It didn’t take long for Austin Cindric to realize he was playing with the big boys.
“When I got in my car for the Duels (at Daytona), and I had Kyle Larson behind me, I’ve got Ryan Newman in front of me, that was like, ‘Oh God, I’m in,’” Cindric told RACER. “I’m in, and this is what I signed up for, and that was the only realization that I’ve had that I’m part of something that’s at a high level.
“But at the same time, it was like, you’ve got to perform right now, and you got to be on it right now even though you’ve had four laps of practice, and know nothing about what you’re doing, and nobody you’re racing knows anything about you. That was probably the only time I’ve had to say to myself, ‘OK, this is definitely what you’ve signed up for, and you’re about to pay for it.’”
Daytona was Cindric’s first Cup weekend. He finished 16th in his Duel race, and then led two laps and finished 15th in the Daytona 500.
Confidence-wise, Daytona went a long way toward welcoming Cindric to the next level. For instance, when race leader Denny Hamlin played the teammate game, as is prone to happen at superspeedways, Cindric saw an opportunity.
“(He) was going to do the whole teammate restart where he pulls down in front of his teammate,” Cindric explained. “The moment he picked the top, and he was going to do a teammate restart, I knew I was about to lead the Daytona 500. I knew it. I was fully confident that I was going to push him past his teammate, have my two teammates behind me and take the lead of the Daytona 500. As crazy as that sounds, under caution, I knew I was leading the Daytona 500; it was just going to take a restart by me.
“From then on out, leading the 500, having Joey Logano tandem pushing me out to the lead, pushing me so hard that I can’t even turn into the corner… some pretty cool moments. If my career stopped right now, that’d be probably on the top 10 of coolest moments in my career. And having the confidence that, yeah, you could be intimidated by the guys around you, but at the same time, it’s still race cars on a racetrack, and you’re still trying to accomplish the same thing.”
Cindric has made six NASCAR Cup Series starts so far in preparation for his 2022 promotion. Beginning next year, Cindric will drive the iconic No. 2 Ford for Team Penske.
The reigning Xfinity Series champion admitted that double-duty weekends have been almost overwhelming. Cindric’s confidence comes through knowledge and preparation, and bouncing him back and forth between garages leaves little time to even eat, let alone dig into notes and conversations with both teams.
“It’s definitely made me respect that process a little bit more,” Cindric said. “I think it’d definitely be easier if I had more time to spend in practices, or (had) more comfort on the Cup side of things; being around the cars and knowing I’m doing. But otherwise, it’s still a great opportunity, so it’s been exciting.”
What Cindric’s played close attention to is how Cup races flow. He says he’s “really enjoyed” the competition level because it’s the same drivers who dipped into the Xfinity Series, and he believes you can race harder around them because they can be trusted to make the right decisions.
“There are still plenty of things I have to learn, but at least showing that, OK, I’m on this level, I can sort myself through this, I can work my way forward through the field,” said Cindric.
Aside from qualifying for Daytona, COTA, and Road America, Cindric has started last in his Cup races. It has been a big challenge, but one that’s helped him understand the whole field and what it takes to be good at the top level.
It’s all part of the evolving project that is Cindric’s preparation for next year. He’s taking advantage of watching Cup races from the spotter’s stand for a different perspective, and is in all of the team’s Cup debriefs to understand how to integrate himself into the program.
One challenge is knowing what to keep in his notebook and what not to get attached to. The car he’s driving and learning in will not be what Cindric competes with during his rookie season when Next Gen rolls out with the Daytona 500. However, there will be familiar characteristics.
“There are a lot of things about the current Cup car that is different from the Xfinity car, that will be the same with the Next Gen car,” Cindric said. “Whether that’s the ride height rule, the downforce packages, the engine packages… I’ve always approached it – and maybe it’s because I’ve had the benefit of driving so many different cars – but I’ve approached driving very simply. You have four tires on a racetrack, how do you make those tires work the best?
“Obviously aero plays a role, the mechanics of the car play a role. But at the end of the day, it’s four tires on a racetrack, and how can you make that go the fastest, and what factors are applied? For me, the better I understand that, the better the car’s going to operate. Next Gen is still four tires on a racetrack. I know that’s very simple, but at the end of the day, sometimes you have to remind yourself that, and I think that’s definitely going to be the perspective.”
Studying and understanding Next Gen, and spending time in the shop with the team as they begin building them, is one of the most significant pieces of Cup Series homework Cindric plans for himself going into next season.
“I don’t see anything more important after Phoenix than making that as close to home as possible,” he said.