AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 07: Austin Cindric, driver of the #22 Menards/Richmond Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning  the NASCAR Xfinity Series Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 and the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 07, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Austin Cindric Not Getting Comfortable in 2021, Looking to Repeat as Xfinity Champion

With the 2021 NASCAR season set to get underway this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, Austin Cindric will begin his title defense in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and hopes to qualify for the Great American Race. But it was less than five years ago where Cindric was just beginning to make a name for himself in the ARCA Menards Series.

In 2016, Cindric competed in four ARCA races — winning once at Kentucky Speedway — scoring top 10s in each start. The following year, the Ohio native had a meteoric rise in the Camping World Truck Series, squeaking into the playoffs as a rookie for Brad Keselowski Racing, making it all the way to the Championship 4.

In 2018, Cindric was hotshot to Xfinity, where he made mistakes early and often, competing for both Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing. However, by the end of the season, he was competing for victories, and a weekly threat for the top five.

Fast forward two full years and eight wins later, it was Cindric popping champagne in the desert, clinching the 2020 Xfinity championship on a green-white-checkered finish by passing Justin Allgaier.

But the 22-year-old isn’t so sure it’s soaked in that he’s the reigning and defending Xfinity champion.

“I’ll probably understand or figure it out a little bit more once we get to Daytona, but we’re the only ones that can say that in the Xfinity garage, so it must be real,” Cindric recently told Jayski.com. “It’s motivation and conformation of the process that I’ve been apart of, and in some ways put in front of myself. There’s a lot to build off of.”

Reflecting back, Cindric’s 2020 season was one for the ages. Sure, the No. 22 team didn’t score its first win of the season until early July at Kentucky Speedway, but then he went on a tear of winning five times in six races, just the second driver in series history to accomplish that feat (Sam Ard, 1983). He posted career highs in wins (six), top fives (19), top 10s (26) and laps led (947). Just imagine if he had finished races earlier in the season that slipped away (Pocono Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, among others).

Entering the 2021 campaign, Cindric has a big ole bullseye planted on his back; quite honestly, something he believes has been there his whole NASCAR career, even though 2020 was his first racing championship in any realm of motor sport. That’s a target he relishes.

“I think even when I was barely trying to finish 10th I still had a target on my back because I was in one of the best cars with one of the best teams and we proved it last year,” Cindric said. “We obviously won a lot of races last year, and it was fun being that guy that people [were] chasing because a lot of years in my NASCAR career, you go up and find the 10-lap average from Christopher Bell, Cole Custer or Tyler Reddick, and you go, ‘OK, I’ve got to do that to be the best.’ Now we’re in that position.”

Over the offseason, there’s an influx of new blood entering Xfinity for full-time competition, with plenty capable race teams. Daniel Hemric joined Joe Gibbs Racing; Jeb Burton and AJ Allmendinger will run full time for Kaulig Racing. Those three additions, on top of a stacked lineup of returning drivers, will make the 2021 regular season one to follow.

The reigning champion, though, is excited about the competitiveness the series will have in 2021.

“It’s going to be a great year, I’m excited for [the competition],” Cindric added. “The more competitive the better because that makes winning that much harder and that much more better when it happens.”

Admittedly, Cindric couldn’t single out just one driver as who he believes will be his toughest competition, rather named a list of drivers, including Allgaier and Justin Haley, both of whom made it to the Championship 4 in 2020. Add in returning drivers Noah Gragson, Harrison Burton, Brandon Jones and Riley Herbst (though switched to Stewart-Haas Racing), the battle to just make the Xfinity playoffs will be stout.

Because of that, there will be added emphasis on playoff points, and the easiest way of accumulating those points is by winning races, stages and most importantly the regular season championship. That is something the No. 22 team is familiar with, and is an added point of emphasis for 2021.

“I think the regular season championship is what got us into the [Championship] 4 last year,” Cindric said. “That’s [15] points and we got wrecked out of a lot of races in the playoffs.

“I think race one to race 32 is very important. That’s the format. And that’s why we have the format that there is and makes you push yourself very hard every lap from lap 1 to the end of the race. I love it because it’s a challenge and you have to be on it every week.”

Though there’s a stacked lineup, Cindric would call it a disappointing season if he didn’t make it back to Phoenix with a shot to defend his crown.

Cindric said, “I would like to make it to the final four again. I think that’s my highest goal for the year. That was my highest goal heading into 2020, is if I make the Championship 4 I’ve got a shot. If we don’t make it to the Championship 4, we didn’t execute in the other 32 races.

“That’s the highest goal that I’m going to set for myself. I think that’s the mentality that helped me have a clear head on race day in Phoenix. Anything past making the Championship 4 is a bonus.”

Cindric’s crew chief Brian Wilson knows it will be tough to repeat as champion, but believes his driver’s rapid growth as a racecar driver will only continue in 2021.

“I feel like the field is definitely gonna be stacked,” Wilson said. “I feel like a lot of the companies have taken steps forward. … I feel like our group is up to the challenge.  I really like the fact that we don’t have a lot of rule changes, so we’re really working on refining the notebook that we already have, that we’ve been working off of, so I feel like we’re in a good position to stay competitive, but it definitely is gonna be a tough year.  We’re gonna have to focus on the playoff points all year long to make sure we can make it to Phoenix.”

No matter what happens during the 2021 season, Cindric already has a job lined up for 2022, as it was announced in October he would be replacing Matt DiBenedetto at Wood Brothers Racing.

But that will make the driver neither complacent or content, though he will be running in six Cup races this year.

“I definitely don’t see it as an opportunity for me to get comfortable,” Cindric said. “I see it as an opportunity for me to look at myself at a wider view and with those select Cup races – and hopefully we get to go to a variety of different racetracks – understanding what my strengths and weaknesses are of racing in the Cup Series versus racing in the Xfinity Series.”

Aside from the obvious of winning a second championship, Cindric most notably wants to win on a superspeedway for the first time in his career. He will get his first of four opportunities on Saturday (Feb. 13).