CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Austin Cindric is still basking in the glow of winning a NASCAR championship a few weeks after securing his first Xfinity series title. He capped a regular-season championship and career-best year with a win at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.
Cindric, a Mooresville native, has since returned home with a trophy for Team Penske and is settling into a quieter offseason.
In an exclusive interview with the Charlotte Observer, Cindric shares why his mother should get more credit, what it means to win a championship for the Penske organization and how he's disproving the myth that only short people can drive race cars. (He's 6-3.)
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
— Alex Andrejev: You're two weeks into your offseason after winning a championship. What's that been like?
— Austin Cindric: I think right now my offseason has definitely been a bit more consumed with trying to do all the right things while the championship is still relevant and what that significance is, whether it's just enjoying it personally or making sure I'm able to reach out to all the people that have helped along the way, all the partners we've had this year. Also being able to get together with my guys and really appreciate what we've accomplished this season, and trying to get everyone motivated to get after it again next season. I'm just trying to do the maximum of what's allowed in today's climate.
— AA: I saw you in Phoenix for interviews right after you won, but I imagine that was a pretty chaotic time. What were the 24 hours after that like?
— AC: As a team, it was still a lot of hard work for my guys even after the race was over because normally the cars go back to NASCAR headquarters and get torn down there a couple of days later. But because of how everything was sectioned off, it was more efficient and probably better with the protocols to do that at the racetrack. So my guys had to tear down my car, tear down the motor all at the racetrack the night of the championship, so they didn't really get done until around midnight. Then we celebrated until early, early in the morning and I ended up going to the Cup race the next day and watching my two (Penske) teammates try and get a double championship during the weekend. Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano) finished second and third there, so not everything we wanted, but it was still great to be able to watch a race. Heck, I don't get to watch too many races anymore because no one gets to go to the racetrack, so that was good to be able to go do. Then from there, just trying to do the maximum as far as enjoying it and making sure I reach out to all the people that have been helping our chances and supporting our group to get it done. This championship took a lot of people — just racing in general does — so it's definitely been a fun process and fun to hear from a lot of people I've worked with in the past. I'm looking forward to trying to do it all again.
— AA: Has it sunk in yet? And does it mean more to be the regular-season champion and also win the series championship?
— AC: Yeah, I mean the funny thing to me — and I didn't realize this until somebody brought it up — is that we're the only regular-season champion to win the championship this year. I feel like that shows we've been good all year and good when it counted, so I think that's a great feather to have in your cap. We've had a lot of big boxes checked for our team with multiple wins and multiple championships, so I think those things are very gratifying as a group. For me, it hasn't necessarily set in to the fullest extent. I think it'll probably set in more once we show up back at Daytona knowing that we're the defending champions and we get a chance to go back and do it again. I feel like that's probably when I'll have the most perspective on what we were able to achieve, and probably on some of the hard days too, 'cause in every racing season there are good days and bad days, and those are probably the days I'll appreciate it. It's definitely been fun. It's been a new experience for me and I'm enjoying it. That's what you work hard for.
— AA: Do you feel like there will be more of a target on your back since you're returning to Xfinity next year? Did the success you've had this season also serve as proof or like a personal confirmation that you're ready for the Cup?
— AC: Yeah, I think there's a lot of things in there personally that I can take away, but also from an outside perspective with what we were able to achieve as a team and what I've been able to achieve as a driver in a short amount of time in NASCAR. If I'm not staking my claim or proving myself with what we've been able to do this past year, I'm not sure what will. If there's any negative noise, I'm not sure I believe it. I'm proud of that effort and looking forward to continuing to refine what was already a fantastic season to still be able to go out and try to win races next year for Roger Penske, and to be able to be in great equipment and be around great people. I've been with a lot of these same guys for a long time and to have the chance to go back with those guys again and try to achieve the same or better is the goal. And that's exciting. I think we've got some really great competition next year and I like the way things are shaping up for the Xfinity Series. I think it's gonna be a fun year for the fans and challenging as a competitor, and I like challenges.
— AA: You accomplished a lot on paper this year, so what are the goals for next season and what's left to improve on?
— AC: I have a few racetracks circled that I want to continue to improve on as a driver, places like Darlington and the Charlotte oval. Those have given me a hard time in the past and I think it's a great opportunity for me to continue to refine to where when I go in at the highest level, I'm as prepared as I could be to tackle some of those places I've had a more difficult time at. I guess that list is a lot shorter than it used to be, but as far as race wins go, I'd love to win on a superspeedway. That's where the crown jewel race is won, the Daytona 500, so to be able to think of yourself as someone who has a shot at winning that race I think you have to be good at those types of racetracks. My spotter and I have put a lot of hard work into those races and we'll have four superspeedway races, between two at Talladega and two at Daytona, so I think it's a good opportunity to try and put myself in position to win one of those.
— AA: You mentioned in your championship interviews that you hoped to watch more races from the spotters' stand and I was curious about that. Is that something that you've always done? Do a lot of drivers do that?
— AC: I think other guys do it plenty, especially if they're going to a new racetrack, but my plan throughout the year was to go to almost every Cup race and do that. I think it pays dividends just to be at the racetrack, watching race cars go around, having that mindset, even if it's a bit tedious. I think it's worth it in the end to be exposed to that. Even just showing up to the racetrack on Sundays and people seeing your face. I think all of those things help. So that was my mindset heading into the end of the year and I hope to be able to do more of that next season depending on how things shake out protocol-wise. But I'm someone that wants to do the maximum as far as prep work and my own mentality towards being the best at my skill.
— AA: Is it a new preparation tactic for you?
— AC: I've spotted a few races in my career. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm much of a spotter, but I've done some spotting. I guess it's good to see that perspective, but also you rely on your spotter so much nowadays in racing scenarios. It's great to get that perspective to know where that feedback is coming from. Not just hearing it and applying it, but also to get the visual perspective (my spotter Coleman Pressley) has is important for me to understand. I feel like it doesn't hurt for me to better understand what he's saying when he's giving me that feedback so we can be more in tune with one another.
— AA: It seems like that would help on superspeedways especially.
— AC: Without a doubt. And I do a lot of work with my spotter whether it's just on lines or my mental preparation before the weekend to know what to look for beyond just, "Door, bumper, clear." What else is out there that we can do? Whether it's watching the racetrack or looking at things that I can't necessarily see well from the driver's seat. That all happens before the weekend starts.
— AA: In your championship press conference you mentioned how more preparation has played into your success this year. You also talked about struggling early in your career. I was looking at your Twitter and there's a post that seemed to capture one of those moments when you were struggling. It's a picture from 2012 when you're sitting in the garage after a race looking dejected. You posted that photo with the announcement about your plans for 2021 and beyond. So what's the story behind that photo?
— AC: That's me at every summer shootout race because when I raced Legends cars and Bandolero, that place was brutal to me. I think it's brutal on most guys who don't end up winning a lot of races there, but that kind of stuff made me tougher as a kid. I think it helps me now in my career to where I don't really have to go over some of those hurdles, or at least I learned the right lessons from the right people at that young of an age. But yeah, there were plenty of nights leaving the racetrack as a kid when I was pissed. I'm sure whenever that photo was taken was one of them. It's funny to look back on because there are plenty of nights I have like that still, just sitting there trying to think and figure out what you can do better. I'm a pretty self-critical person and I'm sure that was another example.
— AA: Chase Elliott talked a lot about being the son of Bill Elliott after his championship. Your father is also very ingrained in the NASCAR world as the president of Team Penske. Did you ever feel pressure to perform as the son of Tim Cindric? And was there ever a time during your career when you considered walking away from racing?
— AC: No, I've been very committed and I think my career is definitely my idea. My parents will be the first to tell you that. They've been a hundred percent supportive of my passions and my brother's passions and I think that's all you can ask from a mother and father, so I'm very grateful for that support. Both my mom and my dad have seen the ins and outs of the sport and their families have been in racing a really long time. They know how difficult it is as a driver. It's definitely a unique scenario with my dad's position and where I've gotten to in my career. It's been a very roundabout way to where I'm racing for Roger Penske, but it's also the group and family that I grew up around and have learned how you carry yourself and what's expected out of a driver, so I don't think there's a more perfect fit for me. But at the same time there are definitely some challenges, whether it's the perception of, "Does he belong here?" From my dad's perspective, it's balancing his relationship with my programs. He's very distant within the company and lets others make those decisions. He's not too involved and is otherwise just a spectator when it comes to my career. I think he's tread those waters as well as anyone could. I think it's benefited me greatly, him doing that, and let me become my own person, my own driver and let my team and the people around me believe in me organically. That's been a great experience to have. For him as a professional and as a father, I can only imagine how satisfying the championship weekend was for him. I know how much it was for me and to have him there, to have my mom there, to have Roger there and my support system from Ford Performance was pretty cool.
— AA: I saw both of your parents watching you and beaming as you did your post-championship press conference at Phoenix and it seemed like such a family cool moment. Was there anything memorable that either of them said to you?
— AC: Nothing specifically stands out. It's just great to be able to go and embrace your mom and your dad at the racetrack. I mean, my mom is someone who I talked a lot about during the race weekend, especially because there's always so much emphasis on who my dad is, But really the one that's been there for me a hundred percent of the time has been my mom. Obviously my dad's very busy and my mom was able to be boots on the ground and is the one that's going to all of the races, whether it's just being my roommate when I was a kid or helping me through something or just being my cheerleader, my mom has been there for every step of the way in every racing series I've been part of. She hasn't been able to go to many races this year, so it was great to have her there. And she's even got a great relationship with my team. She'll bake cookies for the guys. Even still she'll send me with cookies and be like, "Bring these to the racetrack. Make sure everyone gets one." So it was great to have both my mom and dad there for sure.
— AA: You mentioned some of those perceptions or doubts about you racing. You're 6-foot-3 and mentioned disproving the myth that tall people can't be race car drivers. Was that one of the perceptions you were referring to?
— AC: When I brought up the idea of wanting to drive race cars to my parents, the first thing my dad said was that I was too tall. I came right back at him and told him that Justin Wilson (6-4) and Michael Waltrip (6-5) are a lot taller than me, taller than him even, which showed my passion. It's been a bit of a hurdle in some aspects. Physically, I've worked hard to get to where that hasn't been a limitation. Getting crammed inside of a race car isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, but it's a small sacrifice for sure.
— AA: Did your dad want you to play basketball?
— AC: He played college basketball, so he was very pro-basketball ... pretty much anything other than racing I think he would have been happier with me deciding that's what I wanted to pursue athletically. (Laughs.) It was definitely my idea, but they backed me 100 percent.
— AA: So what's next? Do you have plans to enter any races during the offseason?
— AC: I'm trying as always to look for an opportunity to go run the Daytona 24. I try to do that every year. Past that, I'll be doing a lot of go-karting and spending some time with family.
— AA: The Rolex 24 plans aren't set yet?
— AC: Right, if I can find the seat. That race is something that I'm really passionate about. I've done it a number of years and really want a chance to be able to go out and win that race. Last year was my first year of not doing it in three years, so I ended up spotting for one of the Penske cars — which, standing outside in the cold calling the race for a car that is many laps down cause we got wrecked very early in the race, that's enough motivation to drive the race. It's always a balancing act trying to find the right opportunity, especially when you're not full time in a certain series, but it's kind of my offseason project every year. So if you see me in the race, I did a good job on my project. Penske won't have an IMSA program next year, so that eliminates conflicts other than avoiding any conflicts with any of our partners on the NASCAR side, and obviously getting approval from Roger as well as Ford Performance. But those guys have been good about letting me go out and trying to achieve that if it's a great opportunity, and that's what I'm looking for.
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