Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Austin Cindric’s Surprise Win Blows up Playoff Race

If you thought that the race to the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs was getting too predictable, Sunday’s (June 2) race at World Wide Technology Raceway provided an unexpected twist.

This time, it was not a superspeedway or road course that shook up the points standings, but a flat track in its third year on the Cup Series schedule. The winner was Austin Cindric, snapping an 85-race winless streak just when it looked like teammate Ryan Blaney had secured the victory.

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Prior to Sunday’s race, Cindric had little reason to believe that he was going to make the playoffs. Sitting 20th in overall points, 96 below the cut line for the postseason, and without a top-10 finish since the second race of the year, he would have needed a huge turnaround to reach the postseason on points. But the No. 2 team had two important things going for it at Gateway – a fast car and good fortune.

Cindric capitalized perfectly on both.

The fast car was not a complete surprise. Team Penske has been very strong on flat tracks over the last few years and it was no shock to see all three of its drivers near the front of the pack at Gateway. The bigger surprise was how Cindric outpaced and outlasted Blaney and Joey Logano, his teammates and the two most recent champions of the Cup Series.

Cindric led laps during the third stage but lost ground to Blaney after the two made their final pit stop. Cindric also faced a challenge from Christopher Bell, who dominated the earlier stages and was marching his way through the field. Once Bell rocketed past the No. 2 and set his sights on Blaney, it looked like Cindric’s shot to win the race was gone.

However, Cindric’s good fortune kicked in during the last 20 laps. Just as Bell looked like he was getting ready to pass Blaney, he dropped off the pace and radioed to his team that the engine was failing. Bell managed to make it to the finish of the race and even scored a top 10, but that was little comfort after seeing a possible win slip away.

The end of the race for Blaney was even more heartbreaking. With the white flag in sight, the No. 12 suddenly ran out of fuel, allowing Cindric to close a two-second lead and make the decisive pass. Blaney was forced to coast around the track during the final lap, ultimately falling to 24th place.

The obvious question to ask is why did Blaney run out of fuel when nobody else did, including either of his Penske teammates? The No. 12 made its final stop one lap earlier than the No. 2, though both cars pitted comfortably within the fuel window. A more likely explanation, as noted by Larry McReynolds in FOX’s post-race coverage, is that the No. 12 team never engaged a second fuel can during Blaney’s final pit stop, while the No. 2 team did during Cindric’s. That could have made Blaney short on fuel, especially if the No. 12 team miscalculated and believed that one can of fuel was all that Blaney would need to reach the finish.

Regardless of the reason behind Blaney’s fuel shortage, Cindric took the win and made a big impact in the race to the playoffs. He is now one of nine drivers who have won a race in 2024 and get priority for spots in the playoffs. Cindric is not in the top 10 in overall points, though neither is fellow winner Daniel Suarez. If the Cup Series heads toward 16 unique winners in the regular season, Cindric and Suarez could become concerned about getting bumped out of the playoffs by additional winners. But with 11 races left and seven spots still open to non-winners, they are not in serious trouble.

The seven playoff spots currently held via points belong to Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs, Alex Bowman, Ross Chastain, Blaney, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher. Complicating matters here is Kyle Larson, who has won two races in 2024 but missed the Coca-Cola 600 while running in a rain-delayed Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. Ever since, NASCAR has wavered about whether to give Larson a waiver. If NASCAR rules Larson ineligible for the postseason, then Chase Briscoe would be the next driver up to take a spot. The only other drivers within reasonable striking distance of Briscoe are Logano and Kyle Busch.

Given that list of drivers, you have to wonder if Cindric’s victory makes things a little awkward at Team Penske this week. The one Penske driver who seemed to be out of postseason contention is suddenly back in the game and now the pressure is on the other drivers to secure playoff spots of their own.

Logano remains on the outside looking in and Cindric’s win only makes the No. 22 team’s journey to the playoffs more difficult. Granted, Logano is only 14 points behind Buescher and can win at any time, but he too is mired in a dry spell with just two top fives this year and 46 races since his last win. The opportunities for the No. 22 team to get its ticket to the playoffs are slipping away quickly.

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Meanwhile, Blaney is above the cut line and in better shape than Logano, but the No. 12 team cannot be feeling well about the last few races. After last month’s race at Kansas Speedway, Blaney was ninth in the playoff grid, 84 points above the cutoff. He has since experienced crashes at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway that left him with 36th and 39th-place finishes, capped off by a devastating fuel issue on Sunday. As a result, Blaney has tumbled to 14th in the playoff grid, 47 points ahead of Briscoe.

That equals a loss of 37 points in three races, and Blaney still does not have a win in 2024. If the No. 12 team fails to stop the bleeding and misses the postseason, Gateway will be a big reason why.

It seems hard to envision a scenario where drivers like Blaney, Logano and Busch all miss the playoffs, but the 2024 Cup Series season is shaping up to be a game of inches.

Last-lap passes and late-race developments have caused major swings in who goes home with the trophy each weekend. If a track like Gateway, which had dull racing in its first two Cup Series events, can produce such a surprising winner in 2024, it is likely that we will see more shockers before the regular season wraps up on Labor Day weekend.       

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto 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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