Austin Cindric exhibited tremendous poise and patience en route to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at Phoenix Raceway on Saturday.
Cindric, who won five races throughout the regular season, was victorious in the only one that counted—the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200.
In his 100th start, Cindric, 21, held off Noah Gragson in overtime to win the season finale and become the fifth-youngest champion in series history.
“Amazing effort by this 22 team,” Cindric said. “Brian Wilson (crew chief) and all the guys. Everybody back at the shop. There was a lot of work put into this race car. Roger Penske, everyone from Penske Racing. The Menards family, John, Paul, Jim, Jeff--all those guys that put so much support into racing itself.
“It’s awesome to get them a championship in NASCAR, to be a champion in NASCAR, and do it in front of all these great people cheering us on at championship weekend. Ford Performance, Doug Yates, everybody at Roush Yates Engines. I’m speechless. I can’t believe it. I’m pretty humbled by the effort for sure.”
Brandon Jones, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier, who led a race-high 76 laps rounded out the top-five.
Harrison Burton, who won rookie honors, finished sixth followed by Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Chase Briscoe and Jeremy Clements.
Allgaier started from the pole but relinquished the lead on Lap 7 to Briscoe. Despite an early show of speed, Briscoe never quite had the necessary handling to gain an advantage. He brushed the wall in Turn 2 on Lap 17 but soldiered on to win the first stage. After struggling coming off of pit road, Briscoe lost the lead to Allgaier and never recovered.
“I don’t run very good here in general,” Briscoe said. “At the start of the race, I felt pretty good. I was able to lead and, honestly, for me, just leading here was a big deal and we were just so loose. I think it was good that first run and then from there I just kept getting looser and looser as the night came.”
Allgaier led 30 laps in the second stage but was passed by Cindric with 10 circuits remaining in the segment. Cindric held the point to win Stage 2.
The second half of the race evolved into a title bout between Cindric and Allgaier. The No. 7 Chevy of Allgaier had the lead when the race returned to green on Lap 99, but Cindric, who restarted fifth, was coming. Cindric quickly moved by Gragson and Briscoe then eventually moved by Brandon Jones for second on Lap 108. He finally returned to the lead on Lap 130.
After dropping to third, Allgaier reported a tire issue on Lap 146. The team convinced him to remain on the track until pit stops on Lap 161. In his first final four appearance, Haley, who never really factored into the fight, came in for service on the same lap. Cindric pitted two laps later followed by Briscoe on Lap 164. As the drivers cycled back to the lead lap, Joe Graf Jr., triggered the seventh caution on Lap 171. Chastain had yet to pit and had the lead.
Cindric recaptured the point on Lap 173. With a solid restart, he was able to hold off Allgaier and quickly extend his lead. With two laps remaining, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford appeared to be driving off into the Arizona sunset en route to his first title when his friend—and fellow champion contender Briscoe—hit the wall in Turn 4 for the eighth and final caution.
Crew chief Brian Wilson called Cindric to the pits while Allgaier remained on the track and took the lead with Chastain alongside. Cindric lined up third with Gragson and battle ensued. Allgaier was boxed out as Cindric aggressively pushed the JR Motorsports Chevys out of the way for the lead and the win.
First of all, hats off to Austin and the whole Team Penske group,” Allgaier said. “They’ve been strong competitors all year. To have the race they did tonight, they were obviously the best car, and they deserved to win.
“Proud of our guys, proud of everybody at JR Motorsports. We had a shot at it at the end. When it’s all said and done, that’s all you can really ask for.”
But Cindric knew from the start his No. 22 Ford Mustang was capable of bringing home the title.
“This thing came to life lap one,” Cindric said. “I mean, talk about a relationship between driver and crew chief. I can ask him exactly...we were terrible here in the spring race when I moved up, and I asked him, I told him exactly what I needed and he gave it to me and look where we are. It’s amazing.”
For Cindric, his third season on the Xfinity tour was a charm as he truly came into his own as a stock car racer with six wins, 19 top fives and 26 top 10s in 33 starts--and a second NXS title for team owner Roger Penske.
“I finally learned how to race a little better, that’s for certain,” Cindric said. “The people that have put the support in me and been dedicated—my spotter Coleman Pressley. All the folks that have supported me throughout my career, not just here but the road racing, driving Rallycross cars. My mom and my dad. I can’t forget them. They’re my parents and they’ve put more support behind me than anyone else. My mom has been my rock for my entire racing career.
“When I started racing Bandolero and Legends cars I got a lot tougher because I wasn’t very good. I guess to any kid out there that’s trying to make a career at this it’s about the hard work you put in. It’s not about where you start, it’s how you figure it out along the way and I’m very fortunate that I have parents that have seen it all and believe in me and I have a team behind me that does the same.”