Austin Cindric went through it all on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway to just squeak by into the next round of the NASCAR Cup series playoffs.
On paper, Cindric finished in 20th place and seven laps off the pace. He advanced into the second round of the playoffs by two points.
But the tale of the tape is a lot more extensive.
The adventure began on lap 85 when Cindric had to pit under green flag conditions for a flat right front tire. It was the first of two tire issues Cindric would experience, although he said he nearly had a third had he not been “saved” by someone else’s caution.
By pitting under green at the Bristol half-mile, Cindric lost four laps. Behind the eight-ball, Cindric fell behind on the playoff grid and spent the next 400 laps scratching and clawing to stay in the game.
“For a while, it was just drive as hard as I can and as they fell off like flies, try not to force any issues, try not to force any more right front tire failures,” Cindric said. “From there, I think I was tied with the 18 [Kyle Busch] for 100 laps.”
It was Busch’s misfortune that put that scenario in play. Busch exited the race on lap 270 because of a blown engine, and suddenly the points started to fluctuate with Busch above the cutline, below the cutline, or tied with Cindric.
And Cindric nearly got caught up in Busch’s issue. The catastrophic engine failure in Busch’s Toyota happened right in front of Cindric, and when Busch started to slow, Cindric nearly ran into the back of him.
“I was front row seat for just about everything tonight,” said Cindric. “I guess that’s what happens when you’re in the back. Fortunately, we didn’t have really any mechanical issues, just the right front tires.”
Cindric was the first driver to experience a tire failure at Bristol but not the last. However, he was one of the few unlucky ones that didn’t get the caution with his issue. Something that Cindric expressed frustration with over his radio during the race as he questioned the caution flags that were or weren’t thrown.
“There’s a part of me that wants to go, ‘man that’s kind of b*******, I blew a tire and didn’t get a caution,” Cindric said. “But I would also think that NASCAR probably recognized there might be some issues with tires and probably understand that, OK, it’s not just a one-time deal. Mine was the first to go.
“I’m happy about it because I made it in, but I’d be less happy about it if I didn’t make it in. Certainly, something to be said about coming to a very important race of the year with a new year, but it’s not my decision to make and just understanding how we can make that better on our side.”
It wasn’t until late in the final stage that Cindric started to get updates from his No. 2 team that there was a chance he could still advance in the playoffs.
Still multiple laps down, Cindric took a wave around at one point to help with his lap count and leapfrog some others also having a bad night. In doing so, it helped Cindric conserve his car and focus on keeping it in one piece.
Cindric entered Bristol holding down the final transfer spot and went from thinking he was going to be eliminated after the early tire issue to knowing he needed every position he could get before the checkered flag to advance.
“The only time I got emotional was when the 10 [Aric Almirola] tried to wreck us into the 21 [Harrison Burton]; that was kind of lame,” Cindric said. “But after that, just drive as hard as I can, don’t take too many chances, calculate your risks and stay updated with the situation.”
After it was all said and done, Cindric called it “one hell of a night.
“I still don’t think this place loves me back, but it probably showed me a little mercy tonight. So, I’ll take it and run with it. We’ll be on offense for the next three races, just like we were to start Darlington this round and have some fun with it.”
Cindric won the Daytona 500 for his first NASCAR Cup Series win and made the playoffs in his rookie season. He was among the 12 who survived a while first round in the playoffs to live to fight another day.
“Oh yeah, I’m ready,” Cindric said of resetting. “I’m good. I’m over it. This round was, I don’t know.
“I feel like we lacked performance in the first race, had good performance and not great execution in the second [race] and there were points in the night [at Bristol] that I thought I was about as good as anybody. And then I kept blowing right fronts, and I wasn’t so good. So, just how it goes.”