DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Austin Cindric topped Bubba Wallace in what was the third closest Daytona 500 finish ever. The Team Penske driver crossed the finish line just .036-seconds ahead of Bubba Wallace.
But, if a decision made back during the pandemic in 2020 went differently, I don’t think Cindric is in this ride at this time winning the Great American Race before a completely sold out crowd on a chamber of commerce day on the east coast of Florida.
Roger Penske made a rather large offseason acquisition in the Fall of 2019 and it became official in January of 2020. He bought out the Hulman-George family and all their remaining assets. He held onto the rights of most notably the NTT IndyCar Series as well as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That wasn’t a cheap purchase.
In the aftermath, Penske put in millions of his own money to update the famed facility on the west side of Indianapolis.
Throw in all of his other businesses around the world and you get a lot of money being spent. While he obviously had a lot of money coming in, his world was clearly disrupted by the emergence of COVID this past spring.
Penske, didn’t know what to do with the Xfinity program at that time. With so much money going out and no reason to believe any revenue would be coming in any time soon, do they shut it down?
“I think that interesting is we got into the COVID situation mid March, I went to Tim, I said, maybe because we don’t know what’s facing us, we might have to maybe shut down the Xfinity team for maybe a few races in order to see what’s going to happen,” Penske said last year.
Good thing they didn’t.
Cindric brought an Xfinity Series championship to the team in 2020 and now a Daytona 500 win in 2022.
Penske elected to keep the program running but Cindric knew then the pressure was on.
“I think that at that point we got together and said, hey, we’re going to go full bore, and I think Austin obviously knew that he had to show what he could do,” Penske continued.
Boy did he ever. Cindric finally got his first oval win in July of that year. He won five times and had two runner ups in a seven race span that summer. A championship dream was real.
Penske credits Cindric and the team for responding. He says that while Cindric’s dad Tim is a large part of Penske, this decision came down to how Penske feels about Austin Cindric.
“I think that his focus and really when you think about Brian Wilson and that whole 22 team, what they’ve been able to do, work together Austin is committed. He’s at the shop with those guys. He works with them. He’s focused.
“I think that I saw a young guy committed. I saw him come up the ladder in smaller cars, even open wheel cars and win, and I think that look, you love people and they’re in your family, and the people that work in Mooresville, that’s a big family, and he’s one that has earned it for himself. I think that look, if he didn’t get the job done, Tim would be the first one to say let’s move on.”
“This was a team decision to go forward certainly with Austin, a decision we made to have him make one more season.
“I had young Cindric come to my office in Detroit and we talked about it at length because the word was he would move into the 21, and when we sat down and talked about it, we knew the right thing was to make another year in Xfinity, and certainly I told him you need to leave this end of this season a champion, and that’s exactly what he’s done.
“This was not because of Tim Cindric, this was because of Austin Cindric.”
Penske wanted to be sure to give Cindric the equipment that he needed to win a title. It was up to Cindric to show what he can do with it. Six wins and 19 top fives in 33 starts shows that he can be brilliant in it.
“I think like any athlete, you get better. We’ve tried to give him good equipment. You could see today that he was flawless. Restart after restart, green white checkered at the end, he’s a pro, he’s a champion today, and I think that one more year in this series is going to prepare him to get into Cup, and I think you need that stairstep to get there.
With Menard’s a big sponsor and certainly Ford, we’ve got people that want to see him be a champion, and this is the first step, there’s no question. So I just think it’s really a part of learning and part of growing up.”
While he’d like to have moved up in 2021, there just wasn’t room. So, back to the Xfinity Series he went. He nearly won the title for a second straight year but a late race caution cost him that.
“At that time I didn’t even think an Xfinity season in 2021 was possible,” Cindric said. “I knew how close we were to shutting down the Xfinity program in 2020. Roger obviously said that after we won the championship.
“So I considered that a non-option as far as my career. I had already talked to other teams and other situations, trying to figure out what I would do with my career if I can’t go Xfinity racing or if I can’t go Cup racing. At the time the car itself, all four Penske-affiliated cars, were full.
“At that time you definitely recognize that there’s no right or wrong way to do driver development. And I forget who brought it up, but obviously when I drove my first Xfinity race here at Daytona, I was not ready to go Xfinity racing, and I proved it.
“But sometimes you don’t get to pick those opportunities. BKR shuts down, I’ve got to go to Xfinity. I have no truck opportunities. There’s no Ford in Truck Series at that time. And you have to make the most of things.
“I think my opportunity to run Xfinity last year and race for a championship again and be able to hone in on a lot of the small details, I think that’s what it takes to be the best on Sundays, is be really good at the small details consistently.
“I wasn’t offended by it at all. I was probably surprised that we had the opportunity to even run an Xfinity car again. And I think it certainly paid off. And like I’ve said before, his leadership is second to none, and I’m not going to be the one that’s going to second-guess Roger Penske’s judgment.”
Good thing he did. He lost the series championship by inches. That haunts him to this day. He used that as motivation to prevail on Sunday.
“That race at Phoenix has haunted me every moment of every day for the last however many months, and it still will. I still lost, so it still sucks.
“I think I’ve compared the two a little bit too much tonight because it’s definitely on a different stage and it’s definitely a race that means a lot.
“I’ve never been in so much pain that I wanted to vomit. Never in my life have I been in so much pain, felt like I let so many people down that I’ve wanted to just throw up on the sport.
“I remember I explicitly remember waking up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning and just staring, like having a panic attack. It’s how much it means to me. There’s no way to describe that.
“Sometimes you have those moments in life that some people aren’t ever passionate about something like that other than their families in their life, so I’m grateful to have something that really pushes me that far emotionally, physically, that I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
“Definitely, definitely a moment I’ll never forget in my life, and definitely confirmation that this job that I have, this living that I’ve had for myself means a lot to me.”
Still he was destined to the Wood Brothers ride for 2022 before Brad Keselowski decided that he needed to take the offer to buy into Roush Fenway Racing and rebrand it to RFK Racing.
Keselowski, had no future ownership stake in Penske so he wanted to be a driver/owner and went elsewhere.
That left the No. 2 Ford seat open and Penske moved him over.
Now, he’s a Daytona 500 champion.