowski would reportedly drive the No. 6 car and become a driver-owner like Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart have done in recent seasons.
Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion, had been tabbed to drive the No. 21 car for the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022. He moves over to the No. 2 now that Keselowski is leaving the team.
“Austin is a champion and has proven his abilities both on and off the track.” Roger Penske said in a statement. “The Cup Series is a big step for any rookie but making this move now, in conjunction with the introduction of the new NextGen car, makes sense. He has gained valuable experience this year competing in a handful of races at the Cup level and he has shown that he belongs out there.”
Cindric's move to Team Penske next season means that the Wood Brothers need a driver. And that driver is not going to be Matt DiBenedetto. The team said that Harrison Burton would drive the No. 21 car in 2022. Burton currently drives for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series and is the son of former Cup Series driver and current NBC analyst Jeff Burton.
“As a team owner, you always want to keep an eye for the future and what’s best for your organization in hopes to set yourself up for success long term,” WBR co-owner Eddie Wood said in a statement. “As things have progressed and changed over the last few months, we had the chance to look at what our options are and when we determined that Harrison would be available for our team, we wanted to jump at the opportunity to work with him. Harrison is young, but comes from a family full of successful race car drivers."
Keselowski issued a statement about his departure from Penske not long after the moves were announced.
DiBenedetto's performance has regressed
DiBenedetto joined the Wood Brothers ahead of the 2020 season on a one-year deal after he had seven top-10 finishes for Leavine Family Racing. DiBenedetto had 11 top 10s in 2020 and finished 13th in the points standings.
He’s regressed in 2021 after signing with the team for another season. DiBenedetto has just five top 10s in 21 races and is currently 18th in the points standings and out of the provisional playoff field. DiBenedetto’s average finish (18.2) is 4.2 spots worse than it was in 2020.
Would a better 2021 have saved DiBenedetto's job at WBR? Probably not. He knew in October that he wasn't going to be back with the team in 2022 after Team Penske announced that Cindric would take over the No. 21 in 2022. Obviously the plans changed with Cindric. But nothing changed with DiBenedetto — at least publicly. Maybe he thought he had a chance to stay again with Keselowski's departure.
If that chance existed, it didn't become reality. And it's hard to say where DiBenedetto goes from here. At least in the Cup Series. Nearly every top-tier and mid-tier ride is filled ahead of the 2022 season. The only available option at the moment appears to be the second Trackhouse car alongside Daniel Suarez. Trackhouse recently bought Chip Ganassi Racing and could also keep Ross Chastain in the fold for 2022.
Can Keselowski remain a title contender?
Now that it's official that Keselowski is departing Team Penske, it's time to wonder how the public news will affect the team's run to the title. Keselowski has been a perennial title contender since he won the 2012 championship and should be in the mix again in 2021 if the team can find some speed.
We've seen lame-duck teams have success before. Furniture Row Racing made the final four with Martin Truex Jr. in the team's last season in 2018, and Jeff Gordon raced for the title in his final season — though that wasn't a comparable situation.
Keselowski enters Sunday’s race at New Hampshire with one win and is 10th in the points standings. He has just eight top-10 finishes in 2021.
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