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    Tuesday, July 16, 2024

    Austin Cindric gives Team Penske its first NASCAR win and some much-needed momentum

    Austin Cindric celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at World Wide Technology Raceway Sunday, June 2, 2024, in Madison, Ill. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

    Even amid the elation of finally winning a NASCAR Cup Series race again, Austin Cindric found himself a bit heartbroken.

    It should have been a banner day for Team Penske on Sunday just outside St. Louis. Defending series champ Ryan Blaney was leading in the closing laps, Cindric was poised to give a team that has struggled all season a 1-2 finish and Joey Logano was just one spot away from giving Team Penske all three of its cars in the top five at the checkered flag.

    But as the white flag flew, Blaney slowed to a crawl — out of fuel, it turned out — and Cindric went right by, leading the final lap for his second Cup Series victory and first since the season-opening Daytona 500 more than two years ago.

    “They deserved to win this race,” said Cindric, who nevertheless was happy to lock the No. 2 car into the Cup Series playoffs. “Ryan has been a hell of a leader on this team. This weekend was a great weekend for everybody involved.”

    Right up till the end.

    But that is how the season has gone for Team Penske, one of the perennial contenders in NASCAR's top series. Cindric had just one top-five finish, and that was in February at Atlanta. Blaney had three straight top fives early on but had finished 36th and 39th in the previous two points-paying races. Logano won the All-Star race at Charlotte, but when he passed out-of-gas Blaney and finished fifth on Sunday, it was only his second top-five run in a points race all year.

    That's a far different story from last season, when Blaney won three times on his way to the title, and Logano had 11 top-five finishes along with a second-place run in the Daytona 500 and a victory at Atlanta.

    The meager results by Team Penske have been mirrored by Ford teams as a whole. The manufacturer, which switched from the sixth-generation Mustang to the Mustang Dark Horse body style this season, didn't reach victory lane until Brad Keselowski last month at Darlington, and that remained its only win until Cindric on Sunday.

    “I'm proud for Team Penske and Ford. I'm really happy with our showing today,” said Blaney, who may have used more fuel than he thought while battling for several laps with Christopher Bell, who faded late when his engine started having trouble.

    “I don't know what I've got to do to get some luck on our side,” Blaney added. “I've wrecked the last two points races and thought we had a great shot to win and I ended up bad, so I just appreciate the effort. We just have to keep sticking with it.”

    It's been a topsy-turvy year for Team Penske beyond NASCAR, too.

    The biggest scandal to hit IndyCar in years came after the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Florida, when Team Penske's three cars were found to have an illegal version of push-to-pass software installed, giving them a horsepower boost they could use when rivals could not. Newgarden had his win stripped and teammate Scott McLaughlin also was disqualified, and team — and series — owner Roger Penske suspended four of the organization's key personnel.

    Among them was Cindric's father, Tim Cindric, the president of Team Penske and Newgarden's race strategist.

    “Newgarden never should have had to worry about it because our team missed it, but it was not malicious,” Penske told The Associated Press in an interview last week in Detroit. “By the way, it was available for everybody to look at it at all the races. So at the end of the day, we took our medicine and we’re moving on.”

    That was evident in the Indy 500. Team Penske locked out the front row in qualifying, Newgarden won his second straight 500 with a daring last-lap pass of Pato O'Ward and pole sitter McLaughlin finished sixth after leading early on.

    While the IndyCar teams had trouble last weekend in Detroit, where Will Power led the way with a sixth-place finish, the Cup Series teams finally stepped up. Cindric may have felt like he was gifted the win, but the No. 2 car led the second-most laps with 53, while Blaney spent 20 laps running out front and Logano also led a lap.

    Perhaps it was a sign that things are finally turning around for the organization.

    “We were able to grab some points, which we need to do, and a Penske car got in victory lane,” Logano said, “so you’ve got to be happy about that. Obviously, we’d rather it be us, but that momentum goes through the whole shop. It’s still a good day.”

    Austin Cindric celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at World Wide Technology Raceway Sunday, June 2, 2024, in Madison, Ill. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
    Austin Cindric (2) drives down pit lane followed by Ryan Blaney (12) during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at World Wide Technology Raceway Sunday, June 2, 2024, in Madison, Ill. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
    Car owner Roger Penske with the the media, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Detroit. Penske is well aware that his integrity has been questioned due to a cheating scandal that cost Josef Newgarden his IndyCar season-opening victory. (AP Photo/Larry Lage)

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