NASCAR's perennial free agent again facing much uncertainty

Matt DiBenedetto always seems to be facing quite a bit of uncertainty during NASCAR silly season, and this year is no exception.

Last October, Wood Brothers Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto found himself in a situation similar to the ones he had been in toward the ends of the previous two NASCAR Cup Series seasons.

The driver of the #21 Ford was facing an uncertain future at NASCAR’s top level. In fact, Team Penske, which have a technical alliance with Wood Brothers Racing, planned to replace him with Xfinity Series driver Austin Cindric in 2021, but a late string of impressive performances changed their minds.

Instead, it was announced that Cindric would take over behind the wheel of the #21 Ford in 2022 instead, after making select starts behind the wheel of the #33 Ford for Team Penske throughout the 2021 season.

In 2018, DiBenedetto was coming to the end of his second season with Go Fas Racing, and he made the decision to leave the team in an attempt to secure a better ride.

It was a gamble, but it paid off, as he went on to sign with Leavine Family Racing. Leavine Family Racing also announced a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing for the following season, a technical alliance which ultimately led to better performance.

But it was always a foregone conclusion that DiBenedetto was nothing more than a placeholder for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell, who was still competing in the Xfinity Series, behind the wheel of the #95 Toyota.

It was indeed announced that Bell would replace DiBenedetto for the 2020 season, despite the fact that DiBenedetto had been performing exceptionally well. It was effectively planned from the start.

Fortunately, everything aligned for DiBenedetto to return to the Cup Series in 2020. Paul Menard stepped aside at Wood Brothers Racing, and he told the team that DiBenedetto was the driver they needed to hire as the new driver of the #21 Ford. So that they did.

But despite having re-signed with Wood Brothers Racing for 2021 and competing for the team for two years in a row, something he could not say about Leavine Family Racing, he is now back in a situation with plenty of uncertainty, again as a pending free agent.

DiBenedetto is without a deal to compete next year, and as noted above, it was already announced that Cindric is set to replace him.

There are plenty of possible landing spots for the 29-year-old Grass Valley, California native next year, but landing in any one of them is far from a guarantee.

With Brad Keselowski set to move to Roush Fenway Racing to take on both a driver and owner role, the #2 Ford at Team Penske is without a confirmed driver for 2022. DiBenedetto could be an option here.

But Team Penske had said that they wanted Keselowski to stick around for at least the 2022 season, so the fact that he is set to leave could change their initial plan with Cindric. Could Cindric go straight to Roger Penske’s team and drive the #2 Ford next year?

Even if that happens, there are no guarantees that Wood Brothers Racing won’t change things up, which would leave DiBenedetto outside of the Team Penske fold altogether.

There are still other options out there. Stewart-Haas Racing have changed their driver lineup after each of the last five seasons, and they have not solidified their lineup for next year.

Meanwhile, Trackhouse Racing Team are looking for a second driver to put alongside Daniel Suarez after announcing that they will acquire Chip Ganassi Racing following the 2021 season.

23XI Racing haven’t confirmed anything beyond Bubba Wallace in the #23 Toyota, but they are looking to expand from one car to two cars and sign somebody to drive alongside Wallace next year as well.

DiBenedetto is considered an option, even if not the top option, for both of these second seats.

So where will DiBenedetto end up in the 2022 season? Will he even be back for what would be an eighth season as a full-time driver next year?

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