Austin Cindric had the championship won. Then it was lost. Then he got it back again.
Much like the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series event on Friday, the fight for ultimate glory came down to a two-lap sprint. Justin Allgaier, in his 10th full-time season, had control of the lead on the restart but with older tires than Cindric. As they took the white flag, Cindric made a split move between Allgaier and Noah Gragson and ultimately cleared Gragson going into turn 3 to lock up his first Xfinity championship.
Cindric led 72 laps en route to his sixth win of the season in the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200. His eighth career victory also came in his 100th start.
Both Allgaier and Chase Briscoe were just as strong of contenders as Cindric was, with each getting to taste the lead for a considerable amount of time. But with patience and finesse, Cindric was able to rise over the other three championship eligible drivers when it counted the most. It will indeed be a memorable evening and offseason for the 22-year-old North Carolina driver.
For Cindric and Team Penske, winning the championship was a monumental moment. And it is monumental for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Penske actually considered shutting down the No. 22 team due to COIVD-19 but opted to keep going.
It is Roger Penske’s second Xfinity championship, with the first one coming from Brad Keselowski in 2010. It’s the first championship for Ford since 2015 with Chris Buescher. At 22 years, two months, and five days, Cindric also becomes the fifth-youngest since the series’ inception in 1982 (Chase Elliott, William Byron, Brian Vickers, Rob Moroso). And if you want to go by the numbers, this is also Cindric’s best recorded season in Xfinity to date. Six wins, 19 top-five finishes, 26 top-10 finishes, and an average finish of 8.6. We’ll see how much more success he can rack up with one more scheduled year in the series.
With Cindric basking in his victory come the emotions of the other three drivers who will miss out on the joy of hoisting the championship trophy.
Allgaier was a force to be reckoned with all race long. He led more laps (76) than Cindric (72), but his long-run speed wasn’t as good as Cindric’s. Allgaier did find saving grace by Briscoe’s spin on lap 198. He gave it his best effort, but could not hold off Cindric’s charge and fell back to fifth at the checkers. He comes up runner-up in the championship. But by the tone in his post-race interview, Allgaier still has an optimistic look for 2021. When it comes to being a champion, don’t doubt him just yet.
Justin Haley came into Phoenix with the biggest longshot at winning a championship. He had to race with a completely different pit crew, due to one of the original crew members testing positive for COVID-19. While he never had the same winning pace as Allgaier or Cindric, his team still made the effort to get him ahead with pit strategy. A yellow flag for an incident by Joe Graf Jr. derailed those plans, trapping Haley one lap down. He soon got back on the lead lap and ultimately fought his way to an eighth-place finish, which put him third in the championship standings, ahead of only Briscoe.
Meanwhile, what started off as a hopeful night for Briscoe ended with empty emotions and a missing crown. He held the lead for 41 laps early on but battled a constant loose condition that would never fully be fixed. A few close calls with the wall and a spin with three laps to go essentially sealed his fate. Briscoe may not have won the championship. But he has a full year of opportunity awaiting him in the NASCAR Cup Series. He will look back on his years in the Xfinity Series and see it all as a springboard that will leap him up to success as a Cup rookie and into his veteran years.
Graf’s unsatisfactory rookie season ended on a low note at Phoenix, and he ended up playing a significant role in how the race would shape up to be. On lap 171, during a green-flag pit stop cycle, Graf drifted his No. 08 Chevrolet up and into the turn 2 wall, carrying on down the track before impacting the wall again and drawing a yellow flag. This trapped several drivers a lap down, including playoff contenders Haley and Briscoe. Graf finished seven laps down in the 27th position.
The 22-year-old New Jersey driver completes the year 22nd in the overall points standings, with his best finishes being a collection of three 13th-place finishes (Bristol, Homestead, Kentucky). On the flip side, he has seven DNFs, with five of them coming from crashes. Wherever he is announced to drive in 2021, we should expect to see more motivation by Graf to make 2020 a distant memory and push away any negativity that may find him.
The final underdog performance of the year goes to 15th and 17th-place finishers, Bayley Currey and Kyle Weatherman of Mike Harmon Racing. With the COVID-19 pandemic throwing many teams off balance this year, this small two-car team has been able to rise to levels beyond where it has been capable of reaching before. Both Currey and Weatherman’s results in Saturday’s race adds up to a combined 21 top-20 finishes to go, along with seven top 15s this season. And no one can forget Weatherman’s career-best eighth-place finish for the team at Kentucky Speedway. Team owner Mike Harmon should have plenty to smile about. Hopefully, his team can rise beyond expectations again next year and be the bigger underdog personas in the Xfinity Series field.
“To be a champion in NASCAR and do it in front of all these great people cheering us on… I’m speechless, I can’t believe it. I’m humbled by the effort for sure.” – Austin Cindric
“We had a shot at the end, and when it’s all said and done, that’s all you can really ask for.” – Justin Allgaier
“It’s awesome, P3. It’s the furthest Kaulig Racing’s ever gone. It doesn’t sting as much because I know I can come back next year and get it.” – Justin Haley
“Definitely frustrating to finish fourth in the championship after the year we had. But overall, to win nine races, it’s been a phenomenal year.” – Chase Briscoe
Any way you slice it, all four of the championship eligible drivers executed their jobs perfectly through the first 32 races all leading up to the final round. It’s exactly what the playoffs are about. If you make it, you certainly have a shot to take it. We will see Cindric back in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang for another season. We know he has the car and team to make it a back-to-back championship effort. The question then becomes, who will the other three contenders be to try and stop him?
The end of the racing season is now upon us. NASCAR Xfinity Series action will pick back up again at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2021 season.