NASCAR: Gateway race may have ended a hot free agency rumor

Austin Cindric's surprise victory at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway may very well have secured his NASCAR Cup Series future with Team Penske.
Ryan Blaney, Austin Cindric, Team Penske, NASCAR
Ryan Blaney, Austin Cindric, Team Penske, NASCAR / Logan Riely/GettyImages

Sunday afternoon's Enjoy Illinois 300 presented by TicketSmarter at World Wide Technology Raceway appeared to be reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney's race to lose.

The Team Penske driver maintained the lead after a hard-fought battle with Joe Gibbs Racing's Christopher Bell, who had to nurse the No. 20 Toyota home to a seventh place finish after his engine experienced some kind of issue in the closing laps.

But then the No. 12 Ford experienced an issue of its own, running out of fuel just before the white flag. With just over one more lap to run in the 240-lap race around the four-turn, 1.25-mile (2.012-kilometer) Madison, Illinois oval, Team Penske's Austin Cindric took the lead.

The driver of the No. 2 Ford held on to secure his second career win and his first win since February 2022, when he won the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

Cindric started Sunday's race from the front row, and he was a contender all day. He finished in fourth place in the first stage and second in the second, and he led 53 laps, second most behind Bell's 80.

Has Austin Cindric secured his future?

Cindric knew, based on his position in the point standings, that it was likely going to take a victory to secure a spot in this year's playoffs.

Team Penske have won the two most recent championships, with Joey Logano winning his second in 2022 and Ryan Blaney winning his first in 2023. Cindric, meanwhile, missed last year's playoffs and finished in 24th place in the standings, and had he not won the 2022 Daytona 500, he would have missed the playoffs as a rookie as well.

With his contract set to expire at the end of the 2024 season, Cindric's name has been brought up multiple times in regard to drivers who could be on the hot seat when it comes to silly season.

Though his father Tim is the president of Team Penske, Austin's future with Roger Penske's organization is far from a sure thing. It has been well-documented that Tim has stayed out of any discussions regarding Cindric's status with the team, and that approach didn't just start when he reached the Cup Series.

Cindric was in need of a breakthrough performance after having not done much since his 2022 Daytona 500 victory, especially with the influx of pending free agents following the announcement of Stewart-Haas Racing's impending shutdown.

And on Sunday, he delivered.

Cindric is now the only Team Penske driver locked into this year's playoffs. Logano is two spots below the cut line, and Blaney only has a two-driver buffer to the cutoff himself amid what has been somewhat of a struggle for Ford to start the 2024 season.

It's no secret that Cindric hasn't been quite up to par with where the two veterans of the team have been over the last two-plus seasons. But let's not forget that Blaney also went winless in 2022, and if not for Kurt Busch withdrawing from the playoffs due to injury, he wouldn't have gotten in. Logano also hasn't won a race since March 2023.

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Has Cindric solidified his future with Team Penske thanks to his second win and second playoff spot in three years?