In the Hot Seat with Austin Cindric

Fast on the track, Austin Cindric stops by the "Hot Seat" here on The Podium Finish. (Photo: Josh Jones | The Podium Finish)

Fast on the track, Austin Cindric stops by the “Hot Seat” here on The Podium Finish. (Photo: Josh Jones | The Podium Finish)

As one of the top, young racers in NASCAR, Austin Cindric continually finds his form as he defends his NASCAR XFINITY Series championship. The 22-year-old Mooresville, North Carolina native races tenaciously and wisely, traits prevalent with Team Penske’s top drivers.

With 13 NASCAR XFINITY Series wins in four full-time seasons, Cindric contends for victories at about any racetrack type. Although the North Carolinian possessed a reputation as a road course specialist, the eight of his 13 XFINITY Series wins have come at speedways.

Paired with crew chief Brian Wilson since 2019, Cindric and his No. 22 Ford Mustang make their presence known as consistent frontrunners. Moreover, Cindric leads plentiful laps as he as he tops the series in this category (723).

While Cindric possesses something of a reputation as someone who does his talking with his racing, he has a very witty, dry sense of humor. Of course, he also has a penchant for singing as he demonstrated after winning at Indianapolis earlier this year.

Prior to the XFINITY Series race at Darlington, I caught up with Cindric as we discussed his team’s performance, racing pedigree and his trademark buzzcut. Now, in a rather detailed but entertaining fashion, let’s get “In the Hot Seat with Austin Cindric” on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : Austin, first of all, thanks for joining us here on The Podium Finish. On the whole, you are having a fantastic season with five wins. In terms of your championship defense, how do you feel about the No. 22 team’s overall performance and efforts ahead of the playoffs?

Generally speaking, Austin Cindric expressed confidence with his championship defense. (Photo: Josh Jones | The Podium Finish)

Generally speaking, Austin Cindric expressed confidence with his championship defense. (Photo: Josh Jones | The Podium Finish)

Austin Cindric : I mean, performance and effort wise, I think, as a race team, we’ve been running on all cylinders this year. So I’ve been really proud of that. You know, recently we’ve definitely had a string of bad luck. I feel like we’ve earned everything we’ve gotten up to this point.

But it’s still a long year. And obviously, the Playoffs are incredibly unforgiving. So I’m trying to try to keep our focuses on getting Playoff points these last three weeks and regular season points as well. And then going in the Playoffs and really bringing our best trying to get good traffic back to the Championship 4.

Tiongson : Absolutely. And the thing I was thinking about, obviously, you got those wins, of course. But admittedly, it’s been kind of a tough stretch these last few weeks, but not of your fault. Of course, you’ve had fast race cars, but some bad luck. But when it comes to the ebbs and flows that comes in the regular season, how helpful is that [to have] when it comes to the actual time of the season that matters with the playoffs?

Cindric : I thought about it from the day. And you know, I think, in a way, you can make it a good thing. Maybe that’s your justification process. But I think so far this year, you know, we’ve led points the entire season, and obviously had a lot of strong races. And, you know, I feel like we’ve missed out on a couple other races like kind of Road America, Mid Ohio, places that we could’ve really gotten a lot of points and weren’t able to.

And I think it’s a good reminder, good motivation for us heading into the most important stretch of the year about, you know, how vulnerable all this stuff is. So with that being said, do I feel like the last two weeks have been a normal stretch with bad luck? No, I can’t say I’ve ever lost 100 points in a two week stretch. But, that’s racing. That’s what’s possible.

And you know, there’s three races and around in the Playoffs. So that can easily happen in the Playoffs. So we definitely need to make sure we’re on we bring our A game and are definitely alert.

Tiongson : I’m sure you will with the fact that you’re a talented driver and have a great team around you at Team Penske. And also too, you had that good sampling of Cup racing in your seven starts this season.

You know, when you consider those starts, even though they were with the Gen 6 car, and you’ll be racing the Next Gen car next year, what do you feel you can take away from your starts this season that you can bring into your rookie season next year?

"The Cup series is going to be a tougher challenge." - Austin Cindric (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

“The Cup series is going to be a tougher challenge.” – Austin Cindric (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : I think it’s certainly given me the best perspective possible in a short amount of time. As far as how those races play out, whether that’s the length of the races, but also within the field, you know, it’s no doubt the Cup series is going to be a tougher challenge and higher competition level throughout the field.

And really how a race plays out when you are running 20th, when you’re running 15th, you know places where, you know, let’s be honest, I’m not accustomed to running, you know, how do the restarts play out? How does race strategy play out? How does your strategy differ when when you’re trying to stay on the lead lap?

Those types of things are things that I haven’t experienced and obviously I experienced them at a very high level. So those are all pretty valuable experiences for me to go into not having, you know, not having to be my first time for some of those that I lifted off. But overall, it’s great to get a good perspective and obviously, you know, better than not having anything for us for sure.

Tiongson : You won’t be going into Cup with a blank slate of course since you’ve got some great veteran teammates, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney. And I kind of thought of a little quote that Blaney said to me two years ago that I kind of wonder, you know, how this applies with you. “It’s good to be a kid every now and then. But try to mature as quick as you can. And don’t let the bad days ruin all the good ones. Don’t dwell on things.”

Given those ebbs and flows in NASCAR racing and the great resources around you, how excited are you to have that opportunity to know you can lean on them on the bad times and you can celebrate the good times with them?

Cindric : I’m certainly looking forward to working with Ryan and Joey. I think we’re gonna have a really fun team dynamic. I think everybody’s got a lot to bring to the table. I’m gonna definitely lean on those guys and their experience for you know, what’s going to, you know, be my tough days and maybe even the good days.

So, I’m looking forward to that. But honestly, I’m looking forward to just having teammates in general. You know, I haven’t had a teammate in quite some time or at least a consistent teammate. And now I’ve got two or three. So, definitely a different operating process when you do and adds some complexity and adds some advantages. So I’m looking forward to that.

Tiongson : I think he’s definitely earned, you know, being an XFINITY graduate and becoming a Cup, rookie, when you’ve been the lone wolf for Team Penske. And I think one of the only two Ford entries in the XFINITY Series full time. So I definitely think you’re gonna look forward to having other ears to, you know, talk to coming into next year.

But let’s backtrack a little bit with your racing career. And kind of consider the genesis of how things started for you from the time that you competed in the USF2000 series, which is one of the top open wheel ladder racing series in America, to where you are now. How did racing in those series help shape your confidence as a stock car driver?

"When I got to NASCAR, I'm told I can only succeed on road courses." - Austin Cindric (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

“When I got to NASCAR, I’m told I can only succeed on road courses.” – Austin Cindric (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : Well, I certainly think that my time in USF2000 was was probably the biggest eye opener I’ve gotten in my racing career. Because I drove Legends cars, you know, kind of across the Southeast, and Bandoleros, Legends cars. And then I went to USF2000, which is obviously an extreme departure from what I was doing in Legends car racing, between, you know, just the professionalism, the limited amount of track time, the venues that you would go to, the changing track conditions.

The cars themselves, obviously, are extremely different with high downforce, low horsepower. They’re momentum related cars. And in a type of racing that I hadn’t done studying data, all the resources that I had, I really learned how to use those resources and develop myself and be very reflective. My first year in USF2000 was, I mean, unsuccessful, to say the least.

But even from the guys I raced against in Skip Barber and to have some good fights with and you know, had some podiums, some race wins in Skip Barber, those guys became a lot more successful a lot earlier than I did in USF2000 for a variety of reasons. But I think I became a much better, much more self aware driver because of those experiences. And, you know, I think it’s really helped me get a broader perspective. And I grew up around the INDYCAR stuff, but definitely a broader perspective on motorsports with not just USF2000, but a lot of things I’ve done as far as how it relates to stock car racing.

We only had one oval on the schedule, which is IRP. And I’d love to go back there. That was actually my first podium was at IRP. So kind of funny. You know, when I was racing USF2000, you know, I got told I can only succeed on ovals. And when I got to NASCAR, I’m told I can only succeed on road courses. So I just decided to drive the racecar and do the rest of the results do the talking, I guess. (laughs)

Tiongson : Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of ironic you say that about being told that when you got to NASCAR, you can only thrive on road courses. Because I can’t help up but think, you know, it’s ironic how the top two drivers, you and AJ Allmendinger, are often associated with being road course experts. But clearly, you guys have a knack for winning on ovals. (chuckles)

You know, I just kind of wonder, you know, when people tell you those kinds of things, does that kind of put a chip on your shoulder? Or does it motivate you to say, “You know what, that’s fine if you think I’m this, but I’m also pretty good at, you know, the other variety of racing?”

I will follow you will you follow me. (Photo: Mike Moore | The Podium Finish)

I will follow you will you follow me. (Photo: Mike Moore | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : I think perhaps there was a time. But you know, for me, at least moved on past that. I feel like, you know, my peers and my race team, as well, understand, you know, the bigger picture and what happens week to week. Otherwise, you know, I embrace it. And I try not to let it distract me or my race team from, you know, making the right decisions and bringing the best cars to the racetrack. So it is a team sport.

And you know, I think for as it relates to AJ and I, you know, he and I are two vastly different parts of our career. Obviously, we’ve had a lot on track battles. And I think there’s a lot of mutual respect, and I enjoy being around him. But he’s at the point where he doesn’t really want to go full time Cup racing at the highest level. And he enjoys what he’s doing the XFINITY Series. He’s still incredibly competitive and incredibly talented. And obviously, he’s been showcasing that, especially recently. But for me, it’s, you know, the opposite end of the spectrum.

I’m hungry, I’m ready to take the next step. I’m ready to do whatever it takes, you know, whatever it takes in my life inside or outside the car to to make this work. So, definitely fun to kind of share the two perspectives, you know, at the at the pointy end of the grid.

Tiongson : Yeah, and it’s that’s why it’s been such a treat to watch and cover the XFINITY Series races this year and even last year, too. There’s so many different characters, so many different talents. But everybody has that common goal to win and to prove something out there, which is, I think as a journalist, I totally enjoy, on my side of things.

Along the same lines with NASCAR and sports, while, it’s exciting to fans and outsiders, I’m sure for you and other drivers, it can be intense, stressful and have that high pressure stakes that we may not understand. So how have you been optimizing your mental health to be at its best during these times?

Cindric : I get confidence from information. People get confidence from different reasons and different factors. I feel like I know myself well enough to know that and apply that. So for me, it’s, you know, in my preparation, and what I do throughout the week to feel ready for race event, whether that’s just going in the gym, making sure I’ve, you know, done everything I can to be ready for a race weekend, or studying the right film or data, talking to the right people. Those things are the things that give me confidence that I can kind of shut out the rest. Because at the end of the day, no matter, the challenge is still the same job as far as you know, being as competitive as you can be.

And, you know, I think points racing, you have to have a bit of a different mentality. But otherwise, as long as you’re armed with the right knowledge, those are the things that, you know, make me be able to breathe easy and not get nervous or butterflies and in, you know, high stakes situations. So I don’t think there’s any reason why, you know, within our race team, that changes.

Tiongson : You’re cool under pressure, for sure. It’s definitely exhibited throughout your career. And that’s how you present yourself with a lot of things. So no doubt in my mind that this is one of the traits that makes you and other athletes so admirable to anybody who watches sports, whether for a living or just as a fan. So it’s pretty cool to get that perspective from you, to say the least.

Now, I’ve asked this question to a lot of drivers and then kind of peers to get your perspective. What would you consider to be your definitive “Welcome to NASCAR” moment, whether it’s funny or serious, or something that made you say, that you felt accepted by your peers in the garage area?

"It's easy to take yourself or other people to take themselves or take certain situations too seriously." - Austin Cindric (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

“It’s easy to take yourself or other people to take themselves or take certain situations too seriously.” – Austin Cindric (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : I would say if there’s a specific moment, you know, when I came in the XFINITY Series, you know, driving for Team Penske, obviously, given, you know, who my dad is, and, you know, not just that. But you know, how significant the No. 22 car is in the XFINITY garage, and for the longest time, you know, that’s been the all-star car.

That’s been a car shared by our Cup drivers and Cup champions. And, you know, it hasn’t had a full time driver since Brad Keselowski. And our last full time driver in the XFINITY Series with Sam Hornish Jr. several years ago. So when I came to drive that car, that’s a big shockwave that goes out to the garage area. And, you know, I’ve never been one that’s, you know, tried to assume everyone’s perspectives.

And, I guess, maybe appreciate their perspective, even if I don’t know them. But all I know is that, you know, it’s probably not going to be the easiest thing to just walk into their car that is that great and not only succeed, but also be accepted. So, I feel like as years went by, I spent a lot of time in the garage area, because during race weekends, I mean, right now I’m sitting in the garage and push the car through tech and, you know, hang out with my guy. It’s just, you know, who I am. That’s what I like doing. Because I don’t think there’s anything more important than being at the racetrack, because that’s what I like.

But regardless, you know, the more I spend time in the garage area, and the more people get used to me, and, you know, people who are, honestly, complete strangers, other than, you know, coming to the same place every week doing the same job. You know, having complete strangers come up to me and give me a hard time about something and joke around. And cut up, you know, the more I’ve had that. ….and I remember walking pit road at Martinsville during the Playoff weekend. I walked down pit road and there was like eight or nine crew members and other teams just giving me a hard time about something or joking around.

And this kind of moment, I realized, like, “Look, I’ve been accepted within this garage area. I’ve got respect.” Like those are the things that kind of give you the confidence as, you know, someone coming up, especially with, you know, different backgrounds. Those are the things that make it feel human. It’s easy to take yourself or other people to take themselves or take certain situations too seriously. And you know, it’s certainly a nice place to be because it’s my life.

It’s what I put everything towards. And you know, to feel that acceptance is fairly gratifying. But at the same time, everyone. …it is still a very competitive environment.

Tiongson : That’s good to be pursuing your dream and realizing it, no matter how old you are, because that the way I see it, that’s what we’re here to do in life or not, or supposed to. Playing it safe might be getting you by. But, you know, sometimes you’ve just gotta just do what you want to do. And that’s what I noticed with you when you raced in Trucks, in XFINITY, and your Cup starts.

You’ve always been somebody who’s very passionate and lets your racing do the talking. But it’s cool to see being accepted amongst your peers. And hopefully next, you know, later this year, and definitely next year, I can see some of that cool interaction that you have with the folks in the garage area. It’s something I’ve missed seeing with the way the pandemic’s been for all of us.

But to kind of change things up and keep the light mood going, I don’t know if you’ve ever done this. But we’re gonna do a quick round of free association. So, just tell me the first word or thing that comes to mind with just these few random things I’m gonna say.

Cindric : Okay.

Tiongson : Alright, so the first one is favorite racetrack from any international racing series.

Cindric : My favorite NASCAR racetrack is Dover.

Tiongson : That’s a good choice. A TV show that you are currently binge watching or enjoy.

Austin Cindric loves underrated animated films. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Austin Cindric loves underrated animated films. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : I just finished binge watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, mostly for nostalgia purposes.

Tiongson : You watched it as a kid I would take it?

Cindric : Yes.

Tiongson : I’m gonna have to check that out. Seems like an underrated show to say the least. I’m not picking on you with this next one but buzz cuts.

Cindric : I mean, I’ve got no problem. It’s low maintenance. I love it. I’ve been told by many people and many a woman to grow my hair out. And I kinda like not having to do anything with my hair. I cut it myself.

Tiongson : I was gonna say who does these haircuts? So you’re George Clooney. You do your own hair cuts.

Cindric : I didn’t know that. See, I can use that now. That’s good. I didn’t know George Clooney did his own hair. I’m gonna have to research that.

Tiongson : He did it once on Jimmy Kimmel and exhibited that he uses a Flowbee of all things. So I don’t know what you do. But it gives you an aerodynamic advantage without getting the eyes of NASCAR, why not?

Cindric : I mean, it certainly helps keep you cooler inside the race car. I can promise you that the difference in the two week gross versus the fresh buzz cut is there is a difference in the amount of sweat that accumulates.

Tiongson : And at least you don’t have to worry about all the hair gel like AJ [Allmendinger] does.

Cindric : I don’t have to worry about my hair. Man, you think if AJ, you know, didn’t have to worry so much about his hair, how much faster he’d be? I wish he was here to say to see that. Or hear me say that? I’ll say it right to his face. But the only one that cares more about their hair than AJ Allmendinger is Helio Castroneves.

Tiongson : (laughs) Well, I know I talk to AJ here and there. But if I get to talk to Helio, that will be a good laugh for him. (laughs)

Cindric : He’s heard it all. It wouldn’t be anything new coming from me.

Tiongson : I love it. I love it. Heat training.

It's safe to say that Austin Cindric didn't wear a sweatshirt during the June race at Texas. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

It’s safe to say that Austin Cindric didn’t wear a sweatshirt during the June race at Texas. (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : Heat training. I mean, I don’t do too much to heat train. During our COVID break there for three months last year, I wore sweatshirts when I worked out just because usually you get like the spring months to kinda like reassociate yourself with hot racecars until it gets to the summer months. But we missed out on that. So I guess sweatshirts.

Tiongson : Hopefully not the argyle kind? The one that’s like the irritating Christmas sweater variety because I wouldn’t like those.

Cindric : I don’t work out on Christmas sweaters. Correct.

Tiongson : That might be a Team Penske Challenge so I hope they don’t read that part of the interview for heading into 2022. (laughs) Rivalries.

Cindric : Rivalries. Oh man. Only because I was listening to the Dale Jr. Download this morning. Terry Labonte and Dale Sr.

Tiongson : Oh yeah, that’s a good one. I missed those little duels they had at Bristol in ’95 and ’99. I don’t know if you were old enough to remember both of those races, but I’m sure that you’ve seen it so not gonna question anything.

Cindric : I wasn’t even born.

Tiongson : I feel so old. (laughs) I’m not old old. But jeez, a lot of you drivers make me feel like I’m a grandfather at this point. (laughs) Most overused word in racing.

Cindric : The most overused word in racing. I don’t know. Recently it’s, you know, whether for road racing or they do the dirt oval, it’s dirt experience or road course experience. Whenever I watch TV broadcasts, they overuse, you know, I guess experience and as far as when it relates to.

But like when we do road courses, and I watch races back, it’s always always talking about road course experience, road course experience. Everyone’s got some.

Tiongson : I always wondered about that, because it’s like, everyone’s a racecar driver. Do you go to a short track specialist and say, he’s got short track experience? Or, you know, clay oval experience? Like, come on, you guys are racecar drivers. Just you know, let the action unfold.

I’m glad you didn’t say implications or problems. But I will leave it at that. I’m not making fun of the networks, I promise. And my final Association word for you would be the definitive Austin Cindric theme song.

Cindric : The definitive Austin Cindric theme song.

Tiongson : From any genre of music to make it easier.

Cindric : Oh, man. “Walkin’ On The Sun” by Smash Mouth.

Tiongson : Like that. They’re really interesting choice. Most people typically come up with a rap song or a country song. I’m sure no one’s really said Smash Mouth, so, well…

Cindric : I mean, I’m not like the biggest Smash Mouth fan. But that song, in particular, is quirky enough to fit the title.

Tiongson : You’re going to see where I’m going with this when I get to my last question, because it’s gonna be pretty funny when I connected. But I’m going to make second to last question come from my five-year-old nephew [Francisco] who loves your car, by the way. He wanted to know, what would you consider to be your dream car?

Cindric : Oh, my dream car. I’m not sure. I’ve currently got a project car that I’m working on that is still just a dream, not reality. So I would say my Volvo 240 station wagon with a coyote engine. That is my dream car at the moment.

Tiongson : Sounds like you and [Daniel] Suarez should get together with these quirky cars that have high performance.

Cindric : I feel like he and I would get along quite well on the topic of cars.

Tiongson : Well, hopefully when you are in the Cup series, y’all can talk about and trade some tips about it. That would be an interesting podcast as well if anyone out there is listening. Hint hint. My last question for you before you don’t get thinking about these random questions when you’re racing today.

I’ve got to ask you, because it was such an awesome, great, feel good moment. When we heard you sing “Back Home Again In Indiana,” that was just epic. But are we going to hear you sing more in your car after more wins?

Dare to be as epic as Austin Cindric. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Dare to be as epic as Austin Cindric. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : (laughs) Only if I win at Indy again, you’ll hear me sing in a racecar. Well, I shouldn’t say that because I’ve won a race. I’ve sung in race cars. But I’d say the first time I’ve sung on the radio was my first USF2000 test.

It was at the end of the day. We were testing at PBIR [Palm Beach International Raceway]. And the sun was going down and the back straightaway lines with the drag strip. So just to tell you how long the back straightaway is at PBIR, I think we had a voltage failure or something failure.

And I had to get flat towed all the way back to the garage area. And as I’m getting flat towed and the sun is setting in front of me, I sing “Here Comes The Sun.” And this is like with a team that has no idea who I am. Literally met, like that same day. And here’s this 14 year-old kid singing The Beatles. So that’s the first time.

Tiongson : I would say if anyone didn’t know you at that time that you have really good musical taste, even if you’re not a Beatle fan. But to even know that song at 14 years old, that says a lot about you in a good way. So hopefully we get to hear you sing in Phoenix. I don’t know what song in Phoenix. Is there a song about Phoenix?

Cindric : There’s no more singing unless it’s “Back Home Again” after a race win.

Tiongson : (chuckles) Well, if that happened, somebody at the IMS press box, or the press announcer, they better play like the background music so at least, you know, you have a little bit of a backtrack to sing to…

Are you bad enough for Austin Cindric's challenge? (Photo: Josh Jones | The Podium Finish)

Are you bad enough for Austin Cindric’s challenge? (Photo: Josh Jones | The Podium Finish)

Cindric : I’m waiting for someone to pull the radio audio and link it up with some instrumental. I’ve been waiting for that to happen.

Tiongson : Well, race fans, that’s a challenge for all of you guys. So you heard it from Austin. If you can do that, you should make that happen. And I promise, Austin, you did not make Jim Nabors roll in his grave. I’m sure he loved it.

Cindric : (snickers) I hope so.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Austin Cindric for taking the time to talk with us ahead of the Playoffs. Also, thanks to Jes Morse and Team Penske for their assistance with this latest interview on The Podium Finish. You can keep track of Austin Cindric on his Facebook and Twitter accounts and here on TPF. Lastly, for the podcast version of my interview with Austin Cindric, please feel free to listen to it below.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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