Sport

Austin Cindric rebounds from rough July to crash Xfinity’s ‘Big 3’ party

When the month of August opened, Austin Cindric was in a desperate need of a “good weekend.”

So much so that the 20-year-old driver “didn’t even care about winning the race” when the Xfinity Series visited its first road course of the season at Watkins Glen International.

A “miserable” July saw Cindric fail to finish in the top 10 at Kentucky (spin), New Hampshire (engine change before the race) and Iowa (crash).

Despite being one of the favorites to win at WGI due to his sports car background and near-misses on road courses last year, Cindric just wanted to finish the race.

At the same time, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had been experiencing his own July misery. But that didn’t stop him from being one of the first people to send Cindric a message of congratulations when Cindric won at WGI.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but the first text I got after the race was from Jimmie Johnson,” Cindric said. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Before my grandma, before anyone else, Jimmie Johnson was the first text in my phone.”

It was a “pretty simple” congratulatory message for Cindric’s performance in beating AJ Allmendinger to secure his first career Xfinity Series win.

“Stuff like that for me goes a long way,” Cindric said. “I think it does for most guys in my position.”

Cindric had gone 54 starts before earning his first Xfinity win and his second in a national NASCAR series. His victory was Team Penske’s first Xfinity win in 28 races.

Now after months of talk about the “Big 3” – Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – Cindric has forced his way into the conversation.

“The goal is to be able to outrun them, not just run with them, but outrun them,” said Cindric, who added that the trio of drivers – who compete for three different teams and manufacturers – has provided a good “gauge” for his team.

Over the last three weeks Cindric has won twice, backing up the Watkins Glen triumph with a victory at his home track of Mid-Ohio. He’s the only series regular after Reddick, Bell and Custer with more than one win through 22 races.

Cindric’s hot steak continued last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Though he didn’t win, Cindric earned his third consecutive top five. That was after he won his second pole in a row, edging Kyle Busch.

Though he has nine top fives this year, Cindric said there’s “no doubt” his Bristol performance helps solidify the confidence that his team is more than just a contender on road courses.

“I don’t think that hangs over my head as much as it probably seems like it does,” Cindric said. “The road courses were going to be a strength for us this year, I don’t think that’s a secret that’s my skill set, that’s where my experience is at. At the same time, I’ve got six poles in the Xfinity Series, three of them are on ovals and three of them are on road courses. I feel like I’ve definitely got a strength in that regard.”

The series heads to the 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for its third road course in four races.

Cindric, who made his series debut there in 2017, will try to win a third straight road course race. That hasn’t been done in the Xfinity Series since Terry Labonte won at Watkins Glen from 1994-96.

He’ll also look to add to Penske’s all-time series-leading numbers on road courses in wins (12), top fives (39), poles (19) and laps led (963).

Cindric has raced on the track a half-dozen times across NASCAR, ARCA and sports cars. He says piloting a stock car around Road America requires slowing “everything down” compared to sports cars.

“You’re braking before any brake marker on the race track, which is pretty crazy,” Cindric said. “The longevity, you’ve got really long straightaways, followed up by really long brake zones and the longevity of brake pressure applied is insane there in a stock car. So you really have to time things well on a restart and in traffic. I think it’s a really easy place for guys to overshoot the braking zone. …

“I think that’s what makes driving a stock car there really difficult. But it is also a very fun track because the lap is so long that there’s so many different opportunities to pass lapped cars, lapped traffic or even find a strength or weakness in your car. I think it’s somewhere you can differentiate yourself just by putting a lap together.”

Cindric is confident enough in his abilities that he can finally master Road America and claim his third win of the month.

“You just got to mind your Ps and Qs at the beginning of it and not get caught up in the argy–bargy (British term for a an argument or disagreement) and caving your nose in. … That’s where my focus is.”

Well, not entirely. While one Cup driver was paying attention to him at Watkins Glen, Cindric will have his eyes peeled this weekend for the driver that’s been at the forefront of conversation this week in NASCAR.

“Matt DiBenedetto,” Cindric is quick to say. “He’s the man of the hour and he’s driving the (Joe Gibbs Racing) 18 car. And that car’s been really, really good the last two road courses. I’m looking forward to racing him, because I know I will be because he’s obviously really good on road courses.”

DiBenedetto, who placed second last weekend in the Cup race at Bristol, has road course finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and sixth (Watkins Glen) this year. Saturday’s race will be his first in the Xfinity Series since 2016.

“I’m excited to see what he’s got and see if we’ve got anything for him,” Cindric said.