Even before finishing runner-up in the Xfinity Series by mere inches, Austin Cindric knew he’d be starting from scratch in the Cup Series in 2022. The 2020 Xfinity champion was named as driver for the No. 2 Ford at Team Penske after Brad Keselowski announced his departure, and even before that turn of events, Cindric was slated for a Cup ride with Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing, so he was going to be in the top series one way or another. He just wound up on a bigger stage, with bigger shoes to fill.
Winning in the Xfinity Series is not a guarantee of success at the Cup level. Only three drivers (Bobby Labonte, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott) have won titles in Cup after using that series as a stepping stone, and a few others did it while already racing full-time at the top level (Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski) before NASCAR put a stop to points racing in multiple series. If Cindric eventually contends for Cup titles, he’ll be in elite company.
It might be jumping the gun to mark Cindric as a title contender in his rookie year, but a Playoff berth is a realistic goal for the 23-year-old son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. He’s certainly got the pieces: talent behind the wheel, elite equipment, a veteran crew chief and teammates who are proven winners at NASCAR’s top level.
Cindric is no stranger to success; he amassed 13 Xfinity Series wins in four full seasons, winning the 2020 title along the way. He also has a win in the Truck Series and posted a top 10 on the Indianapolis road course in his seventh career Cup Series start.
His crew chief in the No. 2, Jeremy Bullins, has eight wins at the Cup level, three with Ryan Blaney and five with Keselowski. The Penske teams work well together, and that will help Cindric adjust as he and Bullins learn each other’s styles. Joey Logano and Blaney each bring veteran insight, and Bullins will work closely with Paul Wolfe, the longest-tenured Penske crew chief, and Blaney’s new head wrench, Jonathan Hassler. Add in factory support from Ford plus the power of Roush Yates engines, and Cindric certainly has the resources to be successful.
The Next Gen racecar looms large for teams, and it’s one area where Cindric has an advantage. He’s not experienced in these cars — but neither is anyone else. That was partly by design. Cindric was given another year in Xfinity instead of joining the Cup ranks in 2021 so that he wouldn’t have to learn to race two different cars in two years. That was a smart move by Cindric and team personnel, and it could pay off. If the cars race very differently than the old Cup cars, Cindric won’t have to flounder between what works on each, and if they’re more similar to the Xfinity cars he’s driven, it gives him more of an edge. The Fords showed excellent speed in early testing of the new car in the fall of 2021.
What Cindric will need to learn is how to race with the Cup veterans who won’t view him the same way as his Xfinity peers. Once he does that, he’ll need to learn to race them at the front of the pack, for wins. Those are two steep learning curves.
Cindric has been successful at the intermediate tracks, and that’s a good starting point, but he’s especially strong on road courses, and he could sneak in a Cup win this year at either type of track. But winning won’t make or break a driver’s rookie year, and Cindric is capable of making the Playoffs without one.
If he learns consistency from his teammates, particularly Logano, and improves each time he races at a new track, Cindric can establish himself as a Playoff contender right from the start.