Austin Cindric (2) leads Tyler Reddick at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Logan Riely | Getty Images

Rookie revival: Cindric, Burton, Gilliland savor top-five outcomes at Indy

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – As far as top rookie performances go, it’s hard to top Austin Cindric’s rousing victory in the season-opening Daytona 500. But Sunday marked a meaningful day for all three Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates with top-five finishes all around at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

Cindric led the way in second place in the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard, followed by Harrison Burton in third and Todd Gilliland in fourth. The results for Burton and Gilliland marked career-bests and their first top-five finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series. It also was the first time three rookies finished in the top five since July 1994 at Pocono Raceway when Ward Burton, Jeff Burton and Joe Nemechek accomplished the feat.

RELATED: Official results | Reddick prevails at Indy

The three Ford drivers celebrated their collective outcome with handshakes and high-fives on Indy’s pit road. To mark the occasion, here’s a rookie roundup of each driver’s day in the sun.

Austin Cindric, second place

Cindric’s special family connection to the Indianapolis track added another chapter after starting second and finishing there, coming across the start-finish line 1.065 seconds back of race winner Tyler Reddick at the checkered flag. Cindric’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford was one of few cars to steer clear of the Turn 1 mayhem that scrambled the order in the lone overtime restart.

Cindric’s car was actually the third across the line, but apparent second finisher Ross Chastain was penalized for an escape-route detour, moving him and the rest of the rookies up a spot in the official rundown.

“It’s easy on paper, right?” said Cindric, who won in the Xfinity Series race on the IMS road layout last season and finished ninth in the Cup Series event the following day. “Oh, my gosh, I feel like we probably deserved 10th at best today. There were a few things I was good at, but I needed the whole track to do it and I kind of struggled a bit, probably a little lower than my expectations were today, but those restarts, survival, holy crap. All I can say is ‘wow.’ There’s no other sport, no other form of racing other than NASCAR that you’re going to get that.”

Harrison Burton, third place

Not many drivers came away from Sunday’s start unscathed, and Burton was no different. His No. 21 Wood Brother Racing Mustang came around in the first turn during Stage 2, collecting Cole Custer’s No. 41 entry in the mishap.

Burton recovered and followed Cindric’s path through the OT restart chaos, eventually escaping the bumps and bruises that cost others.

“Yeah, we’ll take it. Wouldn’t have picked this weekend to get my best career finish so far,” Burton said. “Just a lot of aggression on the last restarts and putting myself in good positions. At the end of the day, it was — honestly we weren’t doing our job at the start of the race. We kind of didn’t execute well. I made a mistake, spun out, got into Custer there. Was kind of pretty upset midway through the race, and then just got our heads down, came in, got tires and started picking guys off and restarted in a good spot to kind of go get some more. It’s just exciting.”

Todd Gilliland, fourth place

Gilliland celebrated some other firsts Sunday at Indianapolis, marking his best starting spot – ninth – and also chalking up his first laps led in the Cup Series. An alternate pit strategy shuffled his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford to the front for four laps.

In overtime, Gilliland squirted by a spinning Ryan Blaney, bouncing off the side of Burton’s No. 21 before righting his car for the rest of the way.

“It’s just really exciting,” said Gilliland, whose previous best Cup Series finish was 15th at Darlington Raceway in May. “This rookie season has been really tough. The Cup Series is hard. I’ve learned that. It’s easy to give up and that’s one thing, too. You have confidence when you come to the Cup Series, but you get beat down quick. Even just having a ninth-place qualifying effort and just to run up front the first stage. We stayed out and got stage points and kind of had to come from the back again, but that’s what me and my crew chief was talking about.

“That’s really our best weekend start to finish by far, so hopefully that’s just something to build on. For me, that’s a lot of confidence. Road course racing is tough, too. I’ve always loved it, but it hasn’t really loved me so much this year, especially the first time here at Indianapolis. That’s really cool.”