Right Place Right Time: Austin Cindric wins at Gateway

MADISON, ILLINOIS - JUNE 02: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Freightliner Ford, takes the checkered flag to wi the NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at WWT Raceway on June 02, 2024 in Madison, Illinois. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Team Penske is having a pretty good couple of weeks. And Sunday NASCAR got a shocker of a race with an ending that no one could have imagined.

A week removed from winning a rain shortened Coca-Cola 600, much of Sunday’s NASCAR Enjoy Illinois 600 at Gateway belonged to Christopher Bell. Bell led the most laps on the day, 80, and swept both Stages. It all set up a final Stage that was easily one of the wildest of 2024.

A cycle of green flag stops, and varied pit strategies shuffled the field in the closing laps. But the best battle of the season started with just under 50 laps to go as Ryan Blaney and Bell began fighting for seventh and eighth which would be for the lead once those ahead stopped for fuel.

That two-car fight became one for the top spot on lap 210, 30 to go, when Brad Keselowski, who had held the lead and stayed out hoping for a miracle perhaps, pitted.

That entertaining fight ended with 18 laps to go when Bell reported possible engine issues with his Toyota and slowed.

“I’m blowing up,” Bell said over his team radio. “Game over.”

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But wait there’s more.

Blaney took over a lead of just over two seconds over his Penske teammate Austin Cindric. It appeared that Blaney would cruise to his first victory since last fall at Martinsville and the first for Team Penske’s NASCAR team’s this season.

Then disaster struck. As Blaney took the white flag, Blaney’s Ford slowed, and Cindric rocketed by for the second win of his career.

Denny Hamlin was second, Keselowski recovered from his late green flag pit stop for third, Tyler Reddick and Penske’s third driver Joey Logano rounded out the top five.

“That was strategy,” Keselowski said. “We got behind early for sure but we kept putting ourselves in position to keep moving forward and I wish I could have gotten second but it was a really hard-fought day for everyone.”

The win comes a week after Team Penske driver Joesef Newgarden won his second consecutive Indianapolis 500.

Bell, Blaney wonder just what the heck happened at Gateway

“Honestly I’m heartbroken for the 12 team,” Cindric said. “I don’t know what happened to them at the end of the race. They deserved to win this race. Ryan has been a hell of a leader on this team.

Blaney was scored as the last car on the lead lap in 24th. And while Team Penske did win, Blaney was disappointed, obviously.

“I’m proud for Team Penske and Ford,” Blaney said.  “I’m really happy with our showing today.  I don’t know what I’ve got to do to get some luck on our side.  I’ve wrecked the last two points races and thought we had a great shot to win today and I ended up bad, so I just appreciate the effort.  We just have to keep sticking with it.”

Bell would hold on for seventh behind Austin Dillon. Rookie Carson Hocevar continues his impressive season with an eighth place. Justin Haley and Kyle Larson rounded out the top 10.

“I’m surprised that it made it to the end,” Bell said. “Glad we were able to salvage something out of it – but you don’t get race cars like that very often – whenever you do, you need to take advantage of them, so that is disappointing.”

Larson recovered from an earlier spin on lap 140 as the field came to the end of Stage 2. While racing Kyle Busch side by side for seventh position, Larson and Busch tangled. Larson spun and was able to continue while Busch was sent hard into the outside wall and out of the race with his first DNF of the season.

“I’m super proud of this top-10 finish,” Larson said. “After the spin, I wasn’t expecting that. The car kind of came to life. The No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy team did a good job on our strategy. We were on offense there the last 25 laps or so.

“It went as well as it could, given the circumstances. I’ll take it.”

Like Blaney polesitter Michael McDowell ran out of fuel on the final lap falling outside the top five and finishing 25th one lap down.

For Cindric the win ended an 85-race winless streak dating back to the 2022 Daytona 500.

“This is huge for this team,” Cindric said.  “I’m so glad I was able to get a win with Brian (Wilson) as my crew chief in the Cup Series.  You never know when it’s going to happen again.  I just drove my butt off and hoped for the best.”


Photos: NASCAR at World Wide Technology Raceway Sunday June 2, 2024

Greg Engle