DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Three-plus years later, it remains a really tough watch.
Austin Cindric was nearing the end of a split Xfinity Series campaign, dividing time between Roger Penske’s and Jack Roush’s cars. Four of his nine starts in Roush’s No. 60 Ford had ended in race-ending crashes. The last of those came on Labor Day weekend, 2018.
Cindric’s No. 60 had nosed into the inside retaining wall at Darlington Raceway before the engine had hardly warmed – last place, just two laps completed. “Come ONNNN!” he screamed over the team radio. The interview that followed at the infield care center was no easier, and the cringe meter had been pegged. Cindric choked up, saying he knew he’d get teary-eyed because his team had worked so hard to try to further his racing efforts.
So the question came Sunday on what exactly Cindric would’ve told his previous self, the one that struggled to a 17th-place average finish that star-crossed year. Could he have said that one day he’d be a Daytona 500 champion and that everything would be OK?
“Probably not. You probably couldn’t have picked me up from the care center and said, you’re going to win the Daytona 500 one day. I probably would have said, ‘bulls—.’ But we’ve come a long way since then,” Cindric said with a degree of understatement. “It’s a very big credit to a lot of the people around me that have believed in me.
“I’ve driven a lot of different race cars in my career, a lot of different race cars at this track alone, and I’ve seen the highs and lows of it. I have a lot of perspective from friends, competitors, co-drivers, teammates. This race means so much to so many people, and just very humbled to be able to get it done.”
Cindric soaked it all in Sunday, further distancing himself from those turbulent days with a crowning victory in The Great American Race. Fending off a late challenge from teammate Ryan Blaney, Cindric opened his rookie NASCAR Cup Series season in the best possible way, in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.
So yes, 2018-self Austin Cindric, it got better. In the years that followed, Cindric notched an Xfinity Series championship in 2020 and came a quarter of a lap away from another title last year. All the while, he was climbing toward a destination in the Cup Series, driving the famed No. 2 for Roger Penske while replacing former series champion Brad Keselowski.
Along the way, there was the backbiting that he tried to tune out. Tim Cindric, his father, is the president of Team Penske. Any whispers that his last name helped him more than his driving merit didn’t seem to faze him.
“For me, I guess I don’t have time for the noise,” Cindric said. “But if there’s anything I have left to prove, I’m not sure what it is.”
Sunday’s finish may have done more to sway those opinions and to bury the memory of his inauspicious start.
“I think Jeff Gordon tore up a lot of race cars, too, at one point, and he turned out to be pretty awesome,” said No. 2 Ford crew chief Jeremy Bullins. “… I think the years he’s been in the Xfinity car and the experience he gained there just made him better to get to the point where — I hope this gives him a sense of belonging over here, that I can do this and I do fit in and all those things because that confidence is very inspiring and leads you to do great things.
“Did it start off great? Maybe not. But I’m telling you the kid studies and he works hard, and he puts a lot of effort into it. If he’s not doing well, he will figure it out for sure.”
Cindric’s name gained some clout Sunday. Funny, since it was initially misspelled on the placard above his garage stall when his team arrived in Daytona early last week.
Any tears in interviews Sunday would have been joyful ones. As a measure of how far he’d distanced himself from that 2018 dismay in Darlington, no less than Mario Andretti applauded Cindric on Sunday evening for a “most brilliant drive” on social media.
From one Daytona 500 champ to another.
“If I’m able to come here and win this race again and put myself in position again, I think every race is different, every experience is different,” Cindric said. “At this moment of my life, I can’t think of anything more amazing and more gratifying than winning this race specifically. It’s a lot of hard work, like you said. It’s all I care about, it’s all I think about, and that’s what’s gotten me this far.”