Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: ‘Stone Cold’ Austin Cindric

What will come of Austin Cindric?

Austin Cindric has turned a lot of heads in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this summer.

Cindric has taken the lead in the regular season point standings during a run that has seen four straight top-two finishes (and was almost four straight wins if it weren’t for late-race restart shenanigans last weekend at Kansas Speedway), five straight top fives and seven total top fives in his last nine starts.  The driver who looked like he would be playing second fiddle to fellow Ford prospect Chase Briscoe prior to another NXS season next year has completely flipped the script in the past month.

At the conclusion of this season, Cindric will have made 100 NXS starts after three full-time seasons. It might just be time for him to move up, and with his father being the president of Team Penske’s overall racing operations, it’s hard imagining him no longer in the Penske family.

Brad Keselowski, the first driver to bring Penske a NASCAR Cup Series championship, is currently a free agent for next season. Keselowski has been in negotiations with Penske but hasn’t closed on a deal yet during his 10th season with the team.

Could Keselowski be replaced by Cindric? Maybe not.

First and foremost, it should be clear by now that Keselowski is either keeping silent about talking to other teams or simply is not. There has been no smoke whatsoever to support Keselowski coming back to Hendrick Motorsports to succeed Jimmie Johnson, besides that from Twitter keyboard warriors.

There has always been this weird, dumb conspiracy theory I have coined “K-Anon”. The theory goes that Keselowski is a sleeper agent for Hendrick and that Hendrick has some secret agreement with him that someday he’ll come home. Which is just ridiculous once you read about how Keselowski felt about HMS passing him over for Mark Martin or some of his comments on HMS in the years since.

Keselowski was rumored to being going to HMS prior to this year. The 2012 champion was supposedly going to succeed the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. after 2017. I may very well be wrong about this, but it always seemed like that was a rumor floated out by the Keselowski camp during his own negotiations with Penske at the time. It may have simply been a crutch for some kind of leverage, supported by Keselowski signing his new, now-expiring contract not a week after Alex Bowman was named the new driver of the No. 88.

So where could Cindric go? Expansion at Penske seems unlikely, considering just how close it is with Wood Brothers Racing, and NASCAR may not like basically a fifth Penske car that much. Well, Matt DiBenedetto may end up on the chopping block yet again. The Californian has put the Wood Brothers in solid playoff contention, but this was also always only a one-season deal. It’s a situation the 28-year-old driver would have to contend with in consecutive seasons, but at this point, there’s no reason he doesn’t land on his feet somewhere next season.

How about the rest of silly season?

In addition to the Penske/Wood Brothers situation, there are still a number of unanswered questions that should be getting answered fairly soon concerning silly season.

It was mentioned last week by Lee Spencer on Performance Racing Network that there is a possibility Hendrick will shut down the No. 48 and renumber the No. 88 of Bowman to the No. 48. While this is definitely possible, it doesn’t seem that feasible unless sponsors are leaving HMS en masse due to the pandemic/economy.

Any charter from HMS would be worth a lot of money, with three representing a car that has been full time for over/almost 30 years, and the fourth representing a car that has won seven championships in the past 20 years. We don’t know a whole lot about the charter value system, but we do know that longevity and success play key factors in determining that value.

If there were multiple rich prospective team owners, that would be one thing. But there simply are not, and if Hendrick decides to sell a charter, who would buy it? Rick Hendrick is a smart businessman, and down-scaling right now wouldn’t make a lot of sense unless, say, Ally, Axalta or NAPA were leaving.

Maybe the only team in position to expand and buy a charter from HMS would be Chip Ganassi Racing, and even then, it still needs to fill a seat for next year. It’s crystal clear at this point that Matt Kenseth really shouldn’t be back next season. Save for a second at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a 10th at Darlington Raceway, his return has been a mistake so far. The future Hall of Famer this year has reminded me a lot of 2016-era Jeff Gordon, when Gordon came back to substitute for an injured Earnhardt and really seemed to struggle with how much the cars had changed in just eight months away from driving.

Ross Chastain, who has maintained a relationship with CGR, is almost certainly a favorite for the No. 42. But Chastain has also seemed to have lost a lot of steam this season, wrecking or being a non-factor in Cup races despite having been in much better equipment then he’s used to being in at that level, while also having failed to win at the NXS or Gander RV & Outdoors Truck level. Ganassi contacted Kenseth and Carl Edwards for the No. 42, pricey retired veterans that suggests sponsor Credit One wants a big name instead of a younger driver with potential such as Chastain.

CGR could also go eye-for-an-eye. Kyle Larson isn’t going to come back to this team, but it could steal the next best thing and nab Chase Briscoe from the Ford camp. Although Briscoe has seemed to cool a bit during the dog days of summer, he has shown to be at worst the third best prospect in raw driving ability in NXS competition this season. Stewart-Haas Racing has a direct link to Briscoe, however, and it has a couple of seats open if it wants to play some musical chairs.

Obviously Kevin Harvick will go nowhere, and neither will rookie Cole Custer, but Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer are big question marks. Almirola has been very successful this summer with a string of consistent finishes, but his contract is up after this season and sponsor Smithfield is questionable to return. Meanwhile, Bowyer is a popular driver but is entering his 40s and has been doing a lot of television work this season for Fox Sports. If Fox throws Bowyer a considerable amount of money to move into broadcasting Cup racing, Bowyer should definitely take them up on it.

The reality of the situation is that those jobs do not get offered very often, and Darrell Waltrip showed that with the right personality, that can be a well-paying gig for 20-30 years. That’s a way better prospect for Bowyer’s future then to just ride around on the Cup playoff bubble the next three years. And if Bowyer still wants to race, he has a mountain of choices between NXS, Trucks and even Superstar Racing Experience that would not conflict with his job.

Are there conflicts of interest in broadcasting?

Speaking of broadcasting, this week, NBC Sports made a big signing, with JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty returning to NASCAR coverage.

Daugherty has not been on televised NASCAR coverage since ESPN stopped broadcasting races for the sanctioning body. The former NBA all-star’s workload will include pre- and post-race coverage of Cup in addition to occasional commentary during NXS broadcasts.

Let me be clear here: Daugherty is not unqualified to provide NASCAR coverage. His presence on NXS coverage will be perfectly fine, and he brought much-needed excitement to some extremely dry ESPN pre-race shows. Daugherty has been a NASCAR fan for many decades, a Cup owner for over a decade now and even ran a successful Truck Series team in the late ’90s.

The problem lies in him having a vested stake in a race team in a series in which he will be presented as an unbiased commentator.

Last week at Kansas, JTG reached a horrible milestone: four straight last-place finishes for the organization. A horrible Ryan Preece mid-race wreck capped off a very bad month. As much as can be said about Quin Houff, Houff scored more Cup points in July than both JTG drivers combined.

If Daugherty were on the post-race show, a big talking point of that race would have to be about JTG. This puts everybody in a tough spot, unless NBC recuses Daugherty from the discussion, which would just be weird to do.

NBC has also had a problem this season with Earnhardt on NXS broadcasts. It seems it is trying to get away from that, as it again puts everybody in a rough spot and leads to very awkward moments, such as at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago, when JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson wrecked somebody five laps into the race. The entire broadcast team completely ripped him except for Earnhardt, who was only moderately critical of his young driver.

As bad as NBC has been, nothing quite holds a candle to Fox Sports. Jeff Gordon has a stake in HMS and actively calls Cup races. The fact that this has been going on for five seasons now, in addition to Gordon just not being a good commentator whatsoever, is mindblowing. At least Daugherty is hidden on the studio shows; there’s no hiding Gordon here.

Imagine if I started Team Frontstretch and I hired Landon Cassill to drive for us in Cup. Would you take anything I wrote about the series seriously, knowing that I have such an obvious bias toward a driver not named Paul Menard? Or what if Troy Aikman took a job in the Dallas Cowboys front office and tried to juggle his duties as a Fox broadcaster? It’s a really bad look that needs to stop being the norm when it comes to NASCAR coverage.

What is your tweet-sized preview of the Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as this column is already over 1,700 words and needs to wrap up quickly?

New Hampshire is a flat track that brings scarce passing opportunities, so drivers will need to make the most of the few they are given. As far as who can win, I’ll go with hometown-ish hero Joey Logano getting his third career victory at the track.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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Good article and great insghts! Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are free agents, as well I believe. Thoughts on Kez and Larson going to SHR? How about Almirola going to Hendrick and Bowyer to Ganassi, or vice versa?

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