After months of anticipation, one of the largest and most ominous dominoes of NASCAR Silly Season has now fallen. A driver change is officially occurring at Team Penske, and its sister team in Wood Brothers Racing is following suit in bringing an Xfinity Series star up to the Cup level.
On Thursday, Team Penske announced that 2020 Xfinity Series Champion Austin Cindric will drive the team's No. 2 Ford in 2022 to replace Brad Keselowski, who will leave Penske after a decade with the organization. It had previously been reported that Keselowski would move to Roush Fenway Racing to take a role as a driver and partial owner, and a report by Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic stated that Keselowski has accepted Roush's offer.
Prior to rumors of Keselowski's departure first coming to light, Cindric had previously been announced as the driver of the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing -- which has a technical alliance with Penske -- who now has yet another new driver. The team revealed Thursday that Harrison Burton, the son of former Cup star Jeff Burton, will move from the Xfinity Series to drive for the team full-time.
A full-time Xfinity Series driver since 2018, Cindric has developed from a road racer by trade who was raw on ovals into one of the most well-rounded drivers at NASCAR's second level. After winning twice on road courses in 2019, Cindric blossomed with six victories en route to the series championship in 2020. Cindric has followed up his title-winning season with four wins in 2021, including in the season opener at Daytona.
"Throughout my NASCAR career, I've grown a lot as a driver and an individual," Cindric said in a team statement. "There are so many individuals within the walls of Team Penske that have elevated me to a level that matches this opportunity. The support towards my development from Roger, Team Penske, and all of our partners has been the leading factor towards race wins and a championship."
Meanwhile, Burton has exhibited great poise behind the wheel driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in Xfinity, winning four races en route to Rookie of the Year honors in 2020. Burton has since scored five Top 5 and 11 Top 10 finishes this season, and currently sits fifth in the Xfinity Series points standings.
"Since I began racing quarter midgets, the hope and goal was always to become a full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series," said Burton in a team release. "Now, I get to do this with one of the most storied teams in NASCAR history in the Wood Brothers and with an association with Ford Motor Company and Ford Performance. I don't think I could have dreamt of a better situation to put myself in when it comes to the start of my NASCAR Cup Series career."
While Keselowski's future beyond Penske is seemingly settled, one party involved in Thursday's transactions finds his future much less secure. Cindric and Burton's Cup opportunities came at the expense of current Wood Brothers driver Matt DiBenedetto, who is now without a ride for 2022.
DiBenedetto -- a fan favorite and trademark underdog driver -- has gone through a rough 2021 season, which has featured just two Top 5 and five Top 10 finishes and a midseason crew chief change. In a video posted to his Facebook account, DiBenedetto expressed his frustration with how the situation played out.
"When I found out, I tried to be like 'OK, been through this before.' How do I handle this? God has a plan for me. There's a greater plan," DiBenedetto said, per NASCAR.com. "But you know what? I didn't really sleep last night and I thought about it and it's OK to have human emotion and I'm not going to lie to you, it's OK to be pissed off, angry and bitter and all of the above. It just is what it is. We're humans. We're not perfect.
Ahead of their first season in Cup, both Cindric and Burton have made limited starts in Cup cars this season. Cindric has run six Cup races in a fourth Penske car this season with a best finish of 15th in the Daytona 500. Meanwhile, Burton made his Cup debut at Talladega Superspeedway, finishing 20th for Gaunt Brothers Racing.