Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: The Sophomore Slump Strikes Austin Cindric

If you have followed NASCAR for at least a few years, you have probably heard the term “sophomore slump” before. It often gets applied to a driver who struggles during their second season in the NASCAR Cup Series, especially if their rookie year exceeded expectations. The sophomore slump is not a hard-and-fast rule. Plenty of drivers (Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney and Chase Briscoe, for instance) show a tremendous amount of improvement in their second season compared to their first. But it’s the drivers who struggle in their second season that catch you off guard, especially if they showed a lot of promise as rookies.

This year, Austin Cindric, unfortunately, fits the sophomore slump profile. Cindric entered the Cup Series in 2022 fresh off a five-win season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2021, plus the Xfinity championship the year before that. Stepping into Team Penske’s famed No. 2 Ford, Cindric shocked the NASCAR world with a victory in the Daytona 500. Everyone knew that Cindric, a skilled road racer, had a shot to win his way into the playoffs at some point in 2022. It was a much bigger surprise to see him triumph in NASCAR’s marquee event, not to mention his eighth overall Cup Series start.  

From there, it would have been easy to assume that Cindric would tumble down the points standings and be an early elimination once the playoffs commenced. Yet when the month of June began, the No. 2 team started to heat up. Cindric enjoyed a streak of 12 races to close the regular season with ten top-15 finishes. Highlights of this streak included a second-place run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and three more top-five results at Sonoma Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.

Even in the playoffs, up against past champions and drivers with far more experience, Cindric held his own. He battled through a tough race at Bristol Motor Speedway to stave off elimination, outlasting title contenders like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. A spin with two laps to go at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in the next round effectively dashed Cindric’s title hopes. Even so, it was impressive to see him fighting for a spot in the Round of 8 as long as he did.

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This season has been a different story. Cindric is outside the current playoff grid and is mostly absent from the front of the field. Not only has the No. 2 team not won a race in 2023, they haven’t managed a top-five finish. Through 19 races Cindric is 20th in points with just three top 10s. Compare that to last year when he was 13th in overall points with the Daytona 500 win in his pocket, plus three top fives and seven top 10s.

The tracks where Cindric scored his best finishes last year, superspeedways and road courses, have not worked out for him this season. Both of his races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway ended with last-lap crashes. Sonoma was an even bigger struggle for Cindric. He qualified outside the top 30 and had to fight all day just to reach 25th by the time the checkered flag flew. The No. 2 team’s only top-10 finishes this year are a trio of sixth-place results at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Circuit of the Americas, and the Chicago street course. But even the Chicago race was a slog for Cindric, who struggled with the handling of his car while navigating the streets of the Windy City.

Sunday (July 9) night’s race at Atlanta was another chance for Cindric to turn his season around. It wound up as one of his best races of 2023 to date. He did an admirable job working the draft, especially when linked up with Team Penske partners Blaney and Joey Logano. On lap 131, Cindric shot into the lead and battled for the top spot with Brad Keselowski as stage two reached its conclusion. He ended the stage in fourth but had to hit pit road under the following caution.

Cindric never fully recovered after pitting and losing his track position. With rain on the way, he and the other Penske drivers struggled to find each other and navigate the draft as well as they did earlier in the race. When the seventh caution flag fell on lap 179, the last before the rain washed away the rest of the race, Cindric had climbed to the 12th position. It’s not a bad finish at all, but Sunday’s race was a rare occasion this year where it looked like the No. 2 team was capable of much more.

Cindric’s team has simply lacked the pace it had in 2022. Team Penske itself has been up and down all season. Both Blaney and Logano have won in 2023 and are heading for the playoffs, but neither has shown the consistency that they did last year.

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Ford in general has lagged behind the other manufacturers this season. Stewart-Haas Racing looks completely lost outside of Harvick. Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell is knocking on the door of the playoffs, but he and teammate Todd Gilliland rarely have the speed to challenge for wins. RFK Racing has noticeably improved in 2023 with Keselowski and Chris Buescher marching toward the postseason. The RFK duo may wind up representing Ford in the playoffs this year, instead of Cindric and Briscoe last year. 

If Cindric and Team Penske can capitalize on their momentum from Atlanta, they will have a shot at turning their season around. The No. 2 team is 38 points below the cut line, which is not an insurmountable deficit with seven races to go. But if Cindric is going to reach the postseason, he will have to show a level of performance we have not yet seen from him in 2023. Otherwise, his season will wind up as one more example of the sophomore slump.     

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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