Having been the first driver to clinch a playoff spot with his win in the season-opening Daytona 500, Austin Cindric is more than ready for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs to begin.
“It certainly does [feel good],” Cindric said. “Last week was stressful for all of us at Team Penske, just trying to make sure we get all three of us in [the playoffs], and really throughout the summer still knowing that points certainly were important. From that standpoint, yeah, it’s a bit of a reset.
“I honestly feel mentally pretty good. I don’t feel like there’s much expectation plus or minus, so you just try to go out and put together three really great races and try to be consistent, try not to beat ourselves. That’s the opportunity – obviously, there are past champions that aren’t in the playoffs right now, so it’s not guaranteed that I’ll be in it next year or the year after or whatever else. So, it’s a great opportunity, and it’s a great opportunity in my rookie season, and we just have to go everything to make the most of it.”
Cindric is the fourth rookie to make the playoffs, joining Denny Hamlin (2006), Chase Elliott (2016), and most recently, Christopher Bell (2021). No rookie has won the championship in the playoff era, with Hamlin’s third-place finish in the points standings being the current benchmark.
Darlington kicks off the first round of the postseason and Cindric is going into Sunday night (6 p.m. ET, USA) prepared for the Southern 500 to be the “biggest mental challenge” of his career. Darlington is one of the longest and toughest races for a driver to endure and rewards the teams with good race strategy, discipline, and focus.
Cindric knows he needs all of that not just at Darlington but all of the postseason. While he’s no stranger to competing for a championship and going through a playoff bracket, Cindric’s past experience – he won the 2020 Xfinity Series championship – is much different from what he’s going to experience at the Cup Series level.
“It certainly is,” Cindric said. “In Xfinity, I’ve really had the last couple of years, quite a few playoff points. I have to go back to my first year in Xfinity and my first year in the Truck Series to kind of go into the playoffs with the least amount of points that I have now. But to that point, the field is super tight. You can look at it from, oh, I’m three below [the cutline] and have some of the fewest playoff points, but I can also look at eight points puts me fifth.
“Think about how easy it is to gain and lose eight points over three races. I think there’s everything to gain for us right now. I’m excited for that, but I think the ball is in each team’s court for Darlington because it’s such an easy race to beat yourself, and it’s such an easy race to get so far behind so early in the first round. We need to do our part to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Cindric’s win gave way to a rocky first half of the season. The No. 2 team sat 18th in the standings after the first visit to World Wide Technology Raceway in early June with two top-10 finishes. But the team has had a quiet summer stretch that includes four straight top-10 finishes from Sonoma through Atlanta and six top-seven finishes in the last 11 races.
Cindric ended the regular season 14th in the championship standings. He is seeded 14th on the playoff grid with six playoff points.
“I don’t have any expectations,” Cindric said of his first Cup Series playoff run. “I got the same questions before the start of the season about what my expectations were for a rookie year and honestly, I want to do my job. That’s the only expectation that I have, is to have a team that has all the resources and capability to be able to do that. We’ve certainly delivered on a lot of occasions, and certainly [we’re] having a great season if you look back.”
Not only did Cindric win in his rookie year, but it was also in the sport’s biggest race. And as the only rookie to qualify for the postseason, Cindric has clinched Rookie of the Year honors.
“I have to give myself perspective sometimes that I’m racing around guys that are having career-best years,” Cindric continued. “Sometimes I want too much, but I think that’s a good thing. But at the same time, I think the pursuit of being the best is what we’re about here at Team Penske. I don’t think we feel like we’ve got that covered at the moment, so between the three of us, I think there’s still more that we want to get.
“But as far as the 2 car, I feel like we’re the best we’ve been so far. I think we’ve got a process down, and the communication is certainly the best it’s been, so I think all those things are important when I’m racing against guys that have decades of that experience.”