There is sometimes a tendency to rush young race car drivers up to the highest levels of the sport too quickly. History offers numerous examples of those who were pushed up the ladder to the NASCAR Cup Series before they were ready then ultimately came crashing down. However, Team Penske fought the temptation to do that very thing with 22-year-old Austin Cindric after he was crowned the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. Instead, the driver was left on that tour for another year to add to his experience level and to build confidence.
Now five races into the 2021 season, it certainly appears as if that was the right decision. The No. 22 Ford has posted stellar results up to this point and appears to be the clear leader among those competing for the NASCAR Xfinity Series title.
Cindric’s win in the Call 811 Before You Dig 200 this past Saturday at the Phoenix Raceway was his second triumph of the season. The Mooresville, NC driver also won the season opener at Daytona and has not finished outside the top-5 so far this year. As a matter of fact, the team’s average finish has been an impressive 2.6 which has led to a commanding 47 point lead over second place Daniel Hemric in the overall standings.
During a media availability session following his Phoenix win, Cindric was asked if a team that has posted such dominating results has any areas of weakness.
“I think there’s always areas to improve,” Cindric insisted. “Today, I think we got over a hurdle. We’ve had some opportunities to pit from the lead this season and we’ve lost it, and we did that today, but my guys rallied and came back and got me the lead back on pit road. I’m really proud of that effort, those guys work really hard. I’m proud that we were able to overcome a flaw and make it a strength. We’ve had a lot of different types of race tracks here at the beginning of the season and I think we’ve been able to get a really great baseline on our program and keep rolling in updates and get better.”
And while his team has been strong on the varied venues employed by the series so far in 2021, this driver is not looking to relax.
“Right now, I feel like we’re pretty strong at a lot of different types of race tracks, but I think we have to keep raising our game,” he declared. “Those guys that have made some definite gains in the off-season at some places have surpassed us so I’m pretty motivated to keep matching that effort and trying to figure out where the next edge can be.”
The winner of six races on the Xfinity Series last season has come to expect victory each time his team unloads their Ford Mustang.
“We want to be the best every weekend at every type of race track,” Cindric said. “That’s obviously a blanket goal for the entire field but I think we’re at the point where if we leave with a top-5 we’re a little bit disappointed. I have to remind myself some days that there was a time that all I wanted to do was finish in the top-5 in this series.”
The hunger of other drivers who are looking to knock him off provides fuel for Cindric.
“I understand the climb and I understand the guys that I’m racing around that either haven’t won this year or haven’t won at all are fighting for wins,” he pointed out. “I know that feeling and I feel like it helps me race better, race smarter, and maybe be able to understand what’s happening around me so I think that’s a strength for us. We’ve got almost all the same people on this 22 team that we had last year. I love what I see out of my team stepping their game up every week and it’s my job to equalize that effort and do my part.”
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Cindric is already slated to pilot the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford in 2022. He hopes the experience gained while staying in the same place for another season will benefit his efforts once he assumes the title of full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver.
“I think for me there’s a lot of normal things going on,” he explained. “This is my fourth year in this series, that seems hard to believe, but before that the longest I had stayed in the same car for more than a year was in Legends cars. I’ve been learning a lot at a very fast pace. I remember in my sports car days I would go up and ask people what I could do to make myself more of a better driver for them, to make me more attractive for their team, or their manufacturer. The consistent answer was that I needed to stay in something for a little while.”
He understands that the challenge he will face next season will be a difficult one. But Cindric plans to use every lap in his current series to build toward success when he reaches the top level.
“I’ve had a lot of great opportunities in a lot of different race cars but now I have the chance with a really great team and a great group of people to perfect my craft and it matters. It matters a lot and that’s why these guys on Sundays who have been doing it for ten or fifteen years are so good. That’s why it’s going to be so hard for me to go on Sunday and expect to do the same thing I’m doing right now. That’s why it’s hard for guys like Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer, guys who have dominated in this series, its difficult. That’s what you expect.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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