How fuel strategy hurt and helped Team Penske at Gateway

Austin Cindric took his second career NASCAR Cup Series win with victory at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison

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The Enjoy Illinois 300 was a mixed bag of epic proportions for Team Penske. On one hand, Austin Cindric scored his first NASCAR Cup Series win since the 2022 season-opening Daytona 500 after taking the lead on the final lap. On the other hand, it came at the expense of team-mate Ryan Blaney, who ran out of fuel moments before taking the white flag.

The Penske trio of Cindric, Blaney, and Joey Logano opted for a more aggressive fuel strategy than their rivals, pitting just three times while the rest of the field did so at least four times. To achieve this, the three stayed out during the caution between Stages 1 and 2, allowing them to occupy the top three when the race resumed. They eventually pitted roughly 20 laps into the stage.

This approach was intended to keep Penske atop the leaderboard and hopefully stymie any further progress made by Christopher Bell, who led a race-high 80 of 240 laps and won the first two legs. Sure enough, as Bell had to work his way through the order, Blaney maintained his lead with Cindric and Logano in tow. Bell eventually moved up to second, but his engine suddenly sputtered with ten laps remaining before he could come within striking distance.

With Bell out of the picture, Blaney simply needed to hang on for the final laps. Unfortunately, his fuel tank ran empty as he began the final lap; this fate also befell Penske ally and pole winner Michael McDowell, who was running top five before having to pit and refuel in order to make it to the finish, relegating him to 25th.

As Blaney started to slow, Cindric ducked to the inside line and passed him then cruised to his second career Cup victory. Blaney had to settle for a disappointing 24th.

Despite being the defending champion, Blaney has struggled with bad luck and poor finishes during this midseason stretch. After starting 2024 with three top-five finishes across the first four races, he only has two top tens since April.

“Never thought in my mind we were short,” Blaney commented. “One of those things. Proud of the #12 boys. We were fast. Had my work cut out for me holding out of Christopher. That was a fun battle. I don’t know what happened to him.

“One lap short, which just stinks. Congrats to the #2 team. They did a good job all day. Props to them, Austin. Proud for Team Penske and Ford. Really happy with our showing today. I don’t know what I got to do to get some luck on our side; wrecked the last two points races. Thought we had a great shot to win today, ended up bad.”

Cindric finally snaps his dry spell

While the win fell into his lap and at the cost of his team-mate, it was a much needed boost to Cindric’s career. After winning the Daytona 500 as a rookie, he was unable to return to Victory Lane in the two and a half years since, a winless drought spanning 85 races.

Despite stretching his gas on the three-stop strategy, Cindric admitted he “didn’t even know we were close on fuel” until after the race. He also only learned Blaney had run out when he was informed in Victory Lane.

Austin Cindric celebrates victory at the Enjoy Illinois 300 | NASCAR
Austin Cindric celebrates victory at the Enjoy Illinois 300 | NASCAR

Ryan came by and saw me in Victory Lane, congratulated me and my team,” Cindric recalled. “Just shows the professional that he is. He was happy for us, probably as much as he could be. I’m sure he is heartbroken. I feel really bad for him.

“I’m just proud to have team-mates like that that really care about the effort we put forth. We raced side by side a lot of the day. It’s a good day for me when I’m able to keep up with that #12 car. He does an awesome job every week.”

To win at a traditional oval, rather than a superspeedway like Daytona or a road course where he has thrived for much of his career, was also a sweet feeling for Cindric.

After finishing a dismal 24th in points in 2023, he continued to have a hard time finding his footing in 2024 with just one top ten across the first 14 races and was sitting 20th in the standings entering Gateway.

“I’m an internally motivated person. This is not fun if I’m not winning. As you can imagine, it’s not been very fun for a little while. That’s the standard I hold,” Cindric explained.

“I don’t want to find myself in a position to be okay with tenth and be okay. ‘Hey, I finished in the top ten, that’s an awesome day.’ No, that’s 10th. That’s good, that’s a step forward, but it’s not where I want to be. It’s not the level in which I prepare.

It’s not the level in which my team expects to perform. That’s not good enough to race and drive at Team Penske. I know that. No one has to tell me that. There’s no meeting that has to be set in place. I take that very personally.

“The opportunity that I have to be able to go win at the highest level, the intensity that I carry every day when I wake up, go to the race shop. I cut out every other distraction in my life good, bad or indifferent. If that makes me a horribly rounded person, which is does in a lot of ways, all I care about is what I do between the walls of a race track.”

Justin Nguyen
Justin Nguyen
Justin Nguyen is Total-Motorsport.com's resident NASCAR aficionado and is also the off-road reporter for The Checkered Flag.
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