It’s already been a dream season for Roger Penske’s side, even by their standards. The season kicked off with a dramatic Daytona 500 win for rookie Austin Cindric as two of their drivers battled it out for the win. The organization’s success also continued in the IndyCar series.
Will Power won his second career championship last weekend at Laguna Seca. Josef Newgarden finished 2nd in the standings and won the best five races in the series this season. Penske’s third driver, Scott McLaughlin, had a stellar second season winning three races and scoring seven podiums. They finished 1st, 2nd and 4th in the final standings.
A Daytona 500 victory and an IndyCar championship in the same season are exceptional, but Penske wants more. The organization now has its sights set on another Cup Series title as its three drivers remain in the title chase. This weekend is a race for the playoffs, where the last four drivers in the standings will be eliminated in Bristol.
Two members of the Penske trio are in a good position with Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney 4th and 5th in the standings. Cindric is most likely to be knocked out tomorrow, as he is just two points above the cut line in 12th. To make matters even more difficult, this will be Cindric’s first time driving a Cup car on concrete in Bristol.
Austin certainly has some history on this track.
Cindric was involved in one of the most spectacular finishes in Bristol Motor Speedway history two years ago in the regular season finale of the Xfinity Series. He and AJ Allmendinger were bouncing off each other as they battled for the lead, and the two crashed just before the finish line with Cindric being the bridesmaid.
A panel of Bristol journalists, racing historians and pundits recently rated it the 2nd best race ever held at the track. The only one that crowned it was the epic 1995 night race between Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte.
It was a crazy night for Cindric, who tried to embrace all the emotions. “I tried,” Cindric said shortly after getting out of his car. “It was a hell of a race, though. That’s why there are people in the stands, they want to see this battle. Even though I hate it, it’s about them, they love it. I I just got booed and cheered tonight, I don’t know what’s going on.”
After starting his Cup career with the highest of peaks, Cindric hit the rookie wall soon after. Something changed halfway through the season though, and he started running a lot better. He had five consecutive top seven finishes at one point, finished 2nd on the IMS road course and 3rd at Daytona in the season finale, after being pushed off the track by eventual winner Austin Dillon .
With finishes of 16th and 12th to start the playoffs, the 24-year-old is looking for a much better result tomorrow night. He brought up this past weekend after the race at Kansas. “We just got sprayed at one point on the final restart. We lost all the places I had gained and we never got them back. I just drove the car too hard trying to catch up and I slack too much at the end of the Bristol will be a big unknown and a big challenge. We can’t take the points for granted. I feel like we gave away a few today.”
He will have this opportunity tomorrow, with redemption in mind as he starts in 9th position. “I had a lot of heartache at Bristol. I’d love to change that, but maybe I’ll just go through to the next round. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me and a lot of really good guys that I’m going to have to beat. “
Two of those guys he will have to beat are former champions Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Others like Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez and Dillon might as well be in the same boat. Five of those drivers are separated by just seven points heading into tomorrow’s race.
If Cindric makes it to the knockout stages tomorrow, he will pose a serious threat on the next three tracks. The first stop is Texas, where he finished 3rd earlier this year in the All-Star race. The next comes to Talladega, where he Cindric has proven to be a force on the superspeedway (1st and 3rd at Daytona). The final race is on the Charlotte ROVAL, where Cindric really shines as a road racer.
These are three legit spots where Cindric could find himself on victory lane and make it to the knockout stages of the playoffs. Logano and Blaney may have the advantage of experience, but Cindric could be the most dangerous Penske pilot after tomorrow night if he can stay in the fight. Logano has two wins this year but hasn’t won since June 5 and Blaney is yet to win a race this season.
Cindric is trying to become the first rookie to advance to the knockout stages since Chase Elliott did in 2016. “Honestly, I feel pretty good mentally,” he said. “We just have to avoid fighting. It’s a great opportunity, in my rookie season, and we just have to do everything to make the most of it.”