From 21 to 2: Why Roger Penske switched Austin Cindric’s 2022 Cup plans

Austin Cindric has known for nine months he will move up to the Cup Series come 2022. He thought he’d be driving the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing. That was true until Thursday, when Team Penske revealed Cindric will instead pilot its No. 2 Ford next season.

No harm, no foul thanks to the two teams’ alliance.

The change is a rather big deal, though, considering the No. 2 just happens to be Team Penske’s first-ever championship car and its winningest number.

“There’s never been a rookie to drive the 2 car in the Cup Series,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Zoom teleconference. “I wouldn’t say there’s pressure with that, but I think there’s definitely an expectation within the shop, and I’m excited to embrace that role and be able to go out there and obviously try to win races for Team Penske.”

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Meanwhile, Harrison Burton has been chosen to take over the No. 21 entry, Wood Brothers Racing announced in sync with Team Penske. He comes from Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series program.

Cindric’s move is internal. He already races for Team Penske in the Xfinity Series. So, when team owner Roger Penske confirmed Brad Keselowski, the current No. 2 driver, will not return to the organization after this season, there was no debate whether Cindric would fill the void.

“I couldn’t be prouder to say that he’s gonna be the driver of the No. 2 car, and I think he’s earned the respect,” Penske said. “You come in as the son of the guy who is the president of Team Penske, you’d probably come in with a little bit of weight on your shoulders, but I can tell you one thing, as far as I’m concerned, all that’s off. He’s proven to be the driver he is, the individual he is today.”

The 22-year-old joined Team Penske full time in 2019, won two races and finished sixth in the final standings. In 2020, he boosted his win total to six and captured the championship. He’s on pace to have an even better season this year with four wins already and 15 races remaining on the 2021 schedule.

RELATED: Austin Cindric wins 2020 Xfinity Series title | Catch up on the moves for 2022

In preparation for 2022, Cindric made his Cup Series debut this season. He has competed in six events with Team Penske’s No. 33 Ford. His best finish was 15th from the Daytona 500, despite a last-lap crash, and he even led laps in two road-course races.

“He’s had some good rides, running well at Daytona before the accident, and we were not expecting, quite honestly, we would not be able to put a deal together with Brad, but we can talk about that later probably,” Penske said. “This gave us a chance to step back and then you have the discussion with your key sponsor. Discount Tire has been a major player with us for a number of years. With the team and Discount Tire, we felt that was a very easy move for us. Brad really opened that up for Austin, and I think with that move we wanted to announce it today.

“There’s been lots of speculation, really, with Brad moving on and I think this helps him take on his next stage in his career and then we can bring Austin up into the 2 car.”

Rumors have not-so quietly circulated that Keselowski is going to join Roush Fenway Racing in an owner-driver role, but there has been no official announcement. With how Team Penske is structured, Penske didn’t see an opportunity to keep Keselowski around in the additional ownership way he wanted. It was discussed, because Penske really didn’t want to lose Keselowski as a driver.

Keselowski has been with Team Penske for his entire full-time career, which began in 2010. He started in the No. 12 car and switched to the No. 2 in 2011. Since then, 34 of his 35 wins have come in the Deuce — the other was with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing in a 2009 part-time role. He has one victory this year, which means he’s locked into the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs with one final shot at a second title with Team Penske.

RELATED: All of Brad Keselowski’s wins in the Cup Series

“Did I ever sit here and think, one day I could be the driver of the 2 car? Probably not,” Cindric said. “I didn’t think that was something that was obtainable or reachable maybe at this stage in life. In my bedroom at my parents’ house, I still have a picture of Brad doing a burnout at Bristol signed by Brad Keselowski sitting on my bed. As a kid, you just grow up rooting for those guys and you don’t really picture yourself being one of them.”