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Toby's Take: Cindric's Win Proves It's Not Over Until It's Over

Austin Cindric snapped an 85-race winless drought in the most unpredictable of manners at Gateway. Carson Hocevar clawed back into the Rookie of the Year battle, and Austin Dillon put in his season-best finish.


hero image for Toby's Take: Cindric's Win Proves It's Not Over Until It's Over

The single thing that most makes motorsports so great, yet so frustrating at the same time, was on full display over the final 20 laps of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway.

In this sport, you can never count your chickens before they hatch because just when you think you have the conclusion of a race completely figured out, you don't. Just when a finish seems so easy to understand where it's going, it's not.

In a sport with so many intangibles, you just never know what can happen, and that's why no matter how certain a finish looks, we run all of the laps in a NASCAR race.

Much like the 1990 Daytona 500, where it appeared Dale Earnhardt was going to run away with his first win in the Great American Race only to suffer a cut tire on the final lap of the race and see Derrike Cope go on to score the win, Sunday's race at Gateway had a few points where it felt like it was over, but in the end, it never was until the checkered flag flew.

Christopher Bell had the fastest car in Sunday's race, as evidenced by his 80 laps led, and the 20 Stage Points he racked up by sweeping Stages 1 and 2. However, Bell found himself fighting like hell to try to get around Ryan Blaney for the race win in the closing stretch of the Enjoy Illinois 300.

While Blaney was doing a masterful job of holding Bell off, it was just a matter of time. The No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry XSE was simply too good. But just as Bell was mounting his best challenge on the inside line, he radioed to his team, "It's blowing up!"

Bell, who was stalking Blaney for his third win of the season, was now relegated to simply salvaging a finish with engine issues.

Blaney had done it. He had held off the challenge, and now he was on his way to victory. Right? Not exactly. It's not over until it's over, folks.

While Blaney had a multi-second lead over his Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric with under 20 laps to go, Blaney started getting bogged down in lapped traffic, and Cindric began to slice chunks out of the lead.

But just as it looked like Cindric would have a chance to catch Blaney for the win, Blaney finally cleared the lapped traffic with three laps remaining, and all he had left to do was cruise to the finish.

However, as Blaney came off of Turn 4 and saw the white flag getting ready to be waved atop the flag stand, his engine started puttering. The No. 12 Ford Mustang stumbled, and he fully lost power.

“I’m out of gas,” Blaney radioed to his team. “I can’t believe you ran me out of gas, man!”

Cindric took the lead, and would go on to erase an 85-race losing streak. After a dramatic final 20 laps, finally, it was over, and a winner had been crowned, and it wasn't anyone that anybody expected.

Even Cindric, who emerged victorious, couldn't help but feel sorry for his teammate Blaney.

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

But, one man's heartbreak, is another man's season-defining moment.

"...this is huge for me. This is huge for this team," Cindric exclaimed. "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 gonna happen again. I just drove my butt off and hoped for the best.”

Whether it be an 85-race winless drought, or a defecit of a few seconds with 20 laps to go, you just never know in this sport. Sunday's race wasn't the first time that an unexpected finish occurred, and it certainly won't be the last time.

Photo Credit: Danny Hansen, NKP for Ford Performance

Rookie of the Year Battle Tightens Up

Photo Credit: Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing

While Cindric's win was the most extreme case of it's not over until it's over in Sunday's race, we also saw a wild swing in the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year battle.

Just as it looked like a runaway favorite had emerged in Josh Berry, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang committed a pit road speeding penalty early in Sunday's race, which hampered a potentially decent run.

On Lap 112, it turned out it would have all been for not anyway, as Berry suffered an issue, which sent him skidding into the outside wall in Turn 4. His day was done, and he would be credited with a last place finish.

As Berry was done for the day, fellow rookie contender Carson Hocecvar emerged as a contender after getting past an issue on his first pit stop, and as the race moved on, the driver of the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro became more and more competitive.

Hocevar even made it up to the top-five during a portion of the race.

"It was big for us," Hocevar said of his race. "We lost our lug nut there on the first stop, and our guys did a really good job catching the yellow. But ran as high as fourth there, so that was a lot of fun."

By the time the checkered flag was displayed, Hocevar found himself in eighth, and he would snag his career-best finish on a day where Berry finished last.

This race, which took place at the same track that Hocevar made his NASCAR Cup Series debut a year ago for Spire Motorsports, shows that Hocevar and his team could be truly dangerous as they continue to build their notebook.

"First time ever seeing a racetrack for a second time in a Spire car. And happy with our car, and the pieces, and this group," Hocevar explained.

Heading into the day, Berry carried a 36-point lead in the Rookie standings over Hocevar. Heading into next weekend's race at Sonoma Raceway, he holds a slim five point lead.

The Rookie of the Year battle is far from over, folks.

Austin Dillon Grabs Season-Best Finish

Photo Credit: Jacy Norgaard/HHP for Chevy Racing

And speaking of far from over, how about Austin Dillon and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team?

While they have suffered through potentially the most frustrating season in the history of the storied RCR racing team, Dillon showed signs of life on Sunday at Gateway, and came home solidly in sixth position. With the finish, Dillon doubled his top-10 totals on the year, and perhaps he and Justin Alexander, who took over for Keith Rodden as crew chief eight races ago, can start to build some momentum.

"Man, I gotta thank the good lord above," an emotional Dillon stated after the race. "It's been a rough two years for us, and to have a run like this feels like a win. All of our partners from Dow, this is the Rivers are Life Chevy, and Ducks Unlimited on the hood. This feels so good."

Both of Dillon's top-10 finishes this season have come with Alexander atop the pit box. And the 34-year-old racer thanked his crew chief for the incredible effort on Sunday.

"I can't thank my guys enough. They did a great job adjusting the car after practice. Some good calls by Justin Alexander on the box," Dillon stated. "We had speed, we were just a really good car, and thought I was going to get Joey [Logano] there at the end. It was a good battle. Feels good. It feels great to race with these guys. It gives you the confidence you need to go to the next week."

While he's mired back in 30th in the championship standings, all it takes is one win in the current Playoff format for Dillon to work his way into the Playoffs.

Sure, we'll want to see more runs like he had on Sunday to truly believe it's possible for Dillon, but heading into his win on Sunday, Cindric had an average finish of 23.3 for the season. Now, he's in the Playoffs. It ain't over until it's over.

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