NASCAR: Austin Cindric on his way to 2021 Cup promotion?

Austin Cindric, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Austin Cindric, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

Austin Cindric has launched himself into 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contention after a lackluster start. Will that lead to a Cup Series promotion for 2021?

Not too long ago, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric was a driver who regularly finished at the front of the NASCAR Xfinity Series field but was never able to actually take the checkered flag as the race winner.

But in August of 2019, he ended what was a 53-race win drought to start his career at NASCAR’s second highest level of competition by winning at Watkins Glen International, and he backed up that victory with a victory in the following weekend’s race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

However, still unable to win on an oval in a series dominated by oval tracks, the 21-year-old Columbus, Ohio native failed to give the “Big 3” of Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell a run for their money and did not even advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He finished in sixth place in the championship standings.

But with the “Big 3” gone, Cindric was seen as one of the favorites to at least advance to this year’s winner-take-all finale round at Phoenix Raceway.

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Of the five drivers who finished ahead of him in last year’s championship standings, only JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier, a consistent veteran who is still seeking his first title in his 10th season, and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, the driver whom many considered to be this year’s favorite, returned.

However, Cindric still struggled to get the job done. Through 13 races, he found himself on another lengthy win drought of 25 races, and he still had zero oval wins to his name. Fortunately for him, he had been doing well enough to still be sitting in a solid fourth place in the championship standings.

Then things changed for the better.

Cindric got his first career oval win in the first of two races of the doubleheader at Kentucky Speedway, and the following night, he doubled his career oval win total. One week later, he took his third consecutive victory at Texas Motor Speedway.

He dominated the following weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway as well, although his bid to become the first driver to win four straight races since the late Sam Ard did so in 1983 was ended when Joe Gibbs Racing’s Brandon Jones passed him on the final lap.

Suddenly, Cindric sat atop the championship standings, and after winning at Road America and the Daytona International Speedway road course as well, he won the regular season championship even before the regular season finale. He now sits in second in the standings through the first race of the three-round, seven-race playoffs.

He has also become the subject of Cup Series promotion rumors. But even if he wins this year’s title, will he have done enough to warrant climbing the final rung of the NASCAR ladder?

Tim Cindric is Austin’s father and happens to be the president of Team Penske, which, like it or not, does count for something. If his son can continue performing like he has been, it seems almost inevitable that he will end up driving one of Roger Penske’s Fords at NASCAR’s top level of competition in the very near future.

But does the “very near future” mean already in 2021?

As far as a move directly to Team Penske, that doesn’t seem like an option quite yet.

Team Penske have signed two of their three drivers to multi-year deals, with those two drivers being 2018 champion Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

Brad Keselowski also recently extended his deal with the Captain’s organization through next year. This extension came months after discussing the matter all the way back in early March when Blaney re-signed.

Before Keselowski re-signed, he had been rumored to join Hendrick Motorsports as the replacement for retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

If Keselowski only signed a one-year deal and does leave the team after 2021, the #2 Ford would be open for Cindric in 2022. However, even if Cindric doesn’t get that ride, he could still end up in the Cup Series with the Team Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing — perhaps even in 2021.

Matt DiBenedetto currently drives the #21 Ford for the Wood Brothers, and he is driving for the team on a one-year deal. He was seen as a potential replacement candidate for Keselowski, as he simply has more experience than Cindric does and has done a solid job during his six seasons in the Cup Series.

But with a move to Team Penske in 2021 for DiBenedetto not an option, unless they end up adding a fourth car, and with him not having signed an extension himself, the #21 Ford could be in play for Cindric to develop against the sport’s best before being thrown into a high-pressure role at one of the sport’s top teams, a promotion for which he simply may not be ready yet.

According to Sports Business Journal‘s Adam Stern, a DiBenedetto return is seen as increasingly unlikely. The team’s deadline to pick up his 2021 option was yesterday, and no announcement has been made yet.

However, even if DiBenedetto returns to Wood Brothers Racing next year, Cindric may still be able to make the jump to the Cup Series with a team such as Front Row Motorsports, which also run Fords, while remaining tied to Team Penske.

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But at that point, his best bet would probably be to simply remain in the Xfinity Series for another year of contending for the the championship and developing his driving skills.