Austin Cindric NASCAR 2022 Season
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At this time last month, the term "rookie sensation" was synonymous with Austin Cindric. In the very first race of his rookie season in Cup and just his eighth Cup start overall, Cindric became an overnight star and earned a permanent place in NASCAR history by winning the Daytona 500. The next week at Fontana, he immediately followed up his Daytona triumph by winning the pole at Auto Club Speedway, starting first just one week after the biggest win of his young career.

But since then, regression to the mean has ensnared the 23-year old Team Penske rookie. After finishing 12th at Fontana, Cindric has since finished 19th, 24th, and 32nd in the last three races despite qualifying in the top 10 each weekend that time trials have been held. Between accidents at Las Vegas and Atlanta and a laborious day that ended one lap off the pace at Phoenix, Cindric has seemingly gone from the superlative height a young driver can reach to the familiar pitfalls that most Cup rookies experience.

You could say that Cindric has been humbled since winning the Daytona 500. Then again, he's already humble enough to understand that his current level of performance is about what might have been expected of him.

"In even the races I did last year, I had enough perspective that racing at this level is certainly not going to be easy. And obviously racing in itself has its highs and lows," Cindric told CBS Sports. "But I think to summarize it, qualifying and our performance on Saturdays has been representative of where I feel like I should be. On Sundays I feel like just understanding (is the goal), whether that's about the cars or learning new things or taking one step at a time.

"... I don't think I have enough data points for me to be necessarily concerned or worried. Just keep plugging away and trust the process. That's really all there is to it in my opinion. But if there is any trend, we seem to peak on Saturday – Which is better than not having a good day at all."

Starting his rookie year off by winning the Daytona 500 changed a lot for Cindric from a professional standpoint. The win likley earned him a spot on the NASCAR playoff grid, putting him in a position to race for a championship in the fall and availing him the opportunity to proceed through his rookie year in a more calculated way. What didn't change, though, were his expectations for his first season. Even with his Daytona win in his hip pocket, Cindric's goals of learning new cars, a new race team, and new competitors after moving up from the Xfinity Series remain the same.

Regardless, the past several weeks have been a struggle, and this coming weekend presents a bounce-back opportunity for Cindric on paper. Circuit of the Americas was one of the seven Cup races that Cindric ran last season, and he has an extensive background in road course racing that precedes his climbing the NASCAR ladder.

There are two major factors that alter just how much Cindric can take from his race at COTA last season. For one, last year's inaugural race in Austin, Texas took place in a heavy downpour, greatly altering what it took to navigate the 3.5-mile, 20-turn course. And that notwithstanding, Cindric's last Cup start at COTA came with the previous generation of NASCAR Cup Series car -- a vehicle far less suited for road racing than the this year's new car.

The Next Gen car's suitability for road racing -- from its bigger brakes to more efficient downforce to a more intuitive suspension setup -- was one of the talking and selling points for the car in the leadup to its launch this season. With all of those things combined, Cindric believes that the car should change the complexion of driving on a road course.

"You should immediately know that the car should drive a lot better, you should be doing more optimizing than compromising," Cindric said. "I feel like our previous generation cars, you were compromising a lot of the lap to kind of string everything together. Those cars were really challenging to drive. And I feel like if anything ... I can almost imagine that our racing – if it's different, it's only because the cars are easier to drive.

"I think there's a lot of positives there, and you can just drive them a lot harder. I don't think easier's (sic) probably the best adjective. I think you can just drive the cars a lot harder because you have the grip and the capability and the trust to be able to know that you're optimizing and not compromising."

Cindric's road course experience regardless of vehicle -- whether the open wheel or sports cars he grew up in or the Xfinity cars he mastered -- should put him well in the mix this weekend. And if anything, Cindric is on a level playing field with his other competitors given that outside of a test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval last October, most of the Cup Series field has taken very few laps in the Next Gen car on a true road course.

"I think it's gonna be a great learning weekend for everybody to really establish kind of a baseline when it comes to road courses, and give us somewhere to go to for when we head to Sonoma, head to Indy and Road America and so on," Cindric said. "I think it's a great weekend to get some laps and kind of establish that baseline."