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Wednesday September 18th, 2019 3:20AM

Paul Menard retiring, Wood Brothers hires DiBenedetto

By The Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Paul Menard has decided to walk away from NASCAR's top level after more than 460 races and Wood Brothers Racing is replacing him with Matt DiBenedetto in the iconic No. 21 Ford next season.

After spending 16 years in the Cup Series, Menard said Tuesday he wants to step back from full-time racing to spend more time with his family. The 39-year-old driver, whose only win came at the Brickyard 400 in 2011, has two young children with his wife, Jennifer.

"I've enjoyed every moment of my career racing in the NASCAR Cup Series and I'm so thankful for all the great memories and friendships I've made," Menard said. "I'm excited for what the future holds and I'm looking forward to sharing the plans for 2020 and beyond in the coming weeks."

Menard joins David Ragan in becoming the second veteran driver to retire this season.

His decision is a gift to DiBenedetto, who has been solid this season but learned last month he wasn't being retained at Leavine Family Racing next year. And with few rides expected to be available this offseason, the 28-year-old DiBenedetto was unsure if he would land a competitive ride.

"I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020," said DiBenedetto, who has six top-10 finishes in the past 10 races, but is still trying to reach victory lane for the first time in his career.

He nearly broke through at Bristol, leading 93 laps before finishing second to Denny Hamlin.

Despite keeping the single-car Leavine Family Racing competitive, DiBenedetto was victimized by the business of NASCAR. The team has an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing, and that means his seat is expected to go to Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell next season.

Now, DiBenedetto has a job with one of the oldest teams in NASCAR. One that has an alliance with powerhouse Team Penske, too.

"The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport," he said, "and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team's tradition of success."

The team was formed in 1950, during the early days of NASCAR, and the No. 21 has been piloted by such notable names as David Pearson, Buddy Baker and Neil Bonnett.

Menard took over the seat a couple years ago when Ryan Blaney moved into a third car for Team Penske. But he was unable to deliver the team its first win since Trevor Bayne's surprising victory in the 2011 Daytona 500, leaving the Wood Brothers team stuck one win away from 100.

Menard has a few more chances to deliver it this season. It will be up to DiBenedetto after that.

"We want to thank Paul Menard for his dedication to the team over the last two seasons," team president and co-owner Eddie Wood said in a statement. "We're looking forward to a strong finish to 2019 and we wish him nothing but the best for the future.

"All of us at Wood Brothers Racing are excited to welcome Matt DiBenedetto to the team beginning next season," Wood added. "Matt has shown a lot of promise on track and everyone has seen it in his results this season, especially over the past several months."

___

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