By Holly Cain via NASCAR Wire Service
After establishing the pace most of the afternoon, 22-year old Austin Cindric ultimately relied on raw determination to claim the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. The Team Penske driver pulled off the most clutch lap-pass of his young career to take the race victory in Saturday’s Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 and earn his first NASCAR title.
After pitting for tires just before a final overtime restart, Cindric was able to work his way forward at the final green flag and got around Noah Gragson on the last lap – driving away to a .162-second victory for his sixth win of the season, easily the most celebrated of his career.
After celebratory donuts in his car, Cindric pulled himself out of the driver’s window, climbed on top of his bright yellow No. 22 Team Penske Ford and flashed No. 1 victory signs on both hands before waving a giant champion’s flag.
“There was a lot of work put into this race car,” a grinning Cindric said, carefully taking the time to thank everyone from his team owner, NASCAR Hall of Famer Roger Penske, to his sponsors, his team, pit crew, spotter and ultimately his mom and dad.
“I’m speechless, I can’t believe it. You know the equipment you’re in is the best of the best and the people you’re working with are the best of the best,” he added.
Certainly as exuberant as Cindric understandably was, the other three members of the Championship 4 felt disappointment and dismay. Veteran Justin Allgaier, who led a race high 77 laps – five more laps out front than Cindric – was in position to try and secure his first NASCAR title.
The 34-year old driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet kept the field honest consistently throughout the evening but ultimately on that last restart Allgaier was unable to hold off Cindric who had fresher tires and was able to muscle around Allgaier and Allgaier’s JR Motorsports teammate Gragson.
Allgaier finished fifth and the other Championship 4 drivers: Justin Haley and Chase Briscoe finished eighth and ninth, respectively.
Gragson (second), Brandon Jones (third) and Michael Annett (fifth) were the non-Playoff drivers to finish in the top-five. Harrison Burton, Ross Chastain, Haley, Briscoe and Jeremy Clements round out the top-10.
“So close but so far away,” Allgaier said. “First of all, hats off to Austin and the entire Team Penske group, they’ve been strong competitors all year. To have the race they did tonight, they were obviously the best car and they deserved to win. I’m proud of my guys, proud of everybody at JR Motorsports.
“We had a shot at it at the end and when it’s all said and done, that’s all you can really ask for.”
For most of the race the title contending quartet ran up front. In addition to Cindric and Allgaier, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver Chase Briscoe showed the speed that had made him the winningest driver in the series this year. He won a career-high and season-best nine races and led 41 laps on this championship night, but a struggle to get his car comfortable, a late race spin and the loss of track position was a setback he ultimately couldn’t overcome.
“Just a frustrating day, this is by far not my best race track,” said Briscoe, who will move into the SHR team’s No. 14 NASCAR Cup Series ride next year.
“At the start of the race for me, just to lead laps here, I was like ‘wow this is different.’ I was just so loose at the beginning of the race and as the night came I was freer and freer and I don’t know how many times I about wrecked into one. I ended up hitting the wall. I’ve got to do a whole lot better job. There’s just something about this place that I really struggle at. We have a lot of homework to do.
“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.”
Haley, a three-race winner in 2020, didn’t lead any laps in his No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, but he rallied from a slow start and kept his car competitively among the top 10.
“It’s been awesome,” Haley said of his Playoff berth. “Just the growth of this Kaulig Racing team from when I stepped into it last year and were out in the first round of the Playoffs.
“Just the courage and the faith and everyone at Kaulig Racing, we bet on each other. I love it. I love everyone there. Super excited and super blessed to have another year. Doesn’t sting as much because I know next year I get another chance at it.”