INSIGHT: Cindric’s road to respect

Long before Austin Cindric was named to a NASCAR Cup Series ride, he was given a task by Roger Penske. The two met in Penske’s office about the possibility of Cindric going into the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford, but first, there was business to take care of.

“(I) said, ‘Let’s stay ahead and let’s go back and really do what we can do best in Xfinity,’” Penske recalled.

Cindric delivered. In 2020, he won six races and the series title. Along the way, Cindric shook off the notion he was only good on road courses by becoming of the most consistent drivers in the series on all racetracks.

All of that is to say, when Penske had to step back and re-evaluate his program’s driver lineup after a deal couldn’t be made to keep Brad Keselowski, Cindric was the next man up. Instead of competing with the Wood Brothers – which was announced in October of 2020 – Cindric will become the next driver of the No. 2 Ford Mustang beginning in 2021.

“I think he’s earned the respect,” Penske said. “You come in as the son of the guy who is the president of Team Penske (Tim Cindric), you’d probably come in with a little bit of weight on your shoulders. But I can tell you one thing. As far as I’m concerned, all that’s off. He’s proven to be the driver he is; the individual he is today. It’s a big step for him, but as far as I’m concerned, the team, the sponsors, are fully committed.”

It should come as no surprise. Penske knew that Keselowski would like to have an ownership stake in the team one day, but when Keselowski finally decided it was time to try to make it happen, they were unable to find common ground. That’s what happens in business, and this was a business decision between the two sides.

Because the Penske business model has always been to hire from within – drivers and team members alike – Penske’s hand wasn’t forced.

Cindric has impressed throughout his six appearances to date in the Cup Series. At Road America (above), he drove to the lead but hopes for an upset victory were dashed with a mechanical failure moments later. (John Harrelson/Motorsports Images)

But take away his last name, and Cindric earned the job on merit. Cindric has performed: 12 wins in 119 starts in the Xfinity Series, and he leads the point standings going into the Olympic break. Climbing up the ladder, he’s also won in the Camping World Truck Series, ARCA Menards, and K&N Pro Series. In his limited Cup Series starts, Cindric, although still learning, has looked comfortable and confident running with the best in the business.

No doubt the phone started ringing off the hook the moment the rumors of Keselowski leaving surfaced. But logically, who else would Penske have hired? For the last two years, Cindric has been among the best crop of young drivers in NASCAR.

And going younger is a theme in the sport. Take Hendrick Motorsports, which has four young drivers who can be the future of their company for many years to come. With Cindric moving up alongside Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, it gives Penske one of its youngest lineups and sets them up long-term.

Not only are younger drivers cheaper, but with the sport changing, particularly with the introduction of the Next Gen vehicle, starting fresh won’t hurt as much. It’s why Wood Brothers went with Harrison Burton when Cindric was taken away.

“They know our mission plan,” Penske said of having younger drivers. “They understand our business partners. It’s not just plugging in an athlete and saying, ‘Let’s go.’ I think it’s worked out. You can see what it’s done for our business. It’s been good on the Indy side, and certainly, we see that on the Cup side, so I think it’s just part of our plan.”

Just like Penske had a plan for Cindric when they met long ago, which Cindric turned into an opportunity to shine. Now, Cindric gets another chance to do the same at the premier level.