Austin Cindric advances to Championship 4 after controversial crash

Matthew T. Thacker/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Austin Cindric is going to the Championship 4.

But much like his initial berth in the playoffs, the advancement comes amid controversy.

Cindric, 19, became the fourth and final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to advance into the final round of the 2017 playoffs after contact with fellow competitor Ben Rhodes on Lap 131 sent Rhodes spinning into the inside wall before careening up the track and into teammate Matt Crafton.

The crash proved eerily similar to the one involving Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders Joey Logano and Carl Edwards last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Two drivers restarted nose-to-tail, with the trailing driver in a much more desperate position. The trailing driver – in this instance Cindric – dove low, and the leading driver – Rhodes – blocked.

Much like that crash last fall, Cindric entered amid a bit of desperation. After entering the evening five points ahead of Rhodes for the final playoff spot, Cindric had already seen the gap drop to a single point heading into the final stage. An issue from his Brad Keselowski Racing (BKR) team on pit road left Cindric well behind Rhodes on-track until a Lap 123 caution brought both drivers to pit road for tires.

With the majority of the leaders staying out, Cindric closed right up to Rhodes’ bumper after their stops. Moments later came the crash that altered each driver’s playoff fate. Cindric limped home in ninth to advance after bubble driver John Hunter Nemechek fell just short of winning his way back into championship contention. Rhodes’ night ended in 20th after the crash.

“For me, the 27 had been executing all night,” Cindric said afterward. “They’d been doing what they needed to to beat us and on that restart I had envisioned us getting the perfect restart and trying to pop the inside if I did.  I popped the inside.  Obviously, he was there because we made contact and it’s a really tough spot for the spotters to be able to see because it’s coming head-on as the spotters here are in turn one, so I’m sure his spotter was telling him to defend the bottom or ‘looking inside’ and, sure enough, I was on the inside.

“It’s one of those racing deals.  Two guys fighting for the same amount of real estate.  As I mentioned on TV, it was very similar to what happened at Homestead last year in the Cup race, two guys racing for the same real estate with Carl Edwards and Joey Logano.  Unfortunately, that’s how it had to end.”

The move came amid an already controversial playoff run for Cindric, who made the postseason by virtue of a spin-and-win at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park at the expense of Daytona International Speedway winner Kaz Grala. Rhodes, crew chief Eddie Traconis and teammate Crafton were quick to criticize the move after the race.

Cindric’s Championship 4 berth also brought with it conflicting emotions, as he and BKR enter Homestead-Miami Speedway with a chance to take home a title in the organization’s final weekend of existence in its current state. The team will shutter operations at year’s end, though owner Brad Keselowski remains committed to the sport and interested in future ownership opportunities.

“It means the world,” Cindric said of his Championship 4 debut. “I’ve got crew members coming up to me with tears in their eyes.  They put their heart and soul into everything they do with these trucks.  I come to the shop everyday and I help out where I can and be as prepared as I can to do my job and I feel like we’ve surprised a few people coming up through the Playoffs and I’m here to keep on surprising people.

“That’s my job.  I’m the last rookie left.  We’ve got to go give it hell and we’ve got some really good pieces coming to Homestead, so I’m really excited about that.  All the guys at the shop are super-pumped.  It’s amazing.  These group of guys, they said they were shutting down and they just work harder.  It’s an honor for me to be a part of it and hopefully we can pull it off at Homestead.”

Cindric will be one of four Truck Series drivers in championship contention at Homestead, joining Crafton, Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell. The highest finishing driver of the quartet in the season finale will be declared the 2017 Truck Series champion.

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