When I woke up on the morning of July 15, I wasn’t exactly sure what NASCAR news to expect when I checked social media. But, ironically, the unexpected has become expected this year, especially as silly season has begun to heat up.
Now, I don’t wake up that late. 7:30 in the summertime isn’t late at all by college student standards. It was still before 8am Central when I checked the news and discovered who would be piloting two of the most sought-after rides in the Cup Series for 2022.
If you haven’t already heard, Team Penske has tapped their Xfinity Series driver, Austin Cindric, to drive the 2 car next year. This means veteran Brad Keselowski is off the team, assumedly taking over as an owner-driver at Roush Fenway Racing in 2022. This didn’t come as a surprise to most fans, but the other news was a bit more jarring.
Matt DiBenedetto, who we already knew did not have a contract extension for 2022, is being replaced in the Wood Brothers 21 by Harrison Burton, driver of the number 20 Xfinity car for Joe Gibbs Racing.
So, there’s a lot to unpack here.
First, Matty D is a free agent for 2022. There’s been an uproar about why he deserves to keep the 21 and how he’s been so close to winning races, but let’s remember, Cindric was already going to replace Matt in the 21, as was announced more than half a year ago. WBR was already prepared to make way for a new, younger driver in 2022.
So why not keep DiBenedetto in the 21, now that Cindric is taking over Keselowski’s ride?
As hard as it may be to admit at times, NASCAR is a business. Sponsors and race wins speak louder than any driver’s personality, status as a “fan favorite”, or general likeability. I like Matt a great deal, and I feel that he has potential as a driver. But at age 29, mere potential just isn’t enough to warrant a Penske affiliated Cup ride.
When I saw that Harrison Burton, albeit one of my favorite Xfinity Series drivers, would be taking over the 21, my initial thought was, “oh no”.
Harrison Burton, who will turn 21 this October, is currently competing in only his second full-time Xfinity season. He scored four wins overall in 2020 but has yet to win this year. Although he is in the top five of the playoff standings, I believe that unless an Xfinity Series driver is contending for and securing multiple wins throughout the season, for multiple seasons in a row, they haven’t proven themselves ready for Cup. In fact, the only current Xfinity driver who I believe is fully Cup-ready is aforementioned reigning champ Austin Cindric, who has proved his consistency throughout his tenure in the Xfinity 22 car.
After sitting with the news for a bit, having breakfast, and going for a walk, I talked to some other NASCAR fans online about the Penske bombshell. Since Cindric to the 2 was expected, most of the talk surrounded the DiBenedetto/Burton situation.
Although I and most other fans believe Harrison is a strong, promising young driver who will likely succeed in Cup within the next few years, nearly everyone I’ve talked to has agreed that he should spend at least one more season in Xfinity before making the jump. But the table is already set; it’s not speculation anymore. Harrison Burton will be the first driver born in this century to race in the Cup Series full-time.
Some argue that Harrison needs to prove himself with more wins and better finishes. Others say he has the talent and the maturity for Cup, but his youth and lack of experience will be his greatest roadblock in 2022. I fall in the second camp, but after reexamining the situation over the past 24 hours, I believe that Burton to the 21 is a good move. Here are a few reasons why.
Before Matt DiBenedetto and Paul Menard raced in the 21, a young Ryan Blaney was selected to drive for the Wood Brothers in 2015, then full time in 2016 and 2017. Blaney was 21 years old in 2015, the same age Harrison Burton will be by the time Daytona rolls around in February. While not winning in 2015 or in his first full-time season, Ryan Blaney pulled off his first Cup Series win at Pocono in 2017, and his average finishes improved significantly each year he was in the 21.
The 21 at WBR has, in recent years, become a development car. In 2015, many argued that Ryan Blaney wasn’t ready to race in the Cup Series full-time, but he was quickly on par with other young drivers in the series and markedly improved each year until taking over the Team Penske 12 (his stats have been improving each season since then, too). While Blaney was young when he was brought up to Cup, being at a team like WBR prepared him for one of the top Ford rides in the series without putting the pressure of being teammates with Logano and Keselowski onto him right from the get-go. In the case of 2022, As Cindric is further ahead of Burton in Xfinity success and driver development (and has already been in-house for Penske for over three years), it makes sense that he would be the one to take over the 2.
Cindric over DiBenedetto is a whole other can of worms, but here’s my brief take. I would be inclined to choose a highly successful Xfinity series driver to take over and build tenure at Penske’s premier team from a young age. I’d be much more inclined to this than to choose someone who is nearly ten years older and still has not won at the Cup level. Plus, Cindric has had strong Cup starts this year to boot and has shown some promising glimpses of what he’s capable of in the 2.
The Penske 2 is a car that legacies are built around, and with Keselowski’s exit, it is in Tim Cindric and Roger Penske’s best interest to start Austin’s Penske tenure early. In fact, all four Penske and affiliate drivers next year will be between the ages of 21 and 31 at the Daytona 500. This is a lineup on par with the youth movement over at Hendrick, another team you can tell a lot of development and investment is being poured into.
Investment. That’s what I see happening with young drivers Cindric and Burton. WBR’s Eddie Wood explained yesterday that they want a rookie on the team, a fresh start of a driver to complement the “clean slate” that is the Next Gen car, debuting in 2022. Ford Performance is investing in their young drivers, and, in stark contrast to the overcrowded pipeline over in the Gibbs/Toyota camps, it seems as if the blue ovals have some solid long-term plans.
But, you may ask, where would Harrison go after his “development” at WBR? If Penske keeps their current lineup, there won’t be an open car there for years.
There are many visible options, and many more us fans can’t even imagine yet. The landscape of the sport is constantly evolving, and nothing is set in stone. Stewart-Haas Racing, another Ford team, has drivers who will be aging out of NASCAR or will be out of contract within the next few years. Roush Fenway (Keselowski?) Racing will be undergoing serious changes very, very soon. Team Penske could possibly start a fourth team with the 33 car, but as of now that’s just speculation. There will be opportunities for Burton. Who knows? Perhaps he could bring yearly wins to the Wood Brothers. And with the Next Gen car on the horizon, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the gap between Penske and WBR’s performance is narrowed by all of the changes the new car brings.
Yes, Harrison Burton is young. Really young. But his youth and relative inexperience is exactly what WBR wants right now, and they seem to be confident in their decisions. So, although I don’t believe he is “ready”, per se, I’m okay with that. These days, there’s absolutely no predicting what happens in this sport. We’re all just along for the ride.
Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com.