By Bobby Markos
Imagine starting a new job, and in just your third week you achieve the pinnacle of your field. For 23-year-old Austin Cindric, this hypothetical became a reality when he won the 64th running of the Daytona 500 this past February. The race was his third start behind the wheel of the famed Team Penske No. 2 Cup car (preceded only by the two non-points races earlier in the month), a ride he shifted into this season when long time occupant Brad Keslowski departed for a driver/owner position at Roush Fenway Racing. Cindric became the ninth driver to score his first Cup victory in the Great American Race, joining the likes of Tiny Lund, Mario Andretti, and Pete Hamilton, as well as last year’s winner Michael McDowell. Cindric would also have the distinct honor of being only the second rookie in history to lead the NASCAR Cup points, a feat that Jimmie Johnson first accomplished in 2002. The 6-foot-4 freshman has handled sky-high expectations in stride, while taking a roundabout path to the big stage in stock car racing.
In this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis welcome the reigning Daytona 500 Champion into the Bojangles Studio to learn more about his upbringing in the sport, as well as how he deals with the public perception of having a well-established father figure in auto racing. Austin’s father Tim Cindric is the President of Team Penske, a position he’s held since 2006. Austin explained that as a result of his father’s career, he grew up around racing and has always loved it, recalling a story from the age of nine where he told his parents, “I want to have a life changing discussion, I want to be a race driver.” Initially, Tim discouraged the budding interest, telling Austin “first of all, you’re going to be way too tall.” But after attending the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway and seeing other 10-year-olds race bandolero cars, Tim relented and allowed Austin to test one of the rides. Austin credits Ken Ragan, who managed 600 Racing that manufactures and sponsors legends cars, with helping to convince Tim to give him a shot.
Austin would enter the legends ranks and race semi-professionally before attending the Skip Barber Racing School to learn the fundamentals of road racing. This would prove to be a transformative experience, leading Austin into the world of sports car and single-seater motorsports. In 2013, he began racing in the US F2000 National Championship for Andretti Autosport. Finding that he enjoyed behind the wheel experience in a variety of race vehicles, Austin began hopping from ride to ride, competing in Historic Sportscar Racing, Rallycross and IMSA over the next few years. In fact, he won a bronze medal at the 2014 X-Games for Rallycross lites, and in 2015 was the youngest competitor in the Bathurst 12-hour.
2015 would also see Austin take on stock car racing, when he made his ARCA debut at Iowa Speedway for Cunningham Motorsports, finishing in 4th place. When Brad Keselowski Racing driver Austin Theriault was injured in a crash at Las Vegas, Austin was tabbed to fill in for him, making his Truck series initiation at the tricky Martinsville Speedway. The following season would see a breakout performance by Austin, when he won two K&N East races for Martin-McClure Racing at Virginia International Raceway and Watkins Glen, as well as an ARCA race at Kentucky Speedway. Austin split his racing time in the sports car world as well, driving a McLaren for K-PAX Racing in the Pirelli World Challenge. By the time the winter weather began to set in on the year, Austin had a decision to make, pursue full-time stock cars or sports cars for 2017.
Cindric informed his selection with an observation that young drivers in NASCAR were around 18-years-old, while young drivers in sports cars were still in their early 20s, so if one didn’t work out he could likely still pursue the other. Ultimately, he would sign on with BKR for the 2017 Trucks season and his trajectory to the top of the sport began. “Everybody has seen every good and bad day I’ve had in a stock car,” Austin explained, due to the televising of NASCAR events. Because of his pursuits in road racing, he lacked a lot of the oval track experience that his fellow competitors had from cutting their teeth in the ranks of the short track racing world in sprints cars and late models. He had demonstrated that he had great pace and feel for race cars, but was still learning the mechanics of pack racing and saving equipment.
After a controversial win at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park that saw him make contact with Kaz Grala, Cindric learned to tune out social media, as he received backlash for the move. The experience proved to be a lesson in character building, as it taught him to focus on the task at hand while under extreme scrutiny. When BKR shut down at the end of the season, Cindric was thrust into the Xfinity Series, splitting his time between the Ford entries at Penske and Roush Racing. Austin explained that he felt underprepared for the jump, but that dividing his time between two teams at different competitive levels gave him a new perspective for the sport, teaching him what it takes to run up front as well as survive in the pack simultaneously.
Team Penske would nominate Cindric to run the No. 22 Xfinity Ford for the 2019 calendar
year, and he would make the most of his rapid progression by scoring his first two victories in the series in back-to-back fashion, at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. While Austin was now an employee of the company his father ran, Tim would continue to distance himself from his racing career, allowing him to be his own person and develop his own relationships within the sport. Austin and Dale would relate on the topic of having a well-known father in motorsports and the challenges that it brings, especially the constant drive to prove you’ve earned your place and it wasn’t just handed to you. Austin has learned to embrace this, explaining that he knows people will always be quick to judge him and “when he walks in a room, he will not have the benefit of the doubt”.
Austin would silence the critics in 2020 when he rose to the occasion and won the Xfinity Series Championship in dominating fashion, notching six victories on the year. Instead of moving into the Cup ranks, he would return to the division in 2021, bringing home an additional five winner’s trophies and a second place in the points championship when last lap contact with Daniel Hemric cost him the lead. Dale Jr. told Austin he was impressed with his demeanor after the race, that even though he was disappointed he carried himself with poise and gave an honest interview. Cindric credits the extra season in the Xfinity ride as being integral to his development as a racer, and admits he may have undervalued consistency in his career when he was ride hopping in the years earlier.
Initially, Austin believed he would be taking over the renowned Wood Brothers 21 for the 2022 Cup season, but when Brad Keslowski announced he would be leaving Team Penske for a new role at Roush Fenway, the flagship No. 2 was suddenly vacant. Austin talked about the expectations for success that come along with a famous ride, and the mental adjustments he had to make from thinking he was going to be in what's considered a developmental car to one of the most recognizable machines in NASCAR. The conversation also covers the team dynamic at Penske and how Austin is fitting in, as well as breaks down the finish of this year’s Daytona 500 and what's to come with the Next Gen car. The interview concludes with Austin showing some relics of his family’s history in motorsports, which spans back two generations on both his father and mother’s sides.
During the opening segment of the show, Dale and Mike bring Justin Allgaier into the studio to discuss the upcoming race at Atlanta and what's to be expected, as he tested both the Xfinity and Cup cars on the newly reconfigured track. Later in the show, Dale Jr. tells us a story about how he once had a beer with country music star George Strait in Key West. During Ask Jr., it is revealed that the Download will begin airing on Peacock TV on Thursday, March 17th, and that older episodes are now available on demand. We also learn why Dale Jr. is a fan of musician Bryan Adams. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast streaming platforms.