|PHOTO: Mark Kristl at Frontstretch via Twitter, used with permission|
by Brock Beard
Austin Cindric scored the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at the Michigan International Speedway when his #2 Discount Tire Ford was involved in a multi-car pileup after 24 of 200 laps.
The finish, which came in Cindric’s 30th series start, was his second of the year and first since Dover, 12 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 29th for the #2, the 634th from a crash, and the 724th for Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 35th for the #2, the 997th for Ford, and the 1,299th from a crash.
Since his most recent last-place finish, Cindric has become one of the most quietly consistent drivers in the field, defending his Playoff spot through one of NASCAR’s most competitive seasons. He turned things around at Gateway in June, where he started outside-pole, led 26 laps, and finished 11th. What followed was a streak of four consecutive top-ten finishes, including a 5th and 7th on the road courses at Sonoma and Road America, then a 13th-place run in Loudon. The lone hiccup came at Pocono, where an early spin into the inside wall on the frontstretch damaged his Ford, leaving him a distant 31st at the checkered flag. He then rebounded with a runner-up finish in last week’s road race in Indy, his best showing since his win in this year’s Daytona 500.
Michigan wasn’t one of Cindric’s best tracks in the XFINITY Series, having finished just 23rd, 11th, and 37th in his three runs there, though he did run 5th in the Truck Series race back in 2017. His debut Cup weekend at the track saw him run 16th in opening practice, then leap to 5th in qualifying with a lap of 189.449mph (38.005 seconds), the second-fastest Ford behind his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano in 4th.
Securing the 37th and final starting spot was Todd Gilliland, who just last week earned a career-best 4th at Indianapolis. With no drivers sent to the rear before the start, Gilliland retained the 37th spot at the green, 2.855 seconds back of the leader. Coming off Turn 4, Gilliland pulled alongside B.J. McLeod in the #78 Blaster Ford, and the pair soon split Austin Hill, making his Cup debut in Richard Childress Racing’s #33 Bennett Transportation Chevrolet. By Lap 3, both dropped Hill to last, who was 0.211 back of Gilliland with McLeod now up to 34th. Hill caught McLeod on Lap 6, when he was just 0.031 behind the #78 at the stripe, and completed the pass the next time by.
|The damage to Cindric's car after the crash.|
On Lap 8, Hill dropped J.J. Yeley to 36th in the unsponsored #15 Rick Ware Racing Ford, but McLeod steadily lost ground to Yeley. After the two were 0.167 second apart that time by, the interval grew to 1.023 on Lap 11, 2.138 on Lap 15, and 2.518 when the competition caution came out on Lap 21. The caution, brought about by a rain storm that delayed the start by nearly two hours, saved McLeod from losing a lap and allowed his team to make adjustments.
During pit stops, Harrison Burton took over last on Lap 23 in his #21 Ford 20 Year Senior Master Techs Ford. Austin Hill retook the spot the next time by after he rear-ended Cody Ware’s #51 Nurtec ODT Ford as he came down pit road. Hill’s car didn’t appear to have any significant damage, and he restarted the race at the tail end of the field.
But not everyone pitted under the competition caution. In fact, 13 drivers stayed out, led by Christopher Bell in the #20 SiriusXM Toyota. Toward the end of this group was J.J. Yeley, who moved from a battle for last place into the Top 15. Not far behind were polesitter Bubba Wallace with two fresh tires on his #23 McDonald’s Toyota, just ahead of Michael McDowell’s #34 Martin Transportation Systems Ford for a fuel-only stop and Kyle Busch leading the four-tire contingent in his #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota. Cindric was also among those who pitted, which put him in the wrong place at the wrong time for the Lap 25 restart.
Entering Turn 1 for the first time, Yeley’s car broke loose and slid up the track in front of McDowell’s Ford. This caused McDowell to back off the throttle, and both dropped back directly in front of a fast-closing pack of traffic. Behind McDowell, Cindric was trapped in the middle of a four-wide battle and cut left to avoid the #34. Contact from Ty Gibbs in the #45 Monster Energy Toyota hooked Cindric to the left in front of Harrison Burton while further up, Yeley made contact with Aric Almirola’s #10 Smithfield Ford and Kyle Busch’s #18. Yeley’s car then cut left as well, clipping McDowell and Cindric, who were now door-to-door. This sent the two Fords careening up the banking with Cindric slamming the outside wall nearly head-on.
Under the ensuing caution, Burton took over last on Lap 25. Cindric climbed from his destroyed car, his and Yeley’s both stranded on the track. Busch, Almirola, and Burton made it to pit road along with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s #47 Kroger Health / SweetLeaf Chevrolet and Todd Gilliland’s #38 First Phase Ford, both damaged in the same wreck. This dropped Cindric to last on Lap 26. Busch pulled behind the wall, out of the race, followed by Almirola with Stenhouse pulling in on Lap 28. Burton’s crew attempted to replace the toe link, but after two laps of repairs and coming within 15 seconds of their “Crash Clock” expiring, pulled behind the wall on Lap 31. Both McDowell and Gilliland cleared the “Crash Clock” on the ensuing restart, but the Front Row Motorsports teammates continued to run well off the pace. By then, the Bottom Five had been filled. NASCAR declared Cindric, Almirola, Yeley, Busch, Burton, and Stenhouse out of the race on Lap 43.
Making his third consecutive Cup start in relief of Kurt Busch, Ty Gibbs scored his first top-ten finish by coming home 10th in Busch's #45 Monster Energy Toyota. He did so just hours after winning Saturday's XFINITY Series race, already the ninth of his career.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #2 in a Cup race at Michigan since August 9, 2020, when Brad Keselowski scored his first last-place finish in his 399th Cup start after his #2 Discount Tire Ford crashed 95 laps into the Consumers Energy 400.
*This was the first time the 5th-place starter of a Cup race at Michigan finished last. Only five times has the last-place finisher qualified better.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
37) #2-Austin Cindric / 24 laps / crash
36) #18-Kyle Busch / 24 laps / crash
35) #15-J.J. Yeley / 24 laps / crash
34) #10-Aric Almirola / 25 laps / crash
33) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 25 laps / crash
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Live Fast Motorsports (5)
2nd) Spire Motorsports (3)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Trackhouse Racing (2)
4th) 23XI Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Hezeberg (1)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (9)
3rd) Toyota (3)
2022 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP