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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Xfinity Breakdown: Austin Cindric Wishes All Races Were Road Course Races

There’s been plenty of discussion this year about how there are less road course ringers in NASCAR now than in years past, but maybe we had one lurking among the NASCAR Xfinity Series regulars all along and didn’t even realize it.

Austin Cindric sure looked the part again this weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, going from never having won in the series to back-to-back triumphs on road courses. The difference between this race and Watkins Glen is that Cindric controlled even more of the afternoon, leading more than half the laps (46 out of 75) en route to another trip to victory lane.

The 20-year-old Team Penske driver showed flashes of this kind of road course potential in 2018, when he finished a season-best second at Mid-Ohio while splitting time between his current team and Roush Fenway Racing. Still, his other road course results at the Glen (13th) and Road America (37th) didn’t necessarily suggest he’d suddenly morph into the driver to beat once right turns were thrown into the mix on this year’s schedule.

That’s not to say Cindric wasn’t challenged at all on this particular Saturday. Christopher Bell, not exactly known for his road course prowess, led the second-most laps (15) and was a strong second for much of the time when he wasn’t in front, and deserved his runner-up finish. Jack Hawksworth, a new candidate for driver whose name sounds most like an action movie star, made the most of his first Xfinity Series start for Joe Gibbs Racing, leading a handful of laps himself and grabbing a stage win before eventually ending up in 15th place.

But clearly, the day – and really the month of August so far – belonged to Cindric. He’s bounced back quickly from his worst three-race stretch of 2019 between Kentucky and Iowa to turn from an “oh yeah, that guy is in the playoffs” type to the only regular besides, Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick with multiple wins. The bad news is that he’ll need to show he can race for wins on other types of tracks to be taken more seriously as a championship contender.

The good news? There’s a road course race in the playoffs about a month-and-a-half from now.

The Good

While Cindric eventually ran away with the win to the tune of nearly four seconds over Bell, there was plenty of good racing for position within the top 10 and top five for most of the afternoon. On top of that, while there were incidents that included some of the series’ top drivers, the lower speeds through the various turns at Mid-Ohio meant they didn’t mean those cars ended up junked and in the garage.

Those run-ins started in the first stage, with Hawksworth and Custer getting together.

Maybe the No. 00 Ford was a magnet of some sort for cars driven by those we don’t see every week, because Chris Dyson also ran into him from behind during a restart on stage two.

Closer to the end of the stage, Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson were among those involved in another fairly sizable pile-up.

That’s not to say that there were no DNFs on the day (officially, seven cars were listed as out of the race due to accidents), but Allgaier, Gragson and Custer all came home inside the top 10. That’s a testament to the kind of action that Mid-Ohio allows, where cars can get together without necessarily being done for the day when they do.

Oh, and AJ Allmendinger finished inside the top three for the third time this season and actually passed post-race inspection this time, so that definitely deserves a shoutout as well.

The Bad

It’s hard to think of too much that stuck out as particularly unpleasant on the afternoon, in terms of either the racing or the broadcast. In the area of personal misfortune, John Hunter Nemechek was one of the playoff contenders (the only one, really) to have their day cut short, completing only 41 laps and being credited with 31st place. Combined with his 36th-place finish at New Hampshire, Nemechek has now had his two worst days of the season in the last four events.

Despite that, he remains in essentially zero jeopardy of missing the playoffs, which in and of itself is bad: There is such a wide gap between the 12 teams in the postseason spots and all other series regulars that there are almost zero consequences for having a bad afternoon. The current economics of the sport suggest that there’s probably not a whole lot NASCAR can do about that state of affairs, but it’s suboptimal, for sure.

The Ugly

Sometimes you end up in the sand at a road course and you’re simply stuck there. Brandon Brown unfortunately found out what that felt like this weekend.

His eventual escape was made possible only because he was towed out.

It’s also worth revisiting the fate of Dyson, as it’s not that often that you see this much damage to a car simply from running into the back of another car on a relatively calm straightaway.

Brown, at least, made a semi-rally of sorts and was scored in 24th at the end of the race, the second car one lap down. Dyson wasn’t nearly as fortunate and finished 34th out of 38 cars.

Underdog Performance of the Race

While not quite to the same degree as Cindric, Jeremy Clements is finding the road course section of the Xfinity Series schedule to his liking too. For the second straight week, he wheeled his No. 51 Chevrolet to an 11th-place finish, narrowly missing what would have been just his second top 10 of 2019.

Will Rodgers also acquitted himself well in his second Xfinity start of the season. Driving the No. 86 Chevrolet for Brandonbilt Motorsports, Rodgers ended up 12th, a solid improvement from his 28th-place effort at Iowa.

Double Duty Interlopers

When you have the track to yourself and the Cup Series stars are elsewhere (Michigan, in this case), you wind up interloper-free. That’s unlikely to be the case next week at Bristol Motor Speedway, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Quotable

“It feels good, two in row and going for three at Bristol. …Β  This is great momentum for our group.” – Austin Cindric

“I was having a lot of fun out there. I had a great time and would like to come back.” – Jack Hawksworth

“The last two weeks have been really great for us points-wise, and road racing isn’t my strong suit.” – Christopher Bell

Final Word

While road course racing remains not every NASCAR fan’s particular cup of tea and we didn’t get much in the way of an exciting finish, Mid-Ohio still delivered quite a few entertaining on-track battles and furthered the late-season surge of Cindric. It felt a little bit like the middle section of a movie trilogy in that it built upon what came before and left one anxious to see what would happen next, though no one will be granting it The Empire Strikes Back status or anything.

Speaking of what will happen next …

Up Next

The Xfinity Series takes a detour from the twists and turns of August to return to Bristol Motor Speedway. The Food City 300 will see the Last Great Colosseum under the lights again, and while the last four editions have been won by Cup Series drivers β€” the most recent by Kyle Larson β€” the generally fewer Cup drivers entered in Xfinity races in 2019 hints that might not be the case this time.

Bell could be the beneficiary, as he took the checkered flag in the Alsco 300 this spring. We’ll find out when coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Aug. 16 on NBCSN.

 

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